2012 Notre Dame Preview – Defense
Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o
Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Jun 22, 2012


CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish Defense


Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2012 - Defense



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What You Need To Know:
The talent and athleticism on the Irish defense has improved by leaps and bounds over the last few years, but now it all has to come together for a more consistent season with more big plays. The defense came up with a mere 14 takeaways and rarely did anything to change games around. Losing top pass rusher Aaron Lynch hurts – he transferred to South Florida – but the D got a huge break with Manti Te’o - arguably the best linebacker in America – choosing to return for one more year. He leads a strong 3-4 that should be a rock against the run with good size and experience up front, but has to find consistent playmakers who can get into the backfield. The concern is a secondary that’s paper thin across the board, but is athletic enough to get by.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Manti Te’o, 128
Sacks: Manti Te’o, 5
Interceptions: Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Manti Te’o
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior CB Bennett Jackson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Ishaq Williams
Best pro prospect: Te’o
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Te’o, 2) DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, 3) DT Louis Nix III
Strength of the defense: Run Defense, Manti Te’o
Weakness of the defense: Takeaways, Secondary Depth

Defensive Line

With the transfer of Aaron Lynch, the Irish needs senior Kapron Lewis-Moore to become more of a pass rushing playmaker. The 6-4, 306-pounder is more of a tackle in the 3-4 than a true end, but he has to get behind the line on a regular basis after coming up with 32 tackles with 1.5 sacks and four tackles for loss after getting knocked out for the year with a knee injury. An active playmaker up front, he has to be 100% and he has to show he’s just as athletic as he was before getting hurt. He’ll be backed up by Sheldon Day, a 6-2, 286-pound true freshman who’s a tackle working on the end. Fast and quick off the ball, he could be a pass rushing specialist right away on the inside.

6-6, 295-pound sophomore Stephon Tuitt stepped in as a true freshman and was every bit as good as advertised making 30 tackles with two sacks and three tackles for loss with five quarterback hurries as a spot starter. All but certain to go to Georgia Tech, he flip-flopped back and forth before the Irish won the battle. With Lynch gone, Tuitt should grow into the team’s most dangerous pure pass rusher with beefed up size and phenomenal speed off the ball. All the tools are there to become special over the next few seasons with the potential there to crank out double-digit sacks.

Clogging things up inside will be Louis Nix III, a huge-bodied run stuffer who came up with 45 tackles with half a sack and 4.5 tackles for loss. As big as he is, he actually slimmed down a bit and should be even quicker off the ball. The star recruit of 2010 is active, tough and built to be an even stronger force to work around. With three years of eligibility left, he’s the rock the rest of the front seven will work around. He’ll be backed up by 6-6, 290-pound sophomore Tony Springmann, a nice-looking 3-4 tackle who’ll see time on the nose with good athleticism and quickness, while 6-4, 286-pound junior Kona Schwenke will move from end to the nose with good upside as an interior pass rusher.

6-4, 265-pound Chase Hounshell saw time as a backup throughout his true freshman season making four tackles. While he’s not a lightning fast pass rusher, he has the potential to grow into more of a factor on both ends as a top reserve in the rotation. He can move.

Watch Out For … Day. No one’s asking him to be Lynch, but the upside is there to become a key defender right away. He needs time to mature and improve behind Lewis-Moore, but he’ll get his chances.
Strength: Run defense. Yeah, the Irish got gouged by USC and Stanford, and Air Force was Air Force when it came to running the ball, but the line did a nice job overall allowing just eight touchdowns on the ground and held its own more often than not. With big players for the 3-4, running inside will be an issue.
Weakness: Sure-thing pass rusher. Lewis-Moore should be tremendous when it comes to getting behind the line, but he’s more than just pass rusher. Tuitt should become a star with time and more work, but he hasn’t quite done it yet. Lynch was a great talent with twice as many quarterback hurries as anyone else.
Outlook: Losing Aaron Lynch to South Florida will hurt, meaning the front three will have to do more to manufacture a pass rush and be more active. The experience and talent are there, and the run defense will be excellent, but the quarterback has to start getting hit on a regular basis. This is still a young line that’s still emerging and improving.
Unit Rating: 7

Linebackers

One of the biggest and brightest recruits from the Charlie Weis era Manti Te’o more than lived up to his billing. After coming into his own with a 133-tackle, 9.5-tackle-for-loss sophomore season, he cranked up a team-leading tackles with 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in a brilliant junior season. After starting out with 14 tackles and a sack against USF he went on to hit the double-digit tackle mark nine times finishing up with a 13-stop day with a forced fumble against Florida State. The 6-2, 255-pound senior has tremendous size, terrific instincts, and enough range to get to most things that aren’t funneled his way. The NFL scouts are split on how he’ll translate to the next level, but he’s a peerless hitter who doesn’t miss anything that comes his way. With one more big year it’s not crazy to suggest that he might end his career as the best linebacker in Notre Dame history.

Junior Prince Shembo is a nice pass rusher who forced his way behind the line for two sacks with 31 tackles as a spot starter getting the call eight times. At 6-2 and 250 pounds he has great size for an outside linebacker with a phenomenal burst off the ball, but now he has to do more to start hitting the quarterback on a regular basis. He’s a good talent with enough experience to do even more.

Either backing up Shembo or starting on the other side will be sophomore Ishaq Williams, a superstar recruit who’s a pure hybrid with 6-5, 255-pound size and lightning fast speed. Tough enough to work inside and athletic enough to be a pass rushing specialist, he’ll be turned loose after making just six tackles with a tackle for loss. The 2010 New York Gatorade Player of the Year was a key part of last year’s tremendous class and has the upside and ability to be a statistical superstar if he can hold down one of the starting jobs.

6-3, 240-pound senior Dan Fox turned into a good starter making 48 tackles with a sack and 2.5 tackles for loss starting every game on the inside. With good size and nice range he turned into a nice running mate for Te’o with the ability to work inside or out. A former safety who can move, he’ll get to most things Te’o doesn’t.

Senior Carlo Calabrese has made more noise off the field than on last season by allegedly telling the police, “my people will get you,” after the problems at the same party that led to Tommy Rees’s problems. He was a decent reserve making 37 tackles with a sack, but he was excellent two years ago making 60 tackles with 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss before suffering a hamstring injury. At 6-1 and 245 pounds he’s built for the inside with solid tackling ability; he gets to anything coming his way.

6-2, 248-pound junior Danny Spond will fight for a starting job with Williams after making 13 tackles as a reserve. A beefed up former quarterback has mostly been a special teamer, but he’s active, athletic and fine on the outside when given a shot.

Watch Out For … Williams. There’s too much talent and too much upside to not be one of the team’s most disruptive players. If all goes according to plan, the potential will be there to lead the team in sacks.
Strength: Te’o. With his decision to come back for one more season, everything else should fall into place. He’s the NFL star-in-waiting who’ll crank out more than 100 tackles and will do a little bit of everything for the front seven.
Weakness: Plays in the backfield. Te’o led the team in tackles for loss and was second on the team in sacks. That was about it for the consistent production from the linebackers when it came time to get behind the line. That might change with Williams and Shembo ready to do more, but they have to prove it and get the job done.
Outlook: The pieces are there to turn into something terrific. Te’o, if he can stay healthy and get over any and all ankle problems, will be a sure-thing All-American, while Shembo, Williams, Fox and Calabrese should all crank out stronger seasons. It took some tinkering last year, and there might be some playing around with the lineup, but this could be one of the strongest Notre Dame linebacking corps in a long, long time.
Unit Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

The corners are a bit of a question mark but the safeties should be solid. The loss of Harrison Smith might hurt, but Zeke Motta appears to be ready to step in and play a bigger role after making 50 tackles as a sophomore and 40 last year. The 6-2, 215-pound senior has good size and great hitting ability with linebacker-like talent against the run and with enough athleticism to get all over the field now that he’ll get even more playing time.

Senior Jamoris Slaughter returned after struggling through a foot injury two years ago making 45 tackles with two sacks and four tackles for loss as a ten-game starter. At 6-0 and 200 pounds he’s big with corner speed and athleticism, but he has to do more with the ball in the air after coming up with just one pick with two broken up passes.

6-0, 185-pound junior Bennett Jackson will get a long look at one of the starting corner jobs after moving over from wide receiver two years ago. He made 18 tackles as a backup, but he was mostly a special teamer who’ll be thrown to the wolves on the outside. With tremendous athleticism and speed he should have no problems with the faster receivers, but he has to prove he can work on an island.

There will be an ongoing battle for one of the corner spots between junior Lo Wood and sophomore Josh Atkinson, two solid prospects with Wood the more experienced of the two. Wood was one of the team’s top recruits two years ago and was thrown into the mix early on as a special teamer. The 5-10, 195-pounder is a speedster who made six tackles with a 57-yard pick six against Maryland. The 5-11, 185-pound Atkinson made two tackles as a special teamer is the twin brother of star kick returner, George, with the athleticism and ability to be a nickel and dime defender if he doesn’t hold down a starting corner job on a regular basis.

Watch Out For … Jackson. He’ll get lit up from time to time as he figures out what he’s doing, but he has the talent and the basic skills to become a nice cover-corner. He’ll get tested early on and he’ll have to come through.
Strength: Athleticism. The Irish have good wheels and athleticism at all four spots with the ability to swarm around the ball. The recent recruiting classes have upgraded the all-around quickness and speed among the backups, while the starters should be solid. Many mistakes will be glossed over because the defensive backs can move.
Weakness: Question marks. Losing the 90 tackles and ten broken up passes from safety Harrison Smith hurts, and losing Austin Collinsworth for at least six months to a shoulder injury is bad for the depth. Slaughter and Motta should be fine at safety, but the secondary might have to go through a bunch of juggling to find the right mix.
Outlook: The coaching staff under Kelly has done a great job with the defensive backs. It did a terrific job with what it inherited from the old regime, and it has come up with some nice athletes and good talents. The pass rush needs to be stronger, more interceptions have to be made, and this might be a questionable area for a while, but the overall numbers should turn out to be fine.
Unit Rating: 6.5

Special Teams

David Ruffer nailed 10-of-16 field goals last year, but now it will likely be up to Kyle Brindza, a blaster of a kickoff specialist who should add even more pop as the main placekicker. A star kicking recruit with the ability to be used as a punter, he should show off excellent range, but has to be consistent, while senior Nick Tausch will get a shot after hitting 15-of-18 kicks in 2009 nailing 14 straight. In a Wally Pip situation, he pulled up lame in warm-ups before the Pitt game three years ago and never got the job back. Even so, he’s accurate and can be relief on inside the 40.

The punting game was miserable last season even though Ben Turk averaging 40.2 yards per kick with 18 put inside the 20. Accurate and experienced, he doesn’t put it in the end zone and does a nice job of pinning teams deep.

Running back George Atkinson III turned into one of the nation’s best kickoff returners averaging 26.1 yards per try taking two back for scores with one against Michigan State and one against USC. With a little bit of a seam he’s gone.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the punt return game was abysmal, averaging 3.69 yards per pop. Receiver John Goodman averaged just 0.6 yards per try while the electric Theo Riddick had three attempts for -1 yard. Michael Floyd had one 41-yard return to save the average from being even more of a disaster.

Watch Out For … the placekicking. Brindza has the talent but Tausch was great a few years ago. The kicking game didn’t make a huge different last season outside of the loss to USF, but reliability is a must.
Strength: Atkinson. He’s a weapon, but he might be neutered with the new shorter kickoff starting point. He’s a game-changer who’ll be given the green light more often than not to take it out of the end zone.
Weakness: Coverage teams and punt returns. New Mexico was last in the nation in punt returns averaging 1.33 yards per try. Take away Floyd’s 41-yarder against Florida State and Notre Dame averaged 0.23 yards per try. The Irish allowed 22.4 yards per kickoff return and 10.7 yards per punt return.
Outlook: The special teams were mediocre-to-lousy last season outside of Atkinson. The placekicking will be fine and Turk will be better than his punting average, but the coverage teams have to improve and the punt return game has to be far stronger.
Unit Rating: 5
 
- 2012 Notre Dame Preview | 2012 Notre Dame Offense
- 2012 Notre Dame Defense | 2012 Notre Dame Depth Chart
- Notre Dame Previews 2011 | 2010 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006