Strong up the Middle

Notre Dame's interior rush defense ranks as a definitive team strength heading into August camp.

In lieu of garden-variety rankings of each position group or unit, introduces "The Guts" -- an inside look at 10 aspects paramount to every team's success. Over the next 10 days we'll examine and rank the following (not listed in order):

  • Interior Rush defense
  • Standard defense/Short Pass D
  • Downfield Pass defense
  • 3rd Down defense
  • The Rushing Attack
  • Short Yardage Offense
  • The Passing Attack
  • Red Zone Offense
  • Special Teams
  • Field Goal Unit

(If your first question is, "What about turnovers?" they'll be covered within each aspect examined above. )

For details on each category, read our introduction column, here.

Interior Rush Defense - Key Players

One of college football's players, Manti Te'o, serves as the strength of team's rush defense, but its the efforts of four, possibly five players in front of him that can transform the unit from team strength to top tier nationally this fall. The nose guard tandem of Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke, coupled with defensive ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt are charged with keeping blockers off of inside 'backers Te'o, Dan Fox, and Carlo Calabrese.

Te'o is the program's best run stuffer of the decade (Courtney Watson 2002, Mike Goolsby 2002, 2004, and Corey Mays, 2005 come to mind as well), while Calabrese's unquestioned strength is his ability to mix it up vs. pulling guards and power games inside. More versatile than Calabrese in coverage, Fox also recorded 22 of his 48 stops defending the opposition's between the tackle running plays.

That seven-player combination will do the heavy lifting this season, defending the Irish interior and with success, forcing teams to test the more vulnerable regions of the IRish defense. Backups such as DE Chase Hounshell and MLB Jarrett Grace are next in line as is ILB Kendall Moore.

Five Thoughts on the Irish Interior Defense:

Spring talk centered around backup and Mike of the future Jarrett Grace. Off-season chatter wonders aloud if Will 'backers Fox and Calabrese are athletically up to snuff. But the five-spot of observations below are of greater relevance for 2012.

1.) Manti Te'o's greatest skill is his unique ability to destroy opposing screen games, but his run-stuffing acumen is top notch as well. The only apparent drawback to his game in this respect was the occasional missed tackle in the backfield, something that plagued the All-American vs. both USC and Florida State on potential key stops last fall.

2.) Sophomore Stephon Tuitt could be Notre Dame's next star, but like most young players, Tuitt tended to play a bit high in short-yardage situations last season. As a starter who'll be forced to log major minutes this fall, Tuitt will spend long hours with defensive line coach Mike Elston in an effort to keep his pads low despite his 6'7" frame. His purported superior conditioning is Step 1 to that end, as pad level tends to elevate as players tire late.

3.) 5th-year senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore was at his best prior to suffering a season-ending ACL injury last October. In 13 games in 2010, Lewis-Moore recorded 38 stops in which runners gained 3 yards or fewer – 27 of those for 0, 1 or 2 yards. He was on pace for similar numbers through 6.5 games last fall before injury ended his senior season. Lewis-Moore's ability to knife through gaps sets him apart as an interior run defender from either the left or right side defensive end spot.

4.) Kona Schwenke was the defensive newcomer of the spring, and the Irish will rely heavily on his contributions this fall, both in tandem with Louis Nix on the nose, but also as the team's "swing lineman" as he'll take snaps at defensive end as well. But paramount to the team's 12-week success is the evolution of sophomore Chase Hounshell, who fared well vs. Air Force in early action but sometimes looked overmatched later in the season in the trenches at Stanford. Hounshell needs to become a reliable run defender this year; his evolution as a complete defensive end can follow thereafter.

5.) Louis Nix…no player is more important. Nix must stay healthy, hungry, in-shape, and angry on 12 football Saturdays this fall. Getting Nix's "A Game" would make every defender better around him, including Te'o.

Relevant Rankings

The Irish rush defense finished 47th nationally vs. the run, allowing 3.78 yards per carry. (The squad allowed 3.97 ypc in 2010 and a whopping 4.75 in 2009, 89th nationally.)

More important than yardage is the fact that the dense surrendered just 8 rushing scores last year, down from 15 in 2010. Only four schools allowed fewer rushing scores than did the Irish: Alabama (3), LSU (7), Utah (7) and TCU (7) -- each member of that quartet finished among the nation's Top 25 against the run with the former pair squaring off for the BCS Title.

Skewing Notre Dame's rush defense ranking were two factors:

  1. Half of the games Notre Dame played last fall featured an opposing rush offense ranked among the nation's Top 50: The Irish faced team's with rushing offenses ranked #3, #4, #13, #18, #31, #33, and #50 (and that was USC), but only three teams, Air Force, Wake Forest and Boston College, scored rushing touchdowns vs. Bob Diaco's defense with the game still in doubt. (Michigan did as well when Denard Robinson recovered a fumble at the Irish 2-yard line and scampered in for the score.)

    Of the eight rushing touchdowns tallied vs. the Irish, four occurred when Notre Dame led by at least 31 points.

    Through the season's first nine games, only one standard rushing touchdown was scored vs. the Irish (Air Force) when the game's outcome was in doubt, and Notre Dame led 21-3 at the time.

  2. Air Force produced a whopping 360 rushing yards, 164 of which came after Notre Dame raced to a 42-16 lead. How incongruent were the Falcons 360 yards? It was more than the trio of Boston College, Stanford, and FSU accumulated to end the season (317 total), and more than Michigan, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and Purdue managed together from Week Two through Week Five (330).

    The Falcons had plenty of success outside, and a bit in the passing game as well, but as noted in our post-game film review following the blowout win, Air Force finished with 27 interior rushes for just 127 yards as part of their 360-yard output.

Valid concerns remain that foes capable of stretching the field horizontally could again damage the Irish defense. But for the second straight season, rushing scores should be few and far between vs. Diaco's defensive front, and its unlikely any team on the slate will line up and hammer the front line that works well in congress with Te'o, et al.

The Notre Dame middle appears secure, and that crucial strength will be on display vs. run-first teams Navy, Purdue, Michigan State, and Michigan in September. It then has to last for the months and tests that follow.

Overall Ranking on the 2012 Irish -- #1 Top Stories