Projected StartersWith the exception of sophomore Prince Shembo, each of the 11 has multiple starts under his belt; eight among the group have logged at least 13 starts in their college careers.
- Defensive End: Ethan Johnson – Team leader in games started (28) and sits tied with captain Harrison Smith in games played (38)…Johnson ranks as the squad's active sack-master (12.5) while listing second among all defenders in career tackles-for-loss (17.5).
- Defensive End: Kapron Lewis-Moore – His 108 total tackles over the last two seasons are the most over a two-year span among any defensive lineman since he enrolled in 2008….Has started 22 of the last 25 games after sitting out the 2008 season as a true freshman.
- Nose Guard: Sean Cwynar – Status still in question as he recovers from off-season foot surgery…Was the instrumental anchor of a run defense that yielded just two offensive touchdowns during the final four regular season games.
- Cat Linebacker: Darius Fleming – Has compiled 23 tackles-for-loss over the last two seasons, the highest two-year total at the program since Victor Abiamiri in 2005-06 (30)…Fleming has started 23 of 37 career games and ranks second on the roster with 11.5 sacks.
- Dog Linebacker: Prince Shembo – Changed positions in spring 2011 after starring as a nickel pass-rusher last fall…Sophomore compiled 5 tackles-for-loss as a true freshman including a pair of sacks in a 31-13 win over Boston College.
- Mike Linebacker: Manti Te'o – Ranks among the nation's best defenders entering his third season…133 tackles last fall was the most since Tony Furjanic tallied 147 in 1985…9.5 tackles-for-loss ranked second on the squad.
- Will Linebacker: Carlo Calabrese – Finished fifth on the team in tackles despite missing the better part of five games due to injury…Was withheld from action as a true freshman in 2009 then posted a pair of two-game stretches last season with at least 18 total tackles.
- Strong Safety: Harrison Smith – Enters August camp as the lone team captain following an eight game run in which he picked off seven passes (including the first of his career), compiled 61 tackles, and broke up five passes…Ranks as the only player in program history with more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 passes defended.
- Free Safety: Jamoris Slaughter – Earned starting nod at outset of 2010 but missed intermittent time through Game Nine (Tulsa) while battling a high ankle sprain/heel injury suffered in the opener…Won a starting job in Week 11 game vs. Army and was instrumental figure in wins over USC and Miami to conclude the season…Appeared to exit spring ball behind junior Zeke Motta in the battle for a starting role but Slaughter ranks as Irisheyes.com's projected free safety starter again this season.
- Boundary Cornerback: Gary Gray – Finished third on the squad in tackles (66), the highest total for a cornerback since Ambrose Wooden in 2005…Has started 20 consecutive games including his first career starting nod in 2009 vs. USC, a game in which he recorded a crucial 4th Quarter interception…Named Irisheyes.com player of the game twice last season (Purdue and Western Michigan).
- Field Cornerback: Robert Blanton – Finished behind Darius Fleming and Harrison Smith to rank third on the defense in "Big Plays" (Interceptions, passes defended, sacks, tackles-for-loss, forced and recovered fumbles, touchdowns)…Started just one game last fall (Army, at outside linebacker) but was the key figure in Notre Dame's nickel defense, regularly covering dangerous slot receivers from Week Four through season's end.
Top Rotation PlayersAt least 18 players (by our estimation) could be considered regular contributors to Bob Diaco's defense in 2010. 14 return, and a minimum of four newcomers will join the fray.
- Free Safety: Zeke Motta – Kept the defense afloat when he was thrown to the starting fray in Week Two last season…Look for Motta to shine as the nickel linebacker (referred to as, the "Buck") this season as well.
- Defensive End: Aaron Lynch – January enrollee spent more time on the offense's side of scrimmage than his own in the annual Blue Gold Game last April.
- Defensive End: Kona Schwenke – Earned 33 late-season snaps and showed well as a freshman pass-rusher in 28-3 upset of Utah on Senior Day. Schwenke has gained nearly 60 pounds (listed at 285 in the spring) over the last 18 months.
- Nose Guard: Hafis Williams – 244 snaps ranked fifth among defensive linemen last fall. Is expected to serve as a true nose guard this fall rather than rotating at both nose and defensive end as he did in 2010.
- Nose Guard: Louis Nix – Massive redshirt-freshman should shine in limited action anchoring the middle this fall.
- Dog Linebacker: Danny Spond – Appeared comfortable defending short zones and the flat in the spring game. Spond was one of nine true freshmen to earn a monogram last season.
- Cornerback: Lo Wood – Earned monogram for special teams efforts (coverage units) but enters camp in the crucial role of No. 3 cornerback. Wood is the oft-overlooked key to the 2011 pass defense.
Five that could surprise: Each is slated for backup duty; each could be Brian Kelly's crucial, Next Man In, this fall.
- Will Linebacker: Dan Fox – Versatile linebacker is a jack-of-all-trades, but the junior must master at least one to earn true rotation time.
- Defensive End: Stephon Tuitt – Physically imposing freshman should challenge sophomore Kona Schwenke for September snaps.
- Cat Linebacker: Steve Filer – Senior special teams stalwart has led the coverage units in tackles in successive seasons but 2011 is his final shot to make a consistent impact from scrimmage. Filer could surprise as a rotation pass-rusher in his final go-round.
- Cat Linebacker: Ishaq Williams – January enrollee is likely one year away from consistent playing time, but as with Shembo last fall, Williams' athleticism affords him an early shot.
- Strong Safety: Dan McCarthy – The senior has two seasons of eligibility remaining but must make an impact in 2011 to return for 2012. I have a hunch McCarthy will fight his way to the top of the depth chart at some point this season.
Depth Chart CompetitorsMore than one will play beyond fan/media expectations in 2011.
- Inside (Will) Linebacker: Kendall Moore – Will press junior Dan Fox for backup duty inside. Moore was the 2010 Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year as a true freshman.
- Cornerback: Bennett Jackson – The 2010 Special Teams Player of the Year moved from wide receiver to cornerback last spring.
- Safety: Austin Collinsworth – Also made the switch from wide receiver; the second-year player will compete for a backup safety role and return as a key member of the coverage units. One of seven returning Irish players to force a fumble last season – his led to a touchdown on the following snap vs. Utah.
- Linebacker: Anthony McDonald – Earned 70 snaps last season after fighting for a starting role through mid-August (McDonald suffered a hyper extended knee late in 2010 camp). Must return to form after tearing a pectoral muscle last March.
- Linebacker: David Posluszny – Played sparingly from scrimmage over the course of his career due to injury but should fight for a special teams role and backup linebacker spot in 2011.
- Nose Guard: Tyler Stockton – Junior missed most of spring ball with a sprained PCL in his right knee. Stockton played in six games last season (recorded a sack vs. Boston College) but missed November with a shoulder injury that required off-season surgery.
- Linebacker: Justin Utupo – Converted defensive linemen still learning the position and will need a strong sophomore season on the Scout team to contend for a scrimmage role next spring.
- Nose Guard: Brandon Newman – Senior did not appear from scrimmage last fall.
First-year additions: Nine additional freshmen will join the fray this August:
- Eilar Hardy: Slated to begin his career at Safety where he'll compete with five scholarship players in camp.
- Josh Atkinson: Expected to debut at cornerback
- Jalen Brown: Like Atkinson, should start his career as a third-string cornerback behind two proven starters and a pair of untested sophomore backups.
- Ben Councell: Should debut as a Dog linebacker competitor
- Jarrett Grace: Lone inside linebacker recruit joins a crowded, though unproven sextet of veteran backups.
- Anthony Rabasa: Recruited as a Cat linebacker but could also serve a role inside this fall and in the future.
- Tony Springmann: Defensive end is likely to redshirt as a true freshman behind a loaded defensive end group. Could move to defensive tackle as early as next spring, though the Irish could lose both starting defensive ends at season's end.
- Chase Hounshell: In the same boat as Springmann and could serve a valuable Scout team role on both sides of scrimmage this fall.
- Troy Niklas: Intriguing DL/OL/TE prospect will find a home in August. To coin a phrase of former head coach Charlie Weis, Niklas likely ranks with freshman tight end Ben Koyack as this year's "luxury items" as a true frosh.
Top 6 Returning Players from 2010Based solely on 2010 performance…
- Manti Te'o: Finished behind Michael Floyd as Team MVP
- Gary Gray: #3 overall player on Irisheyes.com's Top 10 list last winter. Was snubbed by lengthy pre-season watch lists but ranks among the best returning (proven) cornerbacks at the school since Vontez Duff in 2003.
- Harrison Smith: From 2009 benching to 2010 late-season hero to 2011 team captain…
- Robert Blanton: Finished #7 on our post-season Top Players list last fall. Blanton is a consistent playmaker and run stopper on the perimeter
- Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson: Take your pick between Lewis-Moore and his bookend classmate, Johnson. We ranked them #8 and #9, respectively, for 2010.
Top 6 Projected Players for 2011: Veterans rule the roost for Diaco's D:
- Manti Te'o: The most important, and best player, on what should be a top-tier collegiate defense.
- Darius Fleming: Expect the outside linebacker and three-year competitor to make the leap from good to outstanding this fall.
- Harrison Smith: The best athlete among upperclassmen could challenge for national honors if he picks up where he left off in 2010.
- Ethan Johnson: Set to dominate vs. the run this fall; Johnson is also an underrated if not spectacular pass-rusher.
- Gary Gray: Rugged cornerback is the best vs. the perimeter run since Shane Walton in 2002.
- Robert Blanton: Possesses every necessary cornerback skill set with the exception of deep speed. Blanton and Gray both excel in zone coverage.
Defensive Coaching StaffNotre Dame's Defensive staff returns intact for the first time since the 2005-2006 seasons.
- Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach: Bob Diaco – His unit allowed a lone touchdown over an 18-quarter span from a late-October loss to Tulsa through the 3rd Quarter of the Sun Bowl victory over Miami last December.
- Defensive Line Coach/Special Teams Coach: Mike Elston – Defensive line has emerged from program weakness in 2008 to team strength this fall.
- Safeties Coach/Recruiting Coordinator: Chuck Martin – His defensive backs ranked as the team's most improved unit from 2009 to 2010.
- Cornerbacks Coach: Kerry Cooks – Coached the Cat and Dog linebackers last year but his expertise in the secondary (Cooks was an NFL Safety and Big 10 stalwart) will serve a pair of developing corners well. His starting tandem ranks among the nation's toughest, if not fleetest afoot, this fall.