Front Four and More

Irisheyes.com looks back at the efforts of Notre Dame's top two position units through the season's first month: a pairing that works in lockstep on every snap.

Let's forgo the pleasantries: Notre Dame's defensive line is its best unit, and one of the best in the sport through the season's first month.

With a mixture of 4-3 and 3-4 fronts over the last two games, and a preponderance of 4-3 looks in the win over Purdue, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has seen his vision of a "no-crease defense" come to fruition, due largely to the front line, but one that works in congress with its linebackers at the second level.

Prince Shembo's ability to play from a down position in a four-man front or two-point stance when the line shows three-down has been instrumental to the group's dual success vs. the run and pass. Shembo and sophomore Stephon Tuitt have formed the best combination of pass rushers at the program since Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri earlier this decade.

Tuitt's evolved from raw, promising freshman to legitimate NFL prospect in less than a calendar year. He's an irresistible force over the course of 60 minutes, rarely beaten on more than a play per drive and as a pass-rusher,proven difficult to contain one-on-one on the edge.

Junior Louis Nix anchors the interior; his penetration in key situations has disrupted myriad opposing plays in the backfield before anything can develop at the second level. Nix has three tackles for loss, a forced fumble, and two pass breakups to his credit and has been double-teamed often since a breakout pair of early games -- a reality to which he'll grow accustomed as one of the best second-year nose guards in the game.

Depth has been outstanding thanks to two rookies: Sheldon Day, who's been sensational as a pass rusher, and Tony Springmann, who's been solid throughout September, and just missed household name status on two near backfield interceptions of a pair of shuffle passes (Navy and Purdue).

Day appears to have a knack for the game that belies his age and experience while Springmann's ability to play inside and out has proven valuable with sophomore Chase Hounshell's injury/lack of early contributions on the second unit.

5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore has played well despite a calf injury suffered on the first drive of the season's second game (Purdue). Lewis-Moore had six tackles vs. the Wolverines and now has three QB hurries since returning to action in a part-time role at Michigan State.

Like Tuitt, Lewis-Moore can lineup inside in certain packages, allowing natural edge rushers such as Shembo, Day, and Ishaq Williams to operate vs. solo blockers.

Backup nose guard Kona Schwenke has played with a cracked bone in his wrist, earning one start (MSU) and a half-sack. Any October ascent from the junior -- a player who was voted the team's most valuable spring defender -- would cement the line among the nation's top 2-3 units.

'Backers Follow Their Leader

None of Manti Te'o's fellow starters have put together back-to-back standout efforts to date, but each has played a key role in the team's 4-0 start, especially over the last two weeks.

Against Michigan, junior Dog linebacker Danny Spond rarely left the field, finishing with seven tackles including four stops within two yards of the line of scrimmage. One week earlier, senior Dan Fox, a starter of 17 consecutive contests next to Te'o, helped down the Spartans with a pair of pass breakups and five tackles. Redshirt-freshman linebacker Ben Councell has seen sporadic time both of the last two contests in relief of Spond at the Dog position, usually during 3-4 fronts.

Suspended for the opener, Carlo Calabrese has 16 tackles over the last three games to rank third on the squad behind Te'o and safety Zeke Motta, and tied with Shembo. Calabrese played his best vs. Michigan State but struggled a bit vs. the Wolverines. He'll be targeted this week vs. the Hurricanes in Chicago.

Te'o has been the team's best player to date and among the top stars in the nation, logging five turnovers and creating three others with pressure on the passer, while pacing the team with 38 tackles, an aggregate 30 vs. three Big 10 teams.

Backup Cat (boundary) linebacker Ishaq Williams played his best game vs. Navy, forcing two fumbles (including one that led to a fumble recovery touchdown by Tuitt) with a career-high four stops. Williams seems the preferred choice in 3-4 sets as his length and footwork allows for deep pass drops in relief of Shembo. Williams also joins Shembo in the nickel package, either as a defensive end or stand-up linebacker, a position he occupied often vs. Michigan State.

Like Calabrese and Schwenke, Williams is a player capable of major improvement over the next month of action.

Front 7: Stats, News, and Quotes of Note

- Notre Dame ranks No. 4 in scoring defense at nine points per game, not allowing a touchdown over the last two weeks and just four on the season.

- Notre Dame is the only team not to allow a rushing touchdown this season; Diaco's unit has yielded just 8 rushing scores since Halloween 2010 -- no college football program has surrendered fewer in that span.

- The Irish D ranks ninth in the nation with 14 sacks (3.5 per game) and 28th vs. the run (128 yards per game) despite facing three run-first offenses in the season's first four weeks.

- Defensive ends Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Sheldon Day have combined for 11.5 of the team's 14 sacks. Springmann also serves as a 4-3 defensive tackle at times as part of the rotation, while Day earned a pass breakup as nose guard vs. Michigan State (sprinting around left en, nearly intercepting the backfield throw). Day also forced an interception with a quarterback pressure against Purdue.

- In back-to-back wins vs. Michigan State and Michigan, Notre Dame's defensive front showed a 4-3 on 62 combined occasions, and a 3-4 look on…62 occasions. The Irish also played nickel 15 times (12 vs. MSU) the dime (six defensive backs) once, and at least two full prevent defenses, though generally with a combination of seven DL/LB on the field as well.

- Notre Dame played 51 four-man fronts in the win over Purdue vs. just two 3-4 looks, nine nickel sets, and two dime packages. The Irish were forced into a goal line defense three times vs. the Boilermakers and played the prevent once (the game's final play).

- In the season opener, Notre Dame's base 4-2-5 defense (safety Matthias Farley played field side linebacker) was utilized due to Navy's triple-option attack.

- The front seven is responsible for each of the team's three forced fumbles to date (Williams, Tuitt, Spond). Tuitt and Te'o have secured three of the squad's five fumble recoveries.

- Notre Dame's defense officially has 21 passes defensed this season, nine courtesy the front seven.

- 17.5 of the team's 22 tackles for loss are from the defensive front four (including Shembo and Williams).


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