Pivotal Piece

One of four newcomers to the Irish defensive front last fall, Louis Nix's next developmental steps are his most important. Because as Nix learned this past off-season, everyday should be Saturday when he hits the gridiron.

A college football team can win, and win big, if its quarterback is a below average passer or runner. A team can win when none of its running backs qualify as standouts. Teams can win when their wide receivers are pedestrian at best, or when their tight end is primarily a blocker.

They can win with or without fullbacks, a reliable kicker, and even if the coach is far better at assembling talent than molding it.

But as ex-Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz mused, "If you can't stop the run at Notre Dame, you're whistling in the dark."

Over the last two years, Notre Dame -- with a costly hiccup or two --- has again learned to stop the run. Below average rushing teams go nowhere vs. the Irish. Average rushing teams are generally stymied. Teams that run well vs. other foes have been halted in their tracks. And against teams that dominate with the run, a mixed bag of results has been scattered throughout the two-year Brian Kelly era.

And that latter grouping is where the man-child they call "Big Lou" enters the equation.

Yes, that's where Notre Dame's "backup" nose guard rises to the fore of any relevant pre-season prediction Irish fans can fathom.

Louis Nix represents the heart of the Irish defensive line, the most important group that will play in the House that Rockne Built on Saturdays this fall.

Everybody Loves Lou

Requested weekly for his affable nature (and playing status), Nix is a favorite of the local media. He's a fan favorite for his regular social media interaction, and he's a team/staff favorite for his personality within the program's walls.

And on football Saturday's, Nix's effort and enthusiasm is on par with anyone wearing blue and gold. But there's more to college football than fall Saturdays.

"We're challenging our players to be consistent. We want that from them every day," said head coach Brian Kelly of the team's spring competitions. "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. We want to demand that from everyone."

Nix's weekly off-season routine resulted in an unforeseen depth chart development: junior Kona Schwenke, he of the 33 snaps in 2010 and mere 22 as he grew into a new, bigger body last fall, earned a spot with the first unit defensive line.

"We push each other. No matter who's starting, we're both going to do good," said Nix of the competition. "I think its positive, keep everybody fresh. You try to go 100 percent every play, but we're not made that way. If we were, everybody would be playing football."

Its a potential boon to the team's continuous efforts to improve up front vs. quality competition: A pair of healthy, ready, and reliable and ever-fresh nose guards can work wonders for a front seven's performance in both the heat of September and as injuries and attrition inevitably occur through November.

Nix is pivotal to that plan. Engaging an occupying blockers to allow All-America middle linebacker Manti Te'o free reign…winning the A gap battle on 3rd and 4th and short…using his rare quick first steps to harass quarterbacks moving in the pocket.

Saturdays, and maybe every day, next fall.

The Nix Files

In his first season as a contributor, Nix started 11 of 13 games and finished with 45 tackles (33 solo) including 4.5 for loss with a half-sack and a pass breakup.

Top efforts of Nix's first season include:

1.) South Florida: In his first collegiate action, Nix came off the bench to help Bob Diaco's defense hold the run-first Bulls to 3.0 yards per carry and an 0-4 effort on third-down conversion runs when USF needed just two yards or fewer. Nix finished with six tackles in his debut game including one for loss, two others for no gain, and a fourth for just two yards on 3rd and 10.

2.) Navy: Recorded six tackles with four of the stops limiting Midshipmen runners to two yards or fewer including one 4th-and-1 stop of no gain vs. Irish killer Alexander Teich. Nix also recorded his first career sack on the game's opening drive, sharing the takedown with Manti Te'o.

3.) Finishing Flourish: Nix recorded a tackle-for-loss in each of the team's final three games including a season-high 1.5 vs. the Cardinal in Palo Alto. 26 of his 45 stops on the season occurred over the final six games as did 3.5 of his 4.5 tackles-for-loss. Nix's 2nd and 7 tackle-for-loss vs. Florida State helped provide the Irish offense with quality field position for a potential game-winning drive late (one that ended with an end zone interception by the Seminoles).

Defensive Line Coach Mike Elston on his young group: "The expectation by people outside is they've got to get more sacks, they've got to get more tackles, they've got to be more disruptive. My expectation is that that's going to come with punching the clock every day and raising their level of work when they come here."

Final Thoughts/Observations

Of the team's myriad job shares and open position competitions, the least troublesome is nose guard, where Nix and Schwenke will serve as a 1-2 punch rather than scuffle as a pair in which neither can consistently hold down a starting role. Nix's presence in the middle, coupled with the development of Schwenke and Stephon Tuitt as both DE and nose guards, not to mention three-technique defensive tackles in the team's oft-used 4-3 alignment, will play a crucial role in middle linebacker Manti Te'o's season. Te'o will record somewhere between 100-130 tackles in 2012 -- but its the location of said stops that decides whether the Irish will remain a Top 25 defense as they've been over the last two seasons, or ascend to one of the nation's best.

Nix is extremely quick for a player his size in short bursts and can give chase for a solid 10-12 yards down the line of scrimmage as well as most 300+ pounders in the college game. He's only scratched the surface as a player and with at least four, possible five/six player his equal on the 2012 Irish defense, its not implausible that Nix could become a true difference-maker at times this fall. He's the key cog in the team's 1st and 2nd down defense as well as every short-yardage situation.

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