Irish DefenseThe Irish defense has allowed just three rushing scores this season – two by quarterbacks and one of those was a fumble recovery. Only Alabama (2) has yielded fewer. Air Force tailback Jonathan Lee is the only non-quarterback to score a rushing TD vs. the Irish since the Irish were shredded by Navy in Week 8 of 2010 (Lee scored with 0:33 remaining in Notre Dame's 59-33 win over the Falcons on October 8).
Left Defensive End #90 Ethan Johnson – Missed the Week Six win over Air Force and subsequent loss to USC with a high ankle sprain, one suffered on the second defensive series in a Week Five win at Purdue. Previously notched four QB hurries in four starts, a number that remains second on the squad. A three-plus year starter, the 6'4" 295-pound senior is expected to return to action this week, though his volume of plays is in question.
Nose Guard #9 Louis Nix – 6'3" 325-pound redshirt freshman lost nearly 50 pounds in the off-season; now he sheds blockers in the middle of the team's improved rush defense. Nix began the year as senior Sean Cwynar's backup on the nose but the former's broken hand and Nix's ascent earned him a starting role over the last six contests. Nix will face his greatest test vs. the veteran, quicker, and technically sound Midshipmen front line this Saturday in South Bend.
Right Defensive End #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore – The team's most consistent defensive lineman through seven games, Lewis-Moore is out for the season with a knee injury suffered last week vs. USC. In four career games vs. triple-option oriented teams, the senior produced 28 tackles including two for loss. He was the only Irish defender to receive mention for his efforts in last year's blowout loss to the Midshipmen.
Massive true freshman Stephon Tuitt (6'7" 295) rotates at nose guard and right defensive end but will likely start in Lewis-Moore's stead going forward. Tuitt posted a career-best 7 tackles (6 assisted) vs. USC last week.
Cat Linebacker #45 Darius Fleming – Senior outside linebacker lines up on the boundary side of the team's defense, playing both defensive end when the front shifts to a 4-3 and outside ‘backer with both short zone coverage and pass-rushing responsibilities. Fleming starred in last year's contest with a team-high seven tackles including a key lost yardage stop on the Trojans' final drive. After a slow start this season, the three-year starter has produced 33 tackles 5th on the team) including five for loss (3rd) with two sacks and five QB hurries (2nd)
Dog Linebacker #55 Prince Shembo – Has started five of the team's seven games, missing the Week Three win over Michigan State for a family emergency and serving in a backup role vs. Air Force's triple-option attack in Week Six (Notre Dame employed three safeties and three linebackers throughout the contest). The sophomore outside linebacker lines up on the field side of the team's defensive formation, contending often with opposing pass targets in the flat and at times down the seam of the Irish defense. Shembo shifts to a defensive end in the team's nickel and dime defenses; he struggled in space last week vs. USC's tight ends and in pursuit of the mobile, but far from fast Trojans QB, Matt Barkley.
Mike Linebacker #5 Manti Te'o – The team's best defensive player and one of the nation's best linebackers, Te'o leads the Irish in tackles (69), tackles-for-loss (8.5), and sacks (4). A Butkus Award semi-finalist, Te'o had a pedestrian outing last week vs. the Trojans, missing several run fits and lunging at clean tackle opportunities.
The 6'2" 255-pound junior played through an ankle sprain vs. Air Force to lead the team with 10 total tackles, his fourth double-digit tackle game of the season and by far his best effort in four contests vs. triple-option based attacks. He struggled mightily in last year's loss to the Naval Academy.
Will Linebacker #48 Dan Fox – Won the August camp battle vs. classmate and 2010 starter Carlo Calabrese for the inside role next to Te'o though Fox and Calabrese have earned a nearly equal split of snaps to date. A former high school safety and 4-3 outside ‘backer early in his Irish career, Fox's strength has always been pass coverage, but head coach Brian Kelly noted the junior strides at the point of attack was the impetus for his expanded role. Fox has posted 28 stops on the season including two for loss with a sack against Michigan QB, Denard Robinson. He had six tackles vs. Air Force's offense in Week Six.
Free Safety #26 Jamoris Slaughter – Technically splits free safety snaps with junior Zeke Motta but Slaughter earns extended action as the team's nickel defender, aligned in the slot – his previous experience as a cornerback proving valuable in the defensive scheme. The senior from Stone Mountain, GA played the best game of his college career in Notre Dame's battle with Air Force, starting at outside linebacker and recording six tackles. He was also responsible for both of the Falcons turnovers: a strip on the visitor's first offensive snap and a remarkable diving interception of a backfield swing pass one quarter later. Kelly awarded the versatile defender the defensive MVP award for his efforts.
The 6'0" 195-pounder also played well vs. USC – one of the few Irish defenders to play a complete game vs. the arch-rival Trojans.
Strong Safety #22 Harrison Smith – The lone team captain and one of the defense's two most important players, Smith is in charge of secondary calls and adjustments, but its his burst on the back line that allows an otherwise pedestrian group (in terms of athleticism) to excel in zone coverage
The Knoxville, TN-native ranks second to Te'o in total tackles (54) and leads the team with eight passes defended. The 5th-year senior is the only player in program history to record more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 pass breakups in his Irish career. He posted a game-high 14 stops in the loss to USC last week.
Cornerback #12 Robert Blanton – One of the team's best players this fall (ranked No. 3 on our mid-season list), Blanton simply picked up where he left off last season, though now in a starting role (Blanton was our #7 overall player (offense/defense/special teams) as the team's nickel back last season. Physical, confident, blessed with an off-the-charts defensive IQ, quick, but by no means fast, the 6'1" 200-pound senior has rarely been beaten on a completion of consequence through seven games this fall.
One of the unit's most versatile players, Blanton ranks third in tackles (43), second in tackles-for-loss (6), is tied for second in passes defended (5) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (2).
Cornerback #4 Gary Gray – A 5th-year senior, Gray broke out last season; earning the #3 spot on the Irisheyes.com Top 10 list for 13 weeks of consistent, sometimes dominant play on the corner. Conversely, his 2011 season has seen intermittent struggles, famously marked by an all-time poor performance in the team's vexing loss at Michigan. A physical tackler that excels in short zone coverage, Gray has the ability to provide key run support vs. Navy's perimeter game.
Gray finished third on the squad in tackles last season and was beaten just once for a score (vs. BC). He's currently tied for fourth this year (38) with two interceptions and five passes defended to his credit. Unlike last year, Gray has been a magnet for pass interference penalties including four in the opponents' end zones over the first four weeks.
Key Reserves: The Irish regularly employ six defensive linemen, two Will linebackers opposite Te'o, and two free safeties opposite Smith in their game day rotation.
Free Safety #17 Zeke Motta – Has started three games at free safety, splitting time with Jamoris Slaughter, regardless of the opponent. Motta suffered a concussion in last week's loss to USC but has been cleared for the week of practice. The junior has had his share of missed tackles in open space this season.
Linebacker #44 Carlo Calabrese – Has 25 stops a sack and two passes defended, the first a fourth-down breakup sealing the victory at Pittsburgh. Throwback linebacker excels at defending the running game, especially between the tackles. Drew the ire of his head coach and the Irish fan base for a needless taunting penalty last week vs. USC, one that eventually resulted in three points and a 17-0 Trojans lead. The the blocking schemes and offenses differ, triple-option principles remain, and Calabrese was far better vs. Air Force this season than he was in the loss to Navy last fall.
Nose Guard #98 Sean Cwynar – Undersized nose guard (6'4" 285) started the final five games of 2010 and the first this year before breaking his hand – an injury he's been battling since the season opener (missed Week Two in Ann Arbor and played sparingly vs. Air Force in Week Six). Cwynar was one of five key subs that helped save the Irish season last fall after a 4-5 start.
Defensive End #19 Aaron Lynch – Leads the team with 10 QB hurries as a true freshman; the 6'6" 265-pounder earned his first career start in place of injured Ethan Johnson in the team's last outing. Was dominant vs. Michigan State in a 31-13 victory, recording a sack, forced fumble, and an obscene six QB hurries in mid-September. Has been flagged four times for post-play personal fouls through seven games.
Defensive End #50 Chase Hounshell – Will serve a key backup role for the third consecutive game, likely seeing a career-high in snaps this week with starter Kapron Lewis-Moore out of the mix and bookend senior Ethan Johnson far from full strength.