Preview: Irish Defense

An insider's look at Notre Dame's defensive personnel heading into Saturday's matchup with the Spartans.

The following was provided courtesy managing editor, Tim O'Malley

Notre Dame Defensive Personnel

Last Saturday night in Ann Arbor, 43 minutes of dominant Irish defense were undone by the game's final, sloppy, shocking 17, as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's group yielded a staggering 28 fourth quarter points.

The four offensive touchdowns matched the total the unit allowed over its previous three contests combined.

LDE: Ethan Johnson – With the exception of a crucial personal foul penalty in the opening contest, Johnson has been a standout, securing the left edge of the Irish defense vs. a pair of mobile quarterbacks. At 6'4" 300 pounds, Johnson has the strength to battle with the nation's top right tackles while also ranking as the roster's current career sack leader (12.5).

RDE: Kapron Lewis-Moore – Lewis-Moore's knack for knifing into the backfield is key in short-yardage situations. The has senior has totaled 11 tackles including two for lost yardage seven of his total stops have limited the opposing ball career to three yards or fewer.

NG: Louis Nix – Pressed into his first start last week due to an injury to senior starter Sean Cwynar (broken hand). With Cwynar's status again in doubt, look for the 325-pound Nix to team with senior Hafis Williams against the Spartans. Nix showed impressive quickness in the team's opening loss to South Florida, twice chasing plays to the sidelines. His second quarter pressure vs. Denard Robinson forced a screen pass interception. Though he faced a top tier center last week in David Molk, Nix will receive a greater test this week as the Spartans attempt to gash the Irish defense with myriad carries through the heart of the front seven.

OLB (DOG): Prince Shembo – The team's defensive rookie of the year last fall has moved to the more complicated Dog linebacker position, one that requires a blend of pass coverage and pass-rushing acumen – Shembo possesses plenty of the latter with the former serving as a key question mark entering the season. Shembo lines up at defensive tackle in the team's nickel package, joined by outside backers Darius Fleming (below) and Steve Filer as rush ends.

OLB (CAT): Darius Fleming –The senior made two huge athletic plays in the opening loss to South Florida, both negating what appeared to be sure gains on screen passes. That was not the case vs. the Wolverines as Fleming's whiff in space yielded a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Vincent Smith on a throwback screen play.

The team's active leader in tackles for loss, Fleming must improve his play on the edge if the Irish defense is to reach its potential.

ILB (MIKE): Manti Te'o – Solid but unspectacular through two games, Te'o leads the Irish with 14 solo tackles (two for lost yardage) and a sack. A Butkus Award finalist last season, Te'o's broke out of an early slump vs. the Spartans in Week Three, registering 11 tackles (2.5 for loss) including nine stops in the second half.

ILB (WILL): Dan Fox – Shares the job with classmate Carlo Calabrese; the pair receiving nearly the same number of snaps through two weeks. Fox recorded the game's only sack Saturday in Michigan while leading the team with two tackles for loss.

FS: Jamoris Slaughter – Quiet in the opening pair of contests with just three tackles and no passes defended, Slaughter starts at free safety switches to a slot cornerback role when the Irish go to their nickel defensive package. Will be a man on the spot vs. the Spartans dangerous trio of targets.

SS: Harrison Smith – The lone team captain forced a key goal line fumble with a remarkable leaping strike in mid-air, unfortunately for the Irish, the ball bounced to the quickest player on the field – Michigan's Denard Robinson – who scooped up the near miscue for a fourth quarter Wolverine's score. Smith's lone coverage error last week resulted in a 45-yard jump ball reception during the Wolverines frantic comeback victory.

Boundary CB: Gary Gray – Suffered the worst outing of his college career last week, yielding nearly 240 passing yards and three touchdowns while being beaten for a 77-yard gain that set up a fourth in a nightmarish evening in Ann Arbor. Ranked as's No. 3 overall player last fall, allowing just one touchdown pass in 13 starts.

Field CB: Robert Blanton – Has started intermittently since his true freshman season of 2009 and ranks first on the roster in career interceptions (7) including a fourth quarter juggling end zone grab last Saturday. Finished third among all Irish defenders in statistical "big plays" last season (sacks, tackles-for-loss, passes defender, interceptions, touchdowns, fumbles forced and caused). A solid tackler and top-notch zone defender, Blanton has been the team's best back-seven performer this season, allowing just one pass reception.

Key Reserves: DE Aaron Lynch; DE Stephon Tuitt; ILB Carlo Calabrese; S Zeke Motta; DE Steve Filer, OLB Troy Niklas; NGs Sean Cwynar and Hafis Williams, CB Lo Wood.

Motta will play nearly half of the game's snaps while Cwynar could start if deemed ready by the training staff.

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