5 To Watch: Notre Dame Defense

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley offers five key Irish defenders for Spartans fans to monitor in Saturday night's prime time matchup in East Lansing Tuitt, Te'o, and a trio of others for Spartans fans to monitor Saturday evening.

#1 -- Defensive End: Stephon Tuitt (6'6" 300 So.)
Tuitt announced his presence to the nation with a 77-yard scoop, sprint, and score in the season opener vs. Navy, outrunning the Midshipmen offense for an eye-opening fumble recovery touchdown. His true value however is on a down-to-down basis as the team's most disruptive force up front. With four sacks, multiple pressures, and two Irisheyes.com MVP awards already this season, Tuitt is the toughest matchup for the Spartans front line Saturday evening.

Working in congress with 325-pound junior nose guard Louis Nix, Tuitt has helped limit Irish foes to 3.4 yards per carry and no rushing scores to date - both notable totals in that the Irish faced a triple-option offense in the opener. The Irish allowed just eight rushing TDs last fall - third fewest in the nation, and the front line appears better at this point in 2012 than last year's group that limited the Spartans to 29 rushing yards on 21 carries.

#2 -- Will Linebacker: Carlo Calabrese (6'1" 255 Sr.)
Calabrese will hold his own vs. Michigan State's power rushing attack, but its his coverage skills, notably against Spartans tight end Dion Sims and on short outs by the team's slot receivers, that has the Irish faithful worried entering Saturday night. Calabrese was beaten on a wheel route vs. the Boilermakers but bailed out by a big hit from safety Jamoris Slaughter (below). It was a similar route that beat the run-stuffing 'backer for a touchdown at Wake Forest last fall.

In a schematic mis-match, Calabrese allowed the game-tying score late last week vs. Purdue, matched in zone coverage vs. slot receiver Antavian Edison. His strengths fit well vs. State's intentions on offense, but the ability of Sims, Le'Veon Bell, and other Spartans skill position players could test Calabrese in space Saturday evening.

#3 -- Safety: Jamoris Slaughter (5'11" 200 5th-year)
The team's biggest hitter, best cover man, most experienced defensive back, and smartest athlete among the back line, Slaughter's status for Saturday's contest is in doubt thanks to a shoulder injury suffered in a vicious hit applied to Purdue tight end Gabe Holmes, a player 80 pounds his senior. Should Slaughter miss the contest, or be limited as a tackler due to his injury, the Spartans will have a major advantage against the Irish secondary, both downfield and in run support. His replacement, Matthias Farley, is a redshirt freshman playing in his third collegiate contest.

#4 -- Middle Linebacker: Manti Te'o (6'2" 250 Sr.)
Has posted 23 tackles including 2.5 for lost yardage over the last two seasons with the Spartans. Te'o will be the most important player for the Spartans front wall to find Saturday, but its unlikely the adept run-stuffer will be any worse than solid vs. the power-oriented attack. Where Te'o could be at a disadvantage is down the seams vs. Sims or in mid-range crossing routes behind him.

Te'o has improved greatly as an occasional delayed blitzed and in short zone coverage over the last two seasons. His ability to diagnose opposing screen games has all but eradicated them from the game plan against the Irish.

#5 -- Cornerback: Bennett Jackson (6'0" 185 Jr.)
Jackson's second career start last week included two interceptions and as expected, quality zone coverage performance vs. a host of quick, undersized Boilermakers receivers. Jackson's challenge Saturday evening will be as a tackler, both in run support as the boundary cornerbacks and after the catch against Bennie Fowler on the edge. Notre Dame's defense suffered four major breakdowns after the catch last week vs. Purdue, but Jackson was steady throughout the contest. The Irish staff was high on Jackson throughout the spring and after a sub par outing in man coverage vs. Navy (the Irish rarely play press-man vs. non-option teams), Jackson showed the Notre Dame fan base he could be ready to ascend to playmaker status.

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