“Irish Chocolate” Louis Nix III looks to lead the Fighting Irish defense to another stellar season in 2013.
In part 1 of my Notre Dame 2013 season preview, we took an in-depth look at the Irish offense and the changes and challenges they may face heading into this year. In part 2 of this 3 part series, we focus on the other side of the ball: The defense.
As much change as there is on the Irish offense this year, some old familiar faces will be there for the defense. Well, minus one Manti Te’o, that is. To say that the defense for Notre Dame is loaded would be an understatement.
This is a unit that became a national revelation in 2012. Lead by Te’o and the rest of a defensive front I named the “Magnificent Seven,” the Irish defense managed to finish in the top ten in total yards and scoring defense, 11th in rushing defense, and 25th in pass defense. Te’o was undoubtedly the physical and emotional leader on that team, as evidenced by the most awards won by a single player ever in NCAA FBS history (and placing second in Heisman voting) – even after the “fake girlfriend” scandal broke.
Now, I’ll grant you that for all the praise we heaped on the defense, they looked totally out of sorts and out of place against Alabama in the National Championship game. That could have been caused by any number of factors: The Te’o scandal, nerves, rust due to the length of time in between games, or the most obvious: Alabama was simply just that much better. Personally, I think it was a combination of all those that led to the drubbing suffered at the hands of the Tide. But that embarrassment last year should leave a foul taste in the mouths of this D, inspiring to be that much better. Even without last year’s leader.
This unit may not be as strong initially as last year, but returning 5 starters – plus key contributors on the depth chart and some young talent – is a good start, and as long as they stay healthy, who knows how high they can rise. The defense will absolutely be the better of the two units again in 2013, and may be the catalyst to any success Notre Dame might find. That being said, let’s take a look at the positional grades:
Defensive End – Sheldon Day (So.), Stephon Tuitt (Jr.); Jarron Jones (So.), Isaac Rochell (Fr.)
Sheldon Day, last year’s highly touted freshman from Indianapolis that played in all 13 games, returns in a starting role in place of the now Baltimore Raven Kapron Lewis-Moore. In a rotational role in 2012, Day registered 23 tackles and 2 sacks. The Irish will now expect bigger things from the 6’2″ 290 lb. D-lineman to ensure that the stout run defense maintains the levels we saw last year. Stephon Tuitt is one of the elite D-lineman in the nation, just one or two spots behind South Carolina’s Jadaveon Clowney, and has been named to numerous defensive awards watch lists in 2013. Last year Tuitt led the team in sacks (12.0), adding in 47 tackles and returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown against Navy. This is as strong a position as the Irish have. The only reason they don’t get an A or even an A+ is the lack of experience (a freshmen and sophomore) behind them.
Sheldon Day should be more than an ample replacement for Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Nose Tackle – Louis Nix (Sr.); Kona Schwenke (Sr.)
Louis “Irish Chocolate” Nix returns to anchor the front three. Nix played in 11 of the team’s 13 regular season games, and led all defensive linemen with 50 tackles and 2 sacks. Named to both the Bednarik and Maxwell Award watch lists, the 6’2″ 342 lb nose tackle is the key to clogging up the interior of the line. Nix’s back-up hasn’t played an meaningful time in three years. but he’s got time in the system, and that has to count for something. He still brings the positional grade down a notch though.
Outside Linebacker – Jaylon Smith (Fr.), Prince Shembo (Sr.); Ben Councell (Jr.), Isahq Williams (Jr.)
Prince Shembo will man one OLB spot coming off a great 2012 campaign that saw him register 57 tackles and 7.5 sacks – the second most on the team. He will remain a solid contributor to the Notre Dame front seven, so he’s not a worry. The big question is at the other OLB spot, manned by true freshman Jaylon Smith. As reported by me a few days ago, Danny Spond, the original starter penciled in here, retired due to severe migraine issues. So the job falls to the untested Smith who has talent (ranked the #2 OLB recruit, and #7 overall by ESPN.com last year), but will be raw at first. He’s the reason this grade is down from the other spots on the defensive front. We just don’t know what he’s going to bring. He could absolutely be the next big thing, but until we are certain, I can’t grade this spot higher.
Jaylon Smith is talented but young. Can he handle the pressure as a starting freshman?
Inside Linebacker – Carlo Calabrese (Sr.), Dan Fox (Sr.); Kendall Moore (Sr.), Jarrett Grace (Jr.)
The biggest question at inside linebacker is: Who steps up for the departed Manti Te’o? Well, it will fall on both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox to try and fill the void. Both starters played last year – Calabrese played in 12 games, starting five and Fox played in all, starting nine. Combined, they racked up 112 tackles. Te’o alone registered 111 in 2012. So you can see the issue. But that being said, if both of these guys are able to put up just two-thirds of what Te’o did by himself last year, this defense will be in excellent shape. Is that a realistic expectation though? We’ll just have to wait and see. As far as the back-ups go, with both experience and depth (Moore has played in 26 games the past two years, and Grace saw action all 13 last year), this is a very stable position.
Carlo Calabrese is one of two players looking to fill the void left by Manti Te’o.
Cornerback – KeiVarae Russell (So.), Bennett Jackson (Sr.); Lo Wood (Sr.), Cole Luke (Fr.)
KeiVarae Russell was thrown into the fire last year after Lo Wood’s season ending injury. And, he played fairly well after a rough few games. Russell ended the season with the fifth most tackles (58), and hauled in two interceptions to boot. He should only get better this year, but you can still expect some young mistakes and maybe a but of a sophomore slump. Bennett Jackson had an even better year, ranking third on the team in tackles (65) with four interceptions. Combined with Russell, these two make for a very intriguing tandem in the defensive backfield. Add in the depth and experience that Lo Wood brings them as a nickel back, and that gives this area a good grade overall.
The Irish need KeiVarae Russell (#6) to improve upon a great freshman campaign in 2012.
Safety – Austin Collinsworth (Sr.), Matthias Farley (Jr.); Elijah Shumate (So.), Eliar Hardy (Jr.)
And here we are, down to the last position group on the list: Safety. And, unfortunately its the area with the biggest question marks heading into 2013, with the departures of Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta. Collinsworth has played in the last 26 games, but recording just 25 tackles in limited action – mainly on special teams. Farley brings more real game experience, playing in all 13 games last year and starting 11. for the season he registered 49 tackles and an interception. As for the backups, Shumate played last year, but mostly on special teams, and Hardy as not seen any game action in his two years. Youth and inexperience are what bring this area’s grade down.
Inexperience is the word for the safeties. Austin Collinsworth (pictured) and Matthias Farley have some big shoes to fill.
We know that the front seven will be solid – maybe even magnificent – again in 2013. There are questions in the defensive backfield that can only be answered when they games are played. But there is no question that this Irish defense is once again talented, and will be the most integral aspect of Notre Dame’s success in 2013.
Overall Grade: B+