John Crist: Florida State has arguably the best three-man rotation at defensive end in all of college football with juniors Brandon Jenkins and Cornellius Carradine and sophomore Bjoern Werner, as they have combined for 17.5 sacks.
Jenkins is the classic speed rusher off the edge lining up on the right side, and even though it appears he'll return to Tallahassee in 2012 for his senior season, there are some talent evaluators that believe he could be a first-round pick in this April's draft if a 3-4 team is looking for an outside linebacker. Carradine and Werner alternate on the left side, and both of them unquestionably have NFL talent, too.
Nevertheless, Notre Dame fans may be surprised to discover that Jenkins, Carradine and Werner do a lot more than tear after the enemy passer, as all three of them are also excellent run defenders. Jenkins led the Seminoles with 11 tackles for loss and Werner was right behind him with 10 of his own, while Carradine, who isn't even a starter technically, registered seven himself. This triumvirate is a big reason why the Seminoles finished the regular season No. 2 in the country in rushing defense at 82.8 yards allowed per game, plus their average of 2.3 yards allowed per rush -- even Alabama's vaunted unit gave up 2.5 -- led the nation.
FSU starts solid linebackers at all three positions, but there isn't a future first rounder like Marvin Jones or Derrick Brooks chasing down opposing ball carriers from sideline to sideline. The front four deserves most of the credit for the rushing defense's terrific performance, due in large part to Jenkins, Carradine and Werner being disciplined, hard-working, team-first players.
Since the Irish are only 51st among FBS schools in rushing offense, it could be tough sledding on the ground against the 'Noles in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Tim O'Malley: Junior linebacker and Butkus finalist Manti Te'o is Notre Dame's best run stopper. The team's improved defensive front is its most important run-stuffing unit. But senior cornerback Robert Blanton -- the inaugural winner of the program's Back of the Year Award (QB, RB, or DB) -- is also its X-factor vs. the run.
Technically, the field-side cornerback -- Notre Dame's cornerbacks align to the boundary or field sides -- Blanton nonetheless finished second on the team in tackles for loss (eight) behind Te'o and third on the team in total tackles (69). He excels in Notre Dame's preferred zone-coverage schemes, and his rugged approach and frame (6-1, 200 pounds) has made him a willing and sure tackler vs. perimeter rushes.
An offense generally runs misdirection plays to the field side. Nearly all were shut down vs. the Irish this season because Blanton doesn't miss an assignment, keeps his feet vs. quicker players and respects the "low man wins" adage of football when taking on a bigger player entering his area. Sprint options, read options, triple options, toss power plays, reverses, QB scrambles -- he's there to combat them all as one of five sure tacklers in space on the Irish defense: Blanton, Te'o, Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter and Gary Gray.
Blanton isn't fast -- he might be slow for his position -- but he's quick, aggressive, extremely strong and reads plays faster than most. If Florida State is able to run the football Dec. 29, it won't be at Blanton's expense.
JC: The aforementioned Florida State linebackers have a tall order in Orlando, as Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert is a monster presence in the middle of the field and continually keeps the chains moving.
The Seminoles start senior Nigel Bradham on the weak side, junior Vince Williams in the middle and sophomore Christian Jones over on the strong side. Sophomore Telvin Smith is the only reserve that sees considerable action, as he rotates liberally with Williams at the Mike spot.
FSU has faced a few top tight ends this year, highlighted by Clemson All-American Dwayne Allen. Projected to be the best player available at his position in the 2012 draft should he come out after his junior campaign, Allen caught four passes for 67 yards and a 12-yard touchdown in the Tigers' 35-30 win over the 'Noles on Sept. 24. Florida State did much better Oct. 29 against NC State's George Bryan, who is an All-ACC selection himself and also has a future career in the NFL, limiting him to three receptions for 17 yards in a 34-0 shutout of the Wolfpack.
Bradham and Jones are athletic enough to run with Eifert, although that certainly does not mean they're going to be able to shut him down. The key will be whether or not Williams or Smith is on the field, because while Smith is physically more like a safety and moves quite well, Williams can be a little stiff in the hips and would be no match for Eifert in either man-to-man or zone coverage.
The Seminoles obviously want to take away receiver Michael Floyd because he's the headliner in the Irish passing game, but the possibility is there for Eifert to nickel and dime them to death.
TO: Three positions will serve an instrumental role in Notre Dame's defense of the Florida State passing attack: boundary safety, outside (drop) linebacker and nickel back.
Slaughter occupies all of them.
A safety by trade -- seven starts at that position next to Smith -- Slaughter proved to be the team's most versatile defensive back, starting twice and playing the bulk of two other games at outside linebacker, a position Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco refers to as his "dog" or "drop" linebacker, one that plays to the field side of the hash marks.
From there he contended with two triple-option teams (Air Force and Navy), the multiple-receiver offense of Wake Forest and the multiple-tight end sets employed by Stanford in the finale.
He played a slot corner role (nickel back) vs. USC in an attempt to combat the Trojans' speed and was one of four Notre Dame defenders that showed well in defeat. Had he been tried in the role in a Week 2 loss at Michigan (35-31), Notre Dame would likely be 9-3 rather than 8-4 and still smarting from a season-ending loss to Stanford that knocked them out of a BCS bowl.
Slaughter is the team's second-best overall athlete on its back seven, likely its second-best man-to-man defender and its hardest hitter at just 198 pounds. He'll be asked to cover Seminoles' slots, tight ends, backs and perimeter receivers alike. He'll come off-tackle on the occasional blitz, as well.
It's hard to excel and be an underrated or under-the-radar football player at Notre Dame in the modern era. Slaughter managed to do that in 2011.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher and managing editor of IrishEyes.com.