Part of the unit's ascent from team strength in 2011 to national contender in 2012 lies in its ability to create turnovers, 13 already this year in four games after just 14 -- an all -time program low -- in 13 contests last fall.
The always valuable, often tell-tale aspect of defensive football is something coordinator and associate head coach Bob Diaco preached the entire off-season. Every off-season, actually, and as part of the greater whole.
"We've continued to maintain the same core beliefs and the same defensive ideologies that we have since we got here," said Diaco. "Over time, consistency, maturity of the players and the expectation is they continue to improve on the things we're working on and continue to work on.
"Sheer physics as the players become bigger, faster, stronger as they mature, or through collection of talent, there also becomes a better clock in the head of the (opposing) quarterback. So partnering with that emphasis, partnering with the focus of the players, their diligence in film study and in practice, but also just physics of a pretty stout front creates more ball disruptions."
Last season, Notre Dame's back seven picked off eight passes in 13 contests. This season's collection of 'backers and defensive backs have already matched that total. In 2011, the entire defensive unit forced just eight fumbles, recovering six. In four games this fall, Diaco's defense has collected all five bouncing balls available to both sides.
"We can't move too far from our core beliefs (this) I said when we first met three years ago," said Diaco. "We're interested in keeping the points down. The next (offensive) piece that produces points is big plays. Defensively we have to be sure we're constantly focused on eliminating big plays. After that, we're trying to analyze what the opponent does to produce points. How are they producing points so we can limit and keep the points down?
"After that, if i had to put an emphasis, if you forced me too, we're interested in attacking the football, creating ball disruptions."
"This year is unique for us in that we have a very young secondary," said Diaco. "For multiple reasons it was going to be a rebuilding year in the secondary anyway, and then a few poorly timed events (injuries to Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter) happened that created even more inexperience.
"A lot of the (defensive) thought process goes into making sure those guys aren't overly exposed. For 2012, that's a big part of our thought process: allowing them to develop and not overexpose them."
Mission accomplished to date, as the Irish pass defense has improved after a pair of ill-timed leaks in Week Two vs. Purdue. Are Diaco's young pups ahead of schedule through month one?
"Absolutely. Absolutely. At any given time, I want to say there were four freshmen players in the secondary on Saturday. We understand that and try to manage it appropriately. And they're improving. A few years ago we talked about success" and that you're trying to put your barometer on me. We're measuring ourselves by players getting better every day. Those players are definitely getting better every day."
As always, it starts up frontWhile the secondary has held its own, its the front seven that's wreaked havoc. Against opposing passers, ball carriers, and especially those charged with their protection.
"It's a monumental piece, the players" Diaco said. "The quarterback has a clock in his head or (the opponent's coach) has to make a decision to protect the player, which sends less (receivers) out. Its either coming out fast and the routes had ego coordinate with that or they have to make decisions to go with more explosive plays, (thereby) protecting with more and sending out less.
"The whole dynamic of playing against the plays your'e gong to face is different when you have a menacing front."
Menacing, but not fully matured.
"Their development is by no means (complete) and I mean as a full defense," said Diaco. "We prepare a cut-up after every game of plays that cause losing, or plays that could potentially cause losing. Saturday night there were 16. We're in no way anywhere close to where we need to be. The players are developing and improving, our coach are improving defensively, every day, and that's built into what we consider to be a successful day, but we're nowhere near where we want to be."
The Irish haven't yielded a touchdown in eight quarters. They've allowed just 10 points per game this season and only two teams have surrendered fewer total touchdowns in 2012 (TCU and Cincinnati). Six games have passed without a rushing score allowed, and just one program, defending national champion Alabama, has yielded fewer rushing scores over the last 22 games (6) than have Diaco's Irish (9).
Where, specifically, can the unit improve over the next two weeks and months to follow?
"It begins with fundamentals," said Diaco. "On a play-to-play basis, understanding in pass coverage, the fundamentals of body position and relationships to the routes and the different core concepts we have, and different fits in block destruction, tackling angles, there are things to be coached on a regular basis.
"You're watching the ball on TV or in the stadium. We're not, we're grading every player, every play, every day."
Regardless of the grading system, Diaco's 2012 defense has earned high marks to date.