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2013 Notre Dame Preview – Defense
Posted Jul 5, 2013 2013 Preview - Notre Dame Fighting Irish Defense

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Preview 2013 - Defense

- 2013 Notre Dame Preview | 2013 Notre Dame Offense
- 2013 Notre Dame Defense | 2013 Notre Dame Depth Chart

What You Need To Know:
All of a sudden, the Irish defense did everything it was supposed to do and more, and now it could be even better despite the loss of Manti Te’o. The front three should be fantastic with Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt two All-America caliber linemen, while the linebacking corps won’t have any problems picking up the slack without No. 5 around with three returning starters and good options ready to fill in. The biggest difference could be the secondary that began last season devastated by injuries and other issues and now returns loaded with experience. No, this might be the nation’s No. 2 scoring D again, and it might start to struggle a wee bit more against the run, but it should be dominant at times.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Bennett Jackson, 65
Sacks: Stephon Tuitt, 12
Interceptions: Bennett Jackson, 4

Star of the defense: Junior DE Stephon Tuitt
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior LB Jarrett Grace
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Sheldon Dan
Best pro prospect: Tuitt
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Tuitt, 2) DT Louis Nix, 3) LB Prince Shembo
Strength of the defense: Run Defense, Line
Weakness of the defense: Interceptions, Backup Tackle

Defensive Line

For all the accolades and attention heaped on Manti Te’o, insiders were quick to say that it wasn’t crazy to suggest that 6-6, 303-pound junior Stephon Tuitt was the team’s best defensive player for a long stretch. He stepped in as a superstar recruit and was every bit as good as advertised considering he was a spot starter, and then he blew up last season making 47 tackles with 12 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and a 77-yard fumble return for a score in the opener against Navy. However, his sack production dipped over the second half of the season with just two in the final six games, and he was erased a bit late in the year, but with his combination of size, speed off the ball and closing ability, he’s auditioning to be a dream of a 3-4 NFL end.

Tuitt might be the flashiest player up front, but senior Louis Nix is the key to the defensive front. While he’s listed at 6-3 and 326 pounds, that’s very, very generous with the ability to balloon up if he’s not careful. A huge-bodied run stuffer, he’s the textbook definition of an anchor with the ability to get into the backfield as well as hold up against the stronger running teams – the Alabama game aside – finishing with 50 tackles with two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. A power player, he could also see a little time as a blocking fullback in power packages. He’ll be backed up by senior Kona Schwenke, a 6-4, 290-pound former end who didn’t do as much as expected last season as an interior pass rusher with just five tackles and half a sack, but he’s quick and athletic in the interior.

Taking over for Kapron Lewis-Moore on the outside is 6-2, 286-pound sophomore Sheldon Day, who stepped in as a true freshman and was a huge part of the rotation making 23 tackles with two sacks. While he’s not a pure pass rusher, he’s a big, quick presence who can be a 4-3 tackle or a 3-4 end without a problem. With all the attention paid to Tuitt, the chances will be there to shine on the other side. He’ll be backed up by senior Tony Springmann, a 6-6, 300-pound tackle who made 11 tackles with a sack and three quarterback hurries in the rotation. He’s more of a run stopper than a pass rusher, but he has a great frame and is a decent backup option for anywhere up front.

Watch Out For … Isaac Rochell, a 6-5, 265-pound end out of Georgia who worked in high school as both an offensive and defensive tackle. Devastating when it comes to getting into the backfield, he’s fast off the ball and should be a phenomenal pass rusher once he tweaks his skills.
Strength: Run defense. Day will be more than fine in place of Lewis-Moore, and with Tuitt and Nix holding down the front three, the line will be once again be outstanding against the run. This group is big, active and talented – the Irish has an NFL defensive line, even if it didn’t look like it against Alabama.
Weakness: Backup tackle. There’s enough size that several players could move into the middle if Tuitt gets banged up, but Schwenke is the first option and he needs to prove himself.
Outlook: Outstanding last season, the potential is there to be even better if everyone stays healthy. Nix is great, Tuitt is better, and Day will blossom in a bigger role. If the backups can be solid, this will be a brick wall of a front three.
Unit Rating: 8.5


Is there life after Manti Te’o in the linebacking corps? No one is expected junior Jarrett Grace to be another Te’o in terms of leadership or all-around playmaking ability, but he showed this offseason that the talent is there to be a top tackler who can get around the ball either in the middle spot or as one of two inside linebackers in the alignment. With 6-3, 240-pound size and decent range, he didn’t get on the field too often when he wasn’t a special teamer, but he got in a little work making 12 tackles. He’ll be backed up by senior Kendall Moore, a 6-1, 242-pound senior who saw enough time to make ten tackles last year.

Returning to the inside is Te’o’s terrific running mate, senior Dan Fox, who came up with 63 tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss. A solid, steady starter, he has good 6-3, 240-pound size and fantastic instincts. The former safety can move with sideline-to-sideline ability. Also working in the mix is 6-1, 245-pound senior Carlo Calabrese, who got past his off-the-field issues of last season with 48 tackles and three tackles for loss as a spot starter and excellent reserve. Experienced, he made 60 tackles two years ago before having problems with a hamstring injury, and now he’ll see plenty of action and could push Grace for a starting gig.

6-2, 248-pound senior Danny Spond started 11 times last year after missing the first two games finishing with 39 tackles with a pick. A beefed up former quarterback, he was active, athletic and smart on the outside with good quickness and smarts, but he had to leave the team due to medical concerns. 6-5, 240-pound junior Ben Councell was a tremendous recruit out of North Carolina, but he has yet to shine making just ten tackles last season after not doing anything in his first year. An active tackling machine in high school, there’s upside.

Senior Prince Shembo went from being a decent spot starter to a key part of the tremendous run defense starting all 13 games making 51 tackles with 7.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss with a team-leading 12 quarterback hurries. The 6-2, 250-pounder is quick off the ball and almost like an extra defensive end on the outside. Dangerous, he’s a disruptive force who makes big things happen behind the line on a consistent basis. Also like another defensive end is junior Ishaq Williams, a huge recruit for the program as the 2010 Gatorade New York Player of the Year, he has prototype hybrid tools with the ability to grow into a pass rushing specialist. However, he has yet to put it all together making 22 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss – it’s time to become a terror into the backfield.

Watch Out For … Jaylon Smith. The best of the great haul of new recruits, the nation’s best outside linebacker prospect has it all with 6-3, 220-pound size with jaw-dropping athleticism, speed and fluid quickness – he looks the part. He has to get functionally stronger and he needs to add at least ten pounds of good muscle to his frame, but all the tools are there to be phenomenal.
Strength: Experience. With two starters returning to the four-man corps – not including Calabrese – there are more than enough good, smart, talented veterans to keep the production going. This group will know what it’s doing and won’t make a slew of big mistakes.
Weakness: Manti Te’o. Fine, so he was a bit overrated and a lot overexposed, and his story might have been full of more holes than a golf course, but he was also a peerless leader with all-time instincts. The 113 tackles will be replaced, but the seven timely picks and plays against the pass will be tough to fill.
Outlook: Dismiss the Alabama game – nothing worked in the loss. Overall, this was a fantastic corps that wasn’t just Te’o. He might have been the catalyst, but there were more parts doing lots of big things to make the run defense as dominant as it was. You don’t allow two touchdown runs over 12 games without doing something right, and if Grace is solid, this unit should be almost as good.
Unit Rating: 8.5

Defensive Backs

If the secondary could survive last season’s problems with injuries and inexperience, this year’s group should be far better with several of the key parts back. Senior Bennett Jackson came through with the season the team needed him to have finishing third on the team with 64 tackles with four picks and four more broken up passes. The 6-0, 185-pound former wide receiver has great athleticism and speed, and now he’s a proven tackler. While he’ll likely start at corner, he could be more valuable as a nickel or dime defender in certain packages to allow 5-11, 182-pound sophomore KeiVarae Russell to keep a starting gig at one corner. The 13-game starter made 59 tackles with two picks in a fantastic true freshman season showing off good maturity and excellent hitting ability. Versatile, he could play anywhere in the secondary if needed.

It’s possible that Russell and Jackson could both start at corner, but senior Lo Wood is back after missing last year with an Achilles heel injury. The 5-11, 195-pounder was one of the team’s top recruits three years ago with tremendous speed and good skills, but he still has to prove himself with just ten career tackles with one interception – a pick-six against Maryland in 2011.

5-11, 200-pound junior Matthias Farley turned into a pleasant surprise coming from out of nowhere to start 11 games and finishing with 49 tackles to go along with a 49-yard pick against Stanford. The starting safety filled in when injuries hit the secondary, and while he’s not a huge hitter, he’s athletic and moves extremely well. Also back is senior Austin Collinsworth, the 6-1, 202-pound son of former Cincinnati Bengal and current NBC announcer, Cris Collinsworth, after missing all of last year with a shoulder injury. A rising playmaker two years ago with 18 tackles and big plays on special teams, now he’s back and healthy with the hitting ability and instincts to become one of the team’s top tacklers.

Sophomore Nicky Baratti was supposed to push hard for a starting safety job after seeing time throughout last year as a key special teamer while making eight tackles with a pick on defense, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in fall camp. At 6-0 and 206 pounds he has decent size and tremendous athleticism – he might be the best all-around athlete in the secondary – but he needs to wait until next year to come back healthy. 6-0, 198-pound sophomore Elijah Shumate now has to step up. Lightning fast, he could work as a corner if absolutely needed but he’ll stick around at safety after making nine tackles with a forced fumble. He’ll likely see most of his time as a fifth defender in nickel and dime packages.

Watch Out For … Max Redfield. A few strong corner prospects are coming in, but the best new defensive back on the lot should be the 6-2, 195-pound Redfield, an excellent safety option with fantastic smarts and great athleticism with unlimited range. He needs to get stronger and has to be a sounder tackler, but he’s going to be a key leader very, very soon.
Strength: Getting almost everyone back. With Collinsworth back from his shoulder problem and Wood returning from his Achilles heel injury to go along with veterans Russell, Jackson and Farley, all of a sudden, the screaming weakness going into last season might be a major positive.
Weakness: Interceptions. Overall the numbers didn’t look that bad, but seven of the 16 picks came from Te’o and four more came from Jackson. The corners can tackle, but they have to generate more big plays considering the pass rush should be so strong.
Outlook: For all the talk about what the Brian Kelly coaching staff has done with the offense and other parts of the team, one of the biggest improvements over the years has been the secondary, doing wonders last year patching everything together. This is a good-hitting group with excellent athleticism and upgrades on the way from the recruiting class. Picks have been a slight problem, and it’s not like the secondary faced a slew of great passers – giving up 364 yards to Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and 264 yards and four scores to Alabama’s AJ McCarron – but this is a veteran defensive backfield that should be good.
Unit Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Junior Kyle Brindza returns after a decent season hitting 23-of-31 kicks, but he could stand to be more consistent. He has a huge leg and was able to nail a 52-yarder against USC, but he missed way too many makeable kicks and has to be more reliable between 30 and 40 yards out. When absolutely needed, though, he almost always came through. Also returning is senior Nick Tausch, who got Wally Pipped pulling up lame in warm-ups before the Pitt game four years ago and never got the job back. In 2009 he connected on 14 straight field goals, but he doesn’t have huge range like Brindza, who’ll also handle the punting duties after doing a decent job averaging 40.8 yards per try with 14 put inside the 20.

The punt return game has to be far stronger after Davonte Neal averaged just 2.2 yards per try. Amir Carlisle and T.J. Jones will try to add more punch, while running back George Atkinson III will try to regain his 2011 form after being held to just 20 yards per try last season. Two years ago he averaged 26.1 yards per pop taking two back for scores.

Watch Out For … Brindza to be on a shorter leash. It’s not like he went through a cold streak, but he spread out misses throughout the season with two big whiffs to keep the BYU game close and a 43-yard misfire against Pitt. However, he’s extremely reliable in the clutch. If he stops coming through in key spots, and if he hits a bad run, Tausch could get more work.
Strength: Atkinson. Yeah, he wasn’t special last year, but he’s too good and too dangerous to think he’ll be average again. He’s an elite home run hitter who should be more productive.
Weakness: Punt returns. The Irish finished 116th in the nation in punt returns netting just 2.19 yards per try. It didn’t matter too much, but it would be nice to get a little more punch.
Outlook: The special teams improved a bit last year, but there were still problems from kickoff coverage to punt returns. The kicking game will be fine as long as Brindza hits more makeable midrange shots, and Atkinson is a weapon, but overall, this has to be a plus considering the Irish will likely play in several close games.
Unit Rating: 6
- 2013 Notre Dame Preview | 2013 Notre Dame Offense
- 2013 Notre Dame Defense | 2013 Notre Dame Depth Chart