Rock at the Mike

Middle linebacker Manti Te'o's leadership and production is the key to what should be a stout, potentially dominant defensive front next fall.

Manti Te'o's position group is not the best of the 2012 Irish units. But the symbiotic relationship between his linebackers and the three or-four-man line directly in front of them serves as the key to the upcoming season.

The Irish don't yet have a proven quarterback. They don't have a known wide receiver that will scare half the defenses on their brutal schedule, they've yet to establish a consistent offensive identity, and the defensive secondary took an experience/playmaking hit with the losses of Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, and 2010 standout, Gary Gray.

But the team has Te'o, poised to be the nation's best linebacker; one that will work in congress with a deep, talented, playmaking and quicker-than-most defensive front.

"I can get always get in better shape; get stronger, faster," said Te'o among his goal for improvement. "But I'm in my best shape yet. I can improve as a leader, as a football player. Every facet to be the best I can be."

It's the off-season mantra of every football player. No one shows up in "worse shape" than last year in pre-season or spring interviews. But Te'o's return, imminent captaincy and playmaking presence at the second level gives the Irish defensive front a chance to be better-than-good next fall.

"It's a blend of some young guys that know the system and then some veterans," head coach Brian Kelly said of the Irish defense. "But by and large, we've got a lot of young guys still playing for us, Aaron Lynch, (Louis) Nix, (Stephon) Tuitt; these are first year starters from last year. (Dan) Fox is a first year starter from last year; Prince Shembo is a first year starter.

"So if you look at our defense, there's a lot of young guys that are still emerging, so that's exciting for us, that you blend that in with some guys that don't have that kind of experience, but look at what they did last year. A lot of those first time starters came in and really impacted positively."

Lynch, Nix, Tuitt, and returning 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore are the integral members of the defensive front. Kelly wants three more to emerge for a healthy seven-man rotation: two-deep at DE, NG, and DE, plus a "swing player" – a reserve for both the edge and interior.

Position coach Mike Elston is aware of the expectations for his young group. He has his own, defined differently than those of program outsiders, fans, and pundits.

"We expect them to be better than they were a year ago," said Elston specifically of the young trio. "Not just on Saturday…practice they need to improve in everything they do. Their attitude, they way they approach every single drill.

"That's my expectation. The expectation from the people outside is they have to get sacks, more tackles; they have to be more disruptive. My expectation is that's going to come with punching the clock every day and raising their level of work."

A Respected Voice

Te'o's return will ensure that daily clock is punched. A likely first-round draft pick, the senior-to-be has had no regrets regarding his decision to come back to the University.

"Moments like these. You can't beat this," said Te'o of spring ball. "Being at Notre Dame, knowing I'm going to graduate, go on the Senior Walk, all the things that I made the right decision for me. I believe that this is why I came here: to graduate, to build relationships and to make my family proud."

Kelly is well-aware that Manti at the Mike solidified the defensive front. Without him, the linebacker unit would have little in terms of proven playmaking skills, with nary a voice to keep the group in check.

"Manti Te'o obviously can control our front seven. They know the system, they know the structure; they know how Coach Diaco is going to call it," said Kelly. "There's a lot of familiarity with our defense that we can go out now and really continue to develop."

That development for Te'o continues. He famously asked Diaco to treat him as "the worst player on the defense." Much was made of the comment, but Te'o's request of his defensive coordinator was obvious: he wanted to be technically sound in his final season.

"He's been great. Correcting all of my little mistakes and making sure I can identify them," said Te'o of Diaco. "When I make a mistake, that I know what I did and where it started from so I don't make as many. Technical adjustments so my game is as perfect as it can be.

"I'll try to maximize my potential so when I leave here I can honestly say I can give it my all."

If Te'o is merely very good, Notre Dame will likely finish again among the nation's also-rans. But should Te'o max out his potential as noted, his career-finishing flourish will likely include a defense that leads the program to its first post-December bowl bid since 2006...the first BCS bowl win still waits. Top Stories