Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Sept. 24 edition of The Observer.
Ask any football coach what the most important position is in a 3-4 defense is, and the response is almost unanimous.
No matter how talented the other players are, a defense will likely struggle without an effective nose guard to clog the middle of the line.
For the Irish, that responsibility falls on senior Ian Williams.
"We've given him an opportunity to play something that he's good at," defensive line coach Mike Elston said. "He's on the center, whipping him. He's using really good technique. He's clued into indicators. He's just doing a really nice job, and it's important to him."
New system, new position
Williams entered Notre Dame out of Altamonte Springs, Fla., in 2007 as one of ESPN's top 150 high school players. Recruited to play nose tackle in then-defensive coordinator Corwin Brown's 3-4 system, Williams played in all 12 games his freshman year, starting two. He totaled 45 tackles on the year and was named a Freshman All-American.
Since that first year, though, the Irish defense has switched defensive coordinators twice, and moved to defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta's 4-3 scheme in 2009. The switch meant that Williams had to move to defensive tackle, and away from his natural position.
When new Irish coach Brian Kelly hired defensive coordinator Bob Diaco this off-season, it meant that Notre Dame was switching back to the 3-4, and Williams was moving back to the middle.
While much has been made about the schematic changes, Williams said he was more excited about the new attitude the coaching staff brought.
"I knew a little bit about them, just watching Cincinnati and some of their games last year. I kind of read up on Coach Kelly, Coach Diaco, Coach Elston when they got hired," Williams said. "I was really excited for the opportunity to have a new coaching staff and just try something new, start fresh."
Williams said the technical changes on the Notre Dame defense weren't as big a deal to him.
"It doesn't make that much of a difference to me," he said. "I'll play what I need to play. Defense is defense. I know I've said that plenty of times, but I'm just trying to go out there and have fun on every play."
In addition to Diaco, Kelly also hired strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, who Williams said has been invaluable to his development.
"It's all paying off," Williams said before Notre Dame met Stanford on Sept. 25. "I mean, we're 1-2 right now, but I think it's paying off and we're getting better."
Old man on the line
In addition to Williams' responsibilities on the field, he's also the senior man on the Irish defensive line this season.
"I'm the old guy in the group now," Williams said. "So I just feel like I have to be a role model for the younger guys."
Elston said that Williams has been taking charge by his attitude in practice, as well.
"He's been a leader, he's been working hard," Elston said. "Not a day goes by that I think he's wasting his time, wasting our time. He's been doing a nice job. He's locked in and having fun too."
Williams said that over the off-season, he had freshman defensive lineman Bruce Heggie, who lives about a half-hour away in Florida, over to his house to show Heggie some workouts.
"I had him come down where I lived and just worked on some things this summer," Williams said. "He just came down, I showed him some things to work on, and he just really worked on them by himself."
Williams added that he modeled his leadership after the advice he got from seniors during his freshman year.
"I mean when I was a freshman, I had Trevor Laws, Justin Brown and [Pat] Kuntz who were the older guys," he said. "They showed me how to play."
The newfound leadership role became official against Michigan State on Sept. 18, when Williams was named a game-day captain, along with junior tight end Kyle Rudolph. Williams said he was caught a bit off guard when Kelly called his name out at the Friday team meeting, but knew that someone back home would be very happy.
"I was very surprised and I was very thankful," he said. "My mom's been asking for four years, ‘Ian when are you going to be a captain?' ‘Ian when are you going to be a captain?' So I talked to her on Saturday and said, ‘Mom, I'm a captain,' so she was really proud of me."
'Clog the middle'
Against the Spartans, Kelly singled out Williams for his outstanding play.
"Yeah, he's a man," Kelly said. "I mean, he was dominant for us. He controlled the line of scrimmage from his position. Now, he's got to have help at certain areas, but he was clearly a dominating player for us on the defensive side of the ball."
While Kelly may have been pleased, Williams said he still has plenty to improve.
"I personally think I didn't play that good, so I've still got a lot of work to do," Williams said. "I really appreciate him calling me out and giving me a little pub, but I just feel personally that I still have a lot of things to work on."
While the generic job description of a nose guard in a 3-4 defense is to "clog the middle," Williams said it was more specific than that.
"[My job is to] make sure the ball bounces outside," he said. "Make sure the ball doesn't come in any of my gaps."
Once it gets out there, Williams relies on junior defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson to make plays. He called Lewis-Moore and Johnson "two of [his] best friends."
"It helps with chemistry, talking on the field," Williams said. "We can joke around about little things, keep everything level on the field."
Despite Williams' difficult job description, he didn't miss a game for more than three seasons, until suffering a season-ending MCL