#91 Sheldon Day: Will he play? If not, Tigers fans will doubtless enjoy an afternoon of unfettered rushing success, as the true junior Day is not only the team's best player, but the one defensive linemen on which the entire front relied upon when the squad rolled to an impressive 7-1 start.
Day sprained his knee (MCL) in mid-November and hasn't played since. Exacerbating the issue is fellow starter Jarron Jones (out for the season with a foot injury, also mid-November) and Jones' backup, Daniel Cage, who sprained his knee on Nov. 15 as well and is likewise questionable for Dec. 30 in Nashville. Oh yeah, the third string nose tackle, redshirt-freshman and former tight end Jacob Matuska, might not play either (neck/shoulder), and if he does, he's already proved not yet ready for prime time.
With Day, an All-American if writers had paid attention, the defense has a shot. Without? Pick your gap and enjoy the party.
(A hunch: Day will be withheld from action as head coach Brian Kelly needs his best player to contend for much bigger things next fall.)
#9 Jaylon Smith: A true sophomore, Smith was named the team's defensive player of the year at this month's annual awards ceremony. Smith leads the defense in tackles, tackles-for-loss, playmaking ability, and NFL potential. He's one of two Irish defenders (Day) that would walk onto any defense in the nation and start immediately – at LSU, at Alabama, at Florida State, anywhere.
However, because of the team's lack of linebacker depth inside, Smith moved from his natural outside position to weak side inside linebacker where he's very good, but if he has a weakness, it's shedding power blocking teams at the point of attack. Run away from Smith, and he'll end your intentions in a hurry. Run at the 6'2" 235-pounder? Success can be had.
Smith ranks among the top 10 future pro prospects of the millennium during his time at Notre Dame.
#36 Cole Luke: Another true sophomore, Luke began August camp as Notre Dame's top backup cornerback. Following the loss of junior star Keivarae Russell to academic suspension, and since 5th-year senior transfer (Florida) Cody Riggs has been out or severely limited due to a foot injury since early November, Luke now ranks as the team's best defensive back.
The former four-star prospect from outside of Phoenix, Luke tied for the team lead in interceptions (4) and easily paced the defense in passes defended (15). As important, he neutralized the likes of All-Americans Jaelen Strong (4 receptions and 35 yards facing Luke at Arizona State) and Louisville's DeVante Parker (3-44 against Luke in South Bend).
Luke and fellow sophomore starter Devin Butler inexplicably flipped formation alignment (Luke going from right to left cornerback) and thereafter struggled against USC's Juju Smith and Nelson Agholor – once he moved back to the right side, he was in lock down mode again.
Look for Luke to play full-time right cornerback against the Tigers, and for the aforementioned Riggs to give it a go on the left side – the latter is physical in run support, a necessary skill set given LSU's punishing rushing attack.
#90 Isaac Rochell: Sophomore No. 3 on the list, Rochell was set this fall to backup senior Ishaq Williams, but when the latter was suspended for academic dishonesty, Rochell stepped into the starting defensive end role and produced a better season than his predecessor ever had (or likely would have had).
One of the team's strongest players and well-suited to end, it's likely Rochell will shift inside for the Music City Bowl – with or without Day – to help plug the noticeable leaks.
Rochell finished with 37 tackles including 7.5 with 9 QB pressures – the latter an impressive total for a player asked foremost to hold the point.
#22 Elijah Shumate: Entered the season in a backup role to captain Austin Collinsworth but started nine games in relief of the oft-injured fifth-year senior. Shumate is a big hitter and quality defender in run support, but to date has not fared well in attempts to help quarterback the team's secondary.
At his best running downhill and attacking, Shumate is one of the few remaining healthy Irish players that likely relishes a matchup with a north-south, old school rushing attack. He brings his pads on every hit and is not shy to talk about the proceedings thereafter.
As for his coverage skills…it's a good thing Tommy Hodson is no longer under center in Baton Rouge.
On the Spot -- #5 Nyles Morgan
A true freshman and five-star prospect per Scout.com, Morgan has totaled a remarkable 31 tackles in his last 2.5 games (he was suspended for the first half against USC for a targeting penalty the week prior).
After barely appearing from scrimmage over the first eight contests, Morgan was thrust into the middle linebacker role vacated by senior Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on who was lost for the season midway through a win over Navy on Nov. 1.
Morgan's numbers in that short span are impressive, but Irish fans know of the other number associated with the Schmidt/Morgan switch. 8-1 with Schmidt; 0-4 with Morgan.
Notre Dame hasn't won a game – or stopped any offense – since Schmidt dislocated his ankle and broke his foot against the Midshipmen. They're a rudderless, sinking ship, one entrusted (erroneously) it appears, to be led by an overwhelmed rookie in one of the most complicated NFL-style defenses in the country.
Despite missing the seasons final 4.5 games, Schmidt was named TEAM MVP at the Dec. 12 Awards Banquet.
Morgan can run and hit – but there's more than one gap to choose from, and it has not gone well for the youngster to date. Better days lie ahead, but Dec. 30 might not be one of them.