5 To Watch: Irish Defense

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley stops by to offer Wolverines fans five players to keep an eye on when Notre Dame attempts to stop Devin Gardner and the Michigan offense Saturday night. Irish defensive linemen stout but inside 'backers a question mark entering Week Two...

Senior Nose Guard #1 Louis Nix: Was Notre Dame MVP #1B last season to Manti Te'o, but Nix's first day on the job in 2013 was below his expected level of play. Double-teamed often, Nix was nonetheless controlled by Temple true sophomore center Kyle Friend at times during the contest. If he's to fulfill head coach Brian Kelly's assertion that he's "the best nose guard in America" it will have to begin Saturday night in the Big House.

Only Alabama neutralized Nix last season for the majority of the contest -- Michigan will likely try to do so by offering aid to center Jack Miller with help from guards Kyle Kalis and Graham Glasgow throughout the evening. Can Notre Dame's inside 'backers make them pay for consistent double-team dedication after an unimpressive opening effort last week vs. the Owls?

Senior OLB #55 Prince Shembo: Shembo lines up opposite 2012 breakout star Stephon Tuitt -- Tuitt aligned to the field, covered by drop linebacker Jaylon Smith -- while Shembo is to the near side (boundary) over defensive end Sheldon Day. In other words, unless the Irish scheme to put Tuitt opposite Wolverines standout LT Taylor Lewan, it'll just as likely be Shembo tussling with the future first-round pick on the edge. (I asked Shembo last December who the best tackle he faced last year was and he noted immediately, "Michigan's. For sure.")

He'll get it, especially in nickel and dime sets in which Shembo puts his hand on the ground as one of two defensive ends with Tuitt shifting inside next to Nix -- 675 pounds of power on the interior. Shembo will hold his own rushing the passer vs. Lewan or anyone else, but the Michigan captain has the advantage in the running game. It'll be interesting to see if Tuitt becomes a "right defensive end" rather than his normal spot to the field side to contend with Lewan in the base defense.

5th-year Senior ILB #44 Carlo Calabrese: Rotated regularly with classmate Dan Fox at the Will (boundary) linebacker position over the last two seasons, now he's part of a three-man rotation in which Fox plays both Will and Mike (field side), junior Jarrett Grace rotates at the Mike, and Calabrese rotates at the Will.

And its Calabrese in coverage that has Irish fans concerned heading into Week Two. When the Wolverines employ power sets and run a fullback as the lead blocker, Calabrese is in his element. But when Michigan crosses a runner from the backfield or sends top-tier tight end Devin Funchess down the seam, the 250-pound thumper Calabrese is at a decided disadvantage.

Many feel Fox and Grace will receive more time this week than Calabrese. I'm not sure I agree, though I do think defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has to be diligent in replacing Calabrese more often when Michigan is ahead of the chains. He comes off the field in nickel sets, but it's near the goal line -- 1st and G from the 8, 9, or 10 -- that teams have targeted Calabrese with past success.

Freshman Nickel #36 Cole Luke: Next September, when this column is exchanged again with GoBlueWolverine, true freshman cornerback Cole Luke might rank as one of five to watch for a different reason. All reports from the Irish staff are that Luke is not only blessed with great feet and natural cornerback skills, but that he understands the game far better than most rookies at the college level.

But covering slot receivers -- especially a cagey senior such as Drew Dileo, or 5th-year star like Jeremy Gallon -- on 3rd down over the course of a contest is a tall task for any young corner. It's not that Luke can be repeatedly picked on -- Diaco will give him help if and when its necessary -- but his matchup inside will no doubt prove crucial when the Wolverines approach the Irish 15-yard line, and one shake by Dileo, Gallon, etc. can mean the difference between six points and second down and 10.

Sophomore Safety #22 Elijah Shumate: Elijah Shumate will hit you. He'll tackle you in space, he'll lay you out on the sidelines as a zone safety, and he'll ensure that more than a few opponents will need chiropractic care next January. But the neophyte cover man was torched last week against Temple. A 26-yard skinny post in which he looked slow (he's not). A 20-yard seam in which he was late coming to help. A pass interference in the end zone on a ball that would have resulted in a post-route score when pitted one-on-one with the tight end.

Shumate might see less time this week because of his play vs. Temple (he's technically Austin Collinsworth's backup, playing 25 snaps to Collinsworth's 38 vs. the Owls). If Michigan wants to line up and run the ball, Shumate will oblige and hit, and has a chance to be the hero.

But faced with one-on-one situations vs. Funchess or the #2 receiver inside -- it's advantage Wolverines until proven otherwise.

Collinsworth was used on a handful of safety blitzes last week -- it'll be interesting to see if the 6'1" 213-pound Shumate is placed closer to scrimmage as such vs. Gardner and the Michigan backfield.

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