Breaking Down The Irish Defensive Personnel

Special to GoBlueWolverine: IrishEyes' Tim O'Malley breaks down each member of the Irish starting defensive unit.

Notre Dame Defensive Personnel

Ripped early by Michigan and Michigan State, then in Week Eight at Navy, the 2010 Irish defense rebounded to allow just two touchdowns over a 19-quarter span from Game Nine through the first 50 minutes of a bowl blowout over Miami.

That continued Saturday as defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit – consistently faced with short-change situations and in minus territory, responded to hold South Florida to one offensive touchdown and three field goals in a 23-20 defeat.

The Irish held USF to 254 total yards on 72 snaps Saturday.

LDE: Ethan Johnson – Tied with classmate Darius Fleming on the current roster in career sacks and tackles-for-loss. Johnson was the team's top defensive linemen in the opening defeat though a late-game personal foul penalty when the Irish needed the ball to complete a comeback sullied his performance.

RDE: Kapron Lewis-Moore – While Johnson is the more consistent run defender, Lewis-Moore's knack for knifing into the backfield is key in short-yardage situations. The senior totaled eight tackles in the opener, 1.5 for lost yardage and four of his stops limited the Bulls to gains of three yards or fewer.

NG: Sean Cwynar – Quietly helped save the Irish season last fall, stepping in for injured nose guard Ian Williams over the final four regular season games. Saw more snaps than did his understudy, redshirt-freshman Louis Nix, in the opener though those numbers should draw closer to a 60-40 split as the season progresses. Undersized as a nose guard at 285 pounds, Cwynar is nonetheless the team's best short-yardage defender, employing great leverage and the old football adage: "low man wins."

If there's such a thing as an underrated Notre Dame player in the eyes of the team's fans, it's Sean Cwynar.

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…He struggled a bit in the opening half vs. the Bulls, biting inside twice for gains to his outside shoulder but fared much better in the second half. Shembo lined up at defensive tackle in the team's Dime Defense, forcing a sack of QB B.J. Daniels.

OLB (CAT): Darius Fleming – Referred to by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco as a potential national breakout player at his position, Fleming was merely solid Saturday – this after a rough opening quarter. A top-notch pass-rusher and scrimmage player who will also be counted upon to cover the boundary side of the field vs. pass-heavy units, Fleming played his worst game last season vs. the Wolverines, though that was just his second start at a new position in a new defense. The senior made two huge athletic plays in Saturday's loss to South Florida, both negating what appeared to be sure gains on screen passes.

ILB (MIKE): Manti Te'o – Along with senior wide receiver Michael Floyd, ranks as the team's best player, pro prospect, and most explosive weapon…Excels vs. opposing screen games and in every aspect vs. the run though he can be beaten in one-on-one situations by talented ‘backs and tight ends…Te'o was solid in Saturday's loss, leading the team in tackles and recording the defense's only sack. Now a junior, Te'o did not play well vs. Michigan last season but broke out as a Butkus candidate thereafter, dominating at times vs. Michigan State and Stanford the following weeks (a combined 32 tackles including three for loss).

ILB (WILL): Dan Fox – Won the job over incumbent Carlo Calabrese with an excellent August camp, though Diaco notes the position will be a job share and that was the case in Saturday's defeat. The former high school safety and 2009 outside ‘backer for the Irish is comfortable in pass protection but had to work on becoming a more physical player at his new inside position…Calabrese's skill set is the polar opposite: a thumper whose weakness was his coverage ability last season. Calabrese was beaten for a 1st and G TD – USF's only score, though asking the run-stuffing linebacker to cover a former split end one-on-one might be on the staff more than the junior competitor.

FS: Jamoris Slaughter – Was hobbled for most of 2010 after injuring his ankle in the opener vs. Purdue and could not contribute vs. Michigan last September. Now a senior, Slaughter also serves as the team's slot cornerback in the nickel defense, adding speed and a penchant for the big hit despite sub-200 pound frame. Slaughter was quiet in the opener with just two stops though the Bulls managed just 128 passing yards on the evening.

SS: Harrison Smith – Team captain and its breakout player of 2010…Smith did not intercept a pass in his first 29 games (2008-Week Five 2010) but has since thieved seven over his last eight outings…The only player in Notre Dame history to record more than 200 tackles with 15 pass breakups and 15 tackles-for-loss, though the latter came courtesy time served at outside linebacker under the previous staff (a terrible fit for the natural born safety)…Smith committed back-to-back personal foul face mask penalties Saturday, then contributed two tackles to a three-play goal line stand – a microcosm of his team's maddening defeat.

Boundary CB: Gary Gray – Ranked as Irisheyes.com's No. 3 overall player last fall. Played exceptionally well vs. the Wolverines in defeat (graduated cornerback Darrin Walls struggled on the field side in the loss) and is an extremely aggressive run defender that excels in zone coverage…Allowed one touchdown pass last season in 13 starts but struggled Saturday, committing a personal foul penalty and pass interference in the end zone – on the same drive – to contribute to the Bulls only touchdown.

Field CB: Robert Blanton – Has started intermittently since his true freshman season of 2009 and is considered an upgrade over departed senior Darrin Walls at the field cornerback spot…Finished third among all Irish defenders in statistical "big plays" last season (sacks, tackles-for-loss, passes defender, interceptions, touchdowns, fumbles forced and caused)…Has had two interceptions in each of his three collegiate seasons, scoring two touchdowns over that span…A solid tackler and top-notch zone defender but not the fleetest cornerback the Wolverines will face this fall.

Blanton allowed just one reception Saturday and offered the defensive play of the day, sniffing out a wide receiver screen for a crushing three-yard loss.

Key Reserves: DE Aaron Lynch; DE Stephon Tuitt; LB Carlo Calabrese; S Zeke Motta; LB Steve Filer; NG Louis Nix, CB Lo Wood.

Motta will play nearly half of the game's snaps while Nix will see ample playing time as well. Calabrese fared well (better than most of the Irish) in last season's loss to Michigan as a starting inside ‘backer but Fox is expected to receive his second career start next to Te'o.


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