Offense: Skill PositionsQuarterback Tommy Rees will make his eighth start (6-1) and is joined in the backfield by Cierre Wood at running back and backup Jonas Gray, who should earn more than the four carries he did last week in Pittsburgh. Gray recorded his first touchdown run – 79-yarder to give the Irish their first lead in Heinz Field.
Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, and T.J. Jones play the vast majority of the reps as receivers but slot receiver Robby Toma secured his first catch of 2011 last week – a 16-yard short cross to begin Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown drive in the final quarter.
Junior tight end Tyler Eifert rarely exits the field; he's joined by freshman Ben Koyack in two-tight end sets and tonight should see more playing time for redshirt-freshman Alex Welch, who played on the game's final – and most important – snap last week: a successful 4th and 1 sneak by QB Tommy Rees.
Offensive LineThe starters (from left to right) remain: Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Trevor Robinson, and Taylor Dever. Versatile 5th-year senior backup Andrew Nuss will again play at least a series if not two at guard. Redshirt-sophomore right tackle Christian Lombard has yet to see scrimmage time with the game in doubt. Its doubtful senior center Mike Golic will rotate in at scrimmage, making Nuss the only regular rotation backup when the game remains tight.
Defensive Line – Base, Nickel/DimeSix have played to date in the base rotation and the Irish have established an intriguing, evolving nickel package that (generally) features a four-man front.
The base defense (3-4) is comprised of senior bookends Ethan Johnson (LDE) and Kapron Lewis-Moore (RDE) with redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix starting each of the last three contests. Senior Sean Cwynar continues to play with a brace on his broken hand and spells Nix often.
Nickel and Dime Packages: In the opening pair of contests, Notre Dame's front four pass rushers in its Nickel (5 defensive back) and Dime (6 DBs) packages included Darius Fleming at LDE, Prince Shembo inside him at LDT, Kapron Lewis-Moore at RDT and outside Lewis-Moore, Steve Filer, on the line in at RDE.
After Aaron Lynch's standout performance in Game Three, Shembo began to rotate to the edges, with Tuitt serving as a third nose guard in the Dime D-Line. Eight players (the six mentioned above plus Ethan Johnson, Steve Filer, and Ishaq Williams) can rotate as Nickel and Dime pass rushers; Williams and Filer on the edges.
Also included in the Dime package in two of four contests was sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth – generally aligned in tandem at linebacker with Manti Te'o. Te'o rarely comes off the field though head coach Brian Kelly mentioned late this week that senior Anthony McDonald must offer his start occasional rest. The staff feels McDonald can help them in coverage.
LinebackersSeven have played to date, and the outside pair of Shembo Fleming enjoyed a strong second half last week in Pittsburgh; Shembo playing to the field (wide) side as the "Drop" and Fleming on the boundary (near sideline) as the "Cat."
Te'o mans the MIKE with classmates Fox and Calabrese splitting time next to him at the WILL. Freshman Troy Niklas should again see time as a backup while freshman Ishaq Williams and senior Steve Filer backup Fleming at the Cat. Sophomore outside ‘backer Danny Spond is expected back for emergency duty at the Drop LB spot. Spond missed the last two games with a hamstring injury suffered in Week Two.
Defensive BackfieldThe team's five veterans have earned the bulk of the snaps through the opening month, with senior Robert Blanton and 5th-year Gary Gray playing the lion's share of snaps on the perimeter with sophomore Lo Wood earning limited rotation time. Wood has battled a quad injury for two weeks and was obviously slowed (on special teams) in Pittsburgh.
5th-year Harrison Smith rarely leaves the field as the team's strong safety; senior Jamoris Slaughter and junior Zeke Motta play nearly equal snaps at free safety and Slaughter serves as the "nickel" cornerback aligned vs. the opposing slot receiver. Slaughter was singled out by Kelly this week for exemplary effort as of late.
Sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth, as noted above, has entered in the Dime package, though not last week vs. the Panthers. His inclusion allows the three safeties (Slaughter, Motta, Smith) to split the deep coverage area by three rather than two, lending downfield help to underneath defenders such as Collinsworth and Te'o, and the corners Gray, and Blanton.
Special TeamsFreshman running back George Atkinson has cemented his role as the main kick returner with Austin Collinsworth his fellow deep man. They're joined by Bennett Jackson, Jonas Gray, Chris Salvi, and Robby Toma (front line); Dan McCarthy, David Posluszny, and Steve Filer in triangle formation on the second line with linebacker Justin Utupo aligned behind them. Freshman tight end Ben Koyack is the last blocker in front of the return tandem deep.
The team's punt return unit remains a weakness. John Goodman is again expected to handle the return man role today with the possible inclusion of junior slot receiver Robby Toma or possibly another chance presented to junior wide receiver Theo Riddick.
Regardless, it's the team's blocking up front that has contributed to the unit's continual struggles. Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Jonas Gray, Austin Collinsworth, Steve Filer, Dan Fox, and Gary Gray are regulars among the evolving group.
Junior Ben Turk remains the punter while David Ruffer will handle field goals and freshman Kyle Brindza serves as the kick-off specialist. Junior Jordan Cowart is both the long and short snapper, and walk-on senior Ryan Kavanagh remains Ruffer's holder.
The trio of punt protectors for Turk are linemen Andrew Nuss, Mike Golic, and Christian Lombard.
Finally, the Irish kick coverage group should again include the following: Austin Collinsworth, Zeke Motta, Bennett Jackson, walk-on Patrick Coughlin, walk-on Chris Salvi, Steve Filer, Kendall Moore, Gary Gray, Troy Niklas, and Dan McCarthy.