Second-year Stars?

Two more defensive linemen grace our countdown of Indispensable Irish players, further illustrating the belief that Notre Dame's defensive line depth is still more theoretical than proven, especially after the defection of one starter this spring.

To catch up with the series to date, click the links below:

Introduction and those that just missed the cut…

#10 Bennett Jackson

#9 Kapron Lewis-Moore

#8 Nose Guard Louis Nix

"Everybody loves Big Lou."

That's how Irish head coach Brian Kelly concluded a statement regarding his affable, mobile, occasionally hostile, and sometimes touch-too-garrulous 340-pound nose guard.

Louis Nix "lost" his starting spot to junior Kona Schwenke early in spring ball and Schwenke retained the mythical No. 1 role exiting the spring, ranking as the team's most improved defensive player per the coaching staff.

But Nix knows about competition, last year wresting the starting job from senior Sean Cwynar though when the latter was in good health, both enjoyed ample playing time in a necessary nose guard rotation.

Irish fans will see a similar 1-2 punch with Nix/Schwenke next fall as well. And the listing order was chosen for emphasis: Louis Nix will be the team's lead nose guard next fall, because games are played on Saturdays, and the Irish run defense is far better with him as the pivot on a three or four man front.

And Brian Kelly knows it: "We're challenging our players to be consistent. We want that from them every day. I think we all know Lou on Saturday is a great player. I love Lou and I love the way he competes on Saturday. We want him to compete every single day."

Translation – Nix is our best, we need him to act like it Sunday through Saturday, not just on game day.

Nix was good for a redshirt-freshman player last fall. He'll likely be good, with no qualifier necessary, this season. But to be more than good, to even be able to see greatness in the distance, the junior needs to make the most of the summer session and August camp to leave no doubt who's the top dog at the position.

Schwenke will be an invaluable swing player for Mike Elston's defensive line: a backup nose guard and defensive end that can start at either position in a pinch. But if the Irish are to continue to improve against the run, and if they're to start to stop real rushing attacks from winning when it counts, Nix is the main cog.

In fact, he's indispensable.

#7 Defensive End Stephon Tuitt

Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson is the only player among our 10 that has yet to start a game, but the imposing Tuitt is doubtless the least experienced of Irisheyes.com's 10 Indispensable Irish for 2012.

A true freshman last fall, Tuitt earned his first three career starts following a season-ending injury to starting LDE Kapron Lewis-Moore (#9 on the list and linked above), earning the nod vs. Navy, Wake Forest, and Maryland and starring against the Demon Deacons with two tackles for loss and his first career sack.

But Tuitt, who earned third-team freshman All-America mention from Phil Steele last fall, missed the final two contests of the regular season while battling mono (he returned to record a sack vs. FSU in the Champs Sports Bowl defeat), and since has seen the Yin to his Yang, and the left side of the bookend duo, Aaron Lynch, exit the program. Tuitt is no longer one of two future stars on the edge for the Irish, he's the man. The most important player on the front seven not named Manti Te'o, and the most likely future star and only potentially unstoppable performer along the defensive front…but he has a long way to go.

Casual Irish fans reading this could scoff at Tuitt's inclusion, but had the 6'6" 295-pound thoroughbred not missed games last season for various reasons (coach's decision - Michigan; suspension - Purdue; and illness - BC and Stanford) last fall, he'd be nearly the household name in South Bend as was his more decorated classmate Lynch.

Lynch was the most dynamic pass-rusher at the program since Justin Tuck (2002-04), but Tuitt can be the best overall defensive lineman since the two-time Super Bowl champion Tuck left campus. He'll start at right defensive end; shift inside as a 4-3 defensive tackle; backup both Nix and Schwenke at guard; flip-flop with Lewis-Moore to play the left side, and if the staff has its druthers, rarely leave the field.

Tuitt's not only one of the team's 10 indispensable, but likely the player with the largest variance in potential production. That is, he could push for All-American honors if all goes according to play, or stagnate in the land of the "pretty good" as have defensive end predecessors Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, and before them Victor Abiamiri in their respective second seasons on the field.

Tuitt could be a legitimately great defensive lineman for Notre Dame; it would be of huge benefit if that status is broached sooner rather than later.


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