First Things First

Our third of 10 camp previews examines the Irish base defense. Its likelihood for first down success, but also the need to create more chaos for the benefit of Brian Kelly's offense.

In lieu of garden-variety rankings of each position group, Irisheyes.com introduces "The Guts" -- an inside look at 10 aspects of the Irish paramount to the season's success. Over the next week we'll examine the following:

  • Interior Rush defense (Previewed Here)
  • The Rushing Attack (Previewed Here)
  • Base/First Down defense
  • Downfield Pass defense
  • Red Zone Offense
  • Short Yardage Offense
  • 3rd Down defense
  • The Passing Attack
  • Special Teams
  • Field Goal Unit

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

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

Today's focus is on the team's base defense against the seemingly small plays that make up the rhythm of a game: screens, flats, curls, slants -- any throws involving a short route vs. man or zone. After digesting the team's projected No. 1 overall strength earlier this week, its interior rush defense, we now include a look at defending perimeter runs as well.

Irish Base Defense: Winning on First Down

First down success is the key to every defense, in every game, regardless of the offensive scheme faced, and for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's multiple-look unit, that end begins with winning up front.

Defensive linemen Louis Nix, Kona Schwenke, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Stephon Tuitt are expected to receive the lion's share of base snaps, with sophomore Chase Hounshell next in line at defensive end, and redshirt-freshman Tony Springmann a third nose guard. Both missed spring ball with injuries, Springmann's the more serious of the two with off-season back surgery.

Hounshell and Springmann are crucial to the line's success over the long haul as a six-man rotation is the absolute minimum in the trenches. Early Enrollee freshman Sheldon Day will likely be a key component of the team's nickel and/or dime package defensive lines. His ability to hold the edge vs. the run will determine how much playing time the the ultra-quick Day receives in base defensive packages.

In good health, the team's defensive line is Top 20 caliber, but its depth has already been tested by the defection of top talent Aaron Lynch, whose absence makes the health of Springmann and Hounshell (shoulder) paramount over a 12-game slate that features six teams that won 10 or more games last fall.

With plenty of stalemates expected at scrimmage its up to the Irish outside 'backers to hold the edge. The team's improvement in this undervalued aspect of the game keyed the final month run of defensive excellence in Brian Kelly's first season, as Cat linebacker Darius Fleming and Dog 'backer Kerry Neal repeatedly won battles vs. opposing tackles and tight ends in November and into December's bowl victory.

2012 will be the first without Fleming at the Cat, but most Irish fans expect little drop-off thanks to the tandem of Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams, both of whom should see ample rotation time in the base defense (while starring in the team's nickel and dime sets). I think its shortsighted to assume Shembo and the untested WIlliams will step in and improve upon the solid Fleming's overall play, but the pair has intriguing potential.

Opposite the Cat/boundary 'backers are Dog candidates Danny Spond and Ben Councell: Spond logged few meaningful scrimmage minutes following a Week Two hamstring injury last fall and Councell was red-shirted as a true frosh. Both will be thrown to the fire at a position that has had limited success over the two-year Kelly/Diaco era. The Dog position aligns to the field side -- the wide side of scrimmage -- and thus covers more ground than the Cat/boundary 'backer. Both of the team's previous starters, Kerry Neal (2010) and Prince Shembo (2011) struggled at times with the position's coverage responsibilities.

Now it appears Spond, a former safety, and Councell, a rangy athlete, could improve the team's overall coverage acumen at the position. Unfortunately neither has proven he can mix it up with tackles and tight ends on edge runs. The winner of the 2012 camp battle will likely be the player better suited to hold the edge vs. the run, as the position generally cedes its spot on the field to a fifth defensive back in obvious passing situations (or for our purposes, Nickel and Dime packages).

Cause for Concern?

They're an odd pairing: an All-American and a starting "duo," but the Irish staff is comfortable with both. Manti Te'o won't leave the field in the team's base defense (1st or 2nd down) and he's unlikely to receive much respite in obvious passing situations, especially considering his unique ability to single-handedly control opponent's screen games. But the senior tandem of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese likely has to play better football than it did in 2012 for the Irish defense to reach its potential.

Fox earned more snaps (and all 13 starts) last fall and his numbers were subsequently better than Calabrese's in most categories. The former missed most of spring ball with a PCL injury; the latter still has an August 20 court date looming for his May arrest and verbal altercation with police.

Fox is likely underrated by Irish fans, but in my opinion, a touch overrated by the coaching staff. Regardless, his need for improved play and that of Calabrese as reliable tacklers vs. first-level passes is a season subplot.

Neither of the pair has recorded an interception, nor has Te'o. That's 57 combined starts and no picks…and just 10 pass breakups. (Calabrese actually led the trio with three pass breakups last fall. Te'o had two, Fox just one, yet Fox is viewed by most as the best of the trio in coverage.)

Part of the team's oft-used Cover 2 defense allows for short completions, ideally followed by an immediate tackle. Irish fans will likely complain that the team's 'backers and corners play too soft, too often, but many times that's by design. As former defensive backs coach Chuck Martin mused last September: "I've never come into a film room and heard a coach say: 'Man, we lost because we gave up that 7-yard hitch.'"

Tackling and limiting damage is paramount against modern passing games. Diaco and the rest of the Irish staff have faith in the team's 'backers to carry out that quest.

More Questions than Answers: The DBs

Its all hearsay until the bullets go live in September, but the new cornerback tandem of Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood, backed (at present) by Josh Atkinson and apparent "fourth corner" Jalen Brown, won't have trouble tackling the opposition.

That's great news for the team's edge defense vs. the rush and for limiting yards-after-the-catch on short throws, because there'll likely be plenty of first-level completions against this defense. But part of winning on first down is defending the downfield passing game as well, and Notre Dame's schedule includes at least three top-tier pass-first options among its foes. (I'll have more on the Irish defending the deep pass in a subsequent camp preview.)

Safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta might not find a moment of rest in September, at least not when a game is in doubt. And the pair can't be "pretty good" while the backfield breaks in new cornerbacks: Motta must play the best football of his career by a wide margin; Slaughter has to be borderline great.

With junior Austin Collinsworth lost for the season due to shoulder surgery, a third safety must emerge during camp.

Three Thoughts on the Base D

A definitive team strength is the Irish interior rush defense. Likewise, its ability to defend the edge or off-tackle rush is the least of the team's concerns. Those strengths are two of the most important aspects of first-down defense, and as such, Notre Dame has a chance to compete defensively in every contest.

Below are three thoughts/concerns regarding the rest of the base defense. If two of the three prove to be invalid, the defense will improve upon its solid effort in 2011.

1.) Downfield Doings: Can Jackson, Wood, and Atkinson hold up vs. quality wide receiver units? Does each of them have the necessary "short memory" that inevitably benefits every cornerback? Because each will be beaten multiple times this fall and confidence and aggression will be the trio's best friend. In Wood's case, he'll see far fewer plays to his side (the boundary receives more action than the field), but Wood will be tested in middle and deep levels of the defense. He thus has to A.) limit the damage, or preferably B.) make a few teams pay early for testing his tollway.

More important, what happens if Motta or Slaughter goes down? Is there a third true safety in the fold? The guess here is redshirt-freshman Eilar Hardy wins the chief backup role with oft-injured 5th-year senior Danny McCarthy a dark horse to hold down the fort in September until promising deep safety prospect C.J. Prosise learns the ropes. (I'll have more on Prosise's fellow frosh Elijah Shumate in our third-down defense preview.)

2.) Attack Mode? Te'o will make his 37th start on September 1, while Fox and Calabrese both enter their third seasons as regular scrimmage competitors. At some point, you'd like to think one of them would step in front of a short curl or bait a quarterback at the second level and intercept a pass.

Notre Dame's linebackers gave up key touchdowns, or receptions that led to touchdowns, to opposing tight ends and running backs in games vs. South Florida, Michigan State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Boston College, and Stanford last fall (though every team struggled to defend Stanford's all-star trio of tight ends). They were likewise at times shredded in the slot, of course, asking Fox, Calabrese, or Te'o to guard slot receivers from Florida State/USC is a schematic issue, not a disparagement of their talents.

Regardless, improvement is necessary, and considering the quality of tight end the team faces each day in practice, should be expected and demanded.

3.) Don't Control, Dominate: 75 of 120 FBS teams recorded more tackles-for-loss than did the Irish last season. 111 forced more turnovers with 86 of those intercepting more passes. Yet only four teams gave up fewer rushing touchdowns than did Diaco's Irish. Opponents managed just 16 aggregate total points over 12 games in the third quarter, and in the final tally, only 23 teams kept foes off the scoreboard better than Diaco's Irish, whose 2010 and 2011 defenses have allowed 20.23 and 20.69 points over the last two seasons, the lowest at the program since 2002.

Notre Dame's 2011 defense began the season better than its offense. It finished that way as well, and by a wide margin. Its a reality the program faces entering September 2012: there can be no letdown by the defense this fall, not if the Irish expect to improve upon the requisite 8-win total of the two-year Kelly era. The group also must have a bigger impact game-to-game.

Diaco's unit will again be disciplined and tough, keeping most plays in front of them and making foes earn touchdowns by sustaining drives. But it would be a major boon to Kelly's revamped offense if a few short fields were offered as the result of turnovers caused by the Irish defense, one that's been solid but not often spectacular.

Base Defense Ranking Among the 2012 Irish: #3

For our top two groups, the Interior Rush D and the Rushing Attack, click the links at the top of the page.

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