5 To Watch: Irish Defense

Another week, another disparate defensive challenge for Bob Diaco's Notre Dame defense. O'Malley offers five key matchups and defenders to watch for Saturday's contest with Stanford in South Bend.

#1 -- Outside Linebacker/Defensive End -- Prince Shembo (6'2" 250):
Officially listed as Notre Dame's Cat (boundary) linebacker, Shembo's greatest impact is as a 4-3 defensive end where his six quarterback hurries leads the squad. As a two-point stance 'backer, Shembo has excelled setting the edge on short-field runs as the self-professed "Silverback" uses low pad level and functional football strength that belies a 250-pound frame on the edge.

Shembo could be tested by the Cardinal tight ends in short zones when the Irish show a 3-4 defensive front and the junior is asked to track either Zach Ertz in intermediate zones or a backfield release from RB Stepfan Taylor in the short passing game.

#2 -- Defensive End/Tackle -- Kapron Lewis-Moore (6'4" 306):
Sophomore Stephon Tuitt is Notre Dame's most imposing and productive player up front but the 5th-year senior Lewis-Moore has played outstanding football since returning to health after a Week Two ankle injury.

Long the team's best short-yardage defender with his ability to knife through scrimmage from both tackle and end, Lewis-Moore has improved as a pass-rusher this season, registering four QB hurries and recording a pair of sacks (one overturned by a teammate's penalty). His pocket pressure on Miami quarterback Stephen Morris (two passes defended as well) was crucial in the defense's shut down effort Saturday night.

Lewis-Moore missed last year's game vs. Stanford with a torn ACL suffered.

#3 -- Safety Zeke Motta (6'2" 215):
From starter to standout, the evolution and improvement of the senior safety has been remarkable in the last calendar year. Motta began his ascent with a solid game at Stanford last season, continued with a notable effort (and touchdown) against Florida State, and has continued it through the 2012 season's first five weeks with few hiccups along the way.

The only veteran member of the secondary, Motta has excelled in aligning and communicating with redshirt-freshman safety Matthias Farley and first-time starters Bennett Jackson and Keivarae Russell on the corners. Saturday afternoon will test Motta physically: can he run with and defend Ertz? Can he crowd the 6'8" Levine Toilolo in the red zone, negating the senior tight ends inherent advantage?

Motta was nearly beaten for a score last week -- the blinding speed of Hurricanes receiver Philip Dorsett the culprit. This week's matchup is more up his alley, but he'll have to answer the physical call nonetheless.

#4 -- Nickel Back Elijah Shumate (6'0" 198):
Its not as much the freshman nickel back's overall play as his presence -- one I'm not sure fits the matchup Saturday afternoon.

Will the Irish turn often to their nickel defense vs. Stanford or trust a 3-4 base on third down in likely, not obvious passing situations? Can the athletic but still-green Shumate handle a player such as Ertz on 3rd and 6? Can he hold up vs. an edge run if the Cardinal catch the Irish off-guard in similar down and distance?

The Irish have had a few overall schematic breakdowns when their nickel package is on the field (be it Shumate's fault or not). They've also seen individually outstanding plays: Shumate playing the ball, a pass rush that forces turnovers on 3rd and 8, etc.

Can the Irish go nickel vs. Stanford's unique attack? Will sophomore linebacker Ishaq Williams play more of a role on third down as a zone coverage contributor than Shumate? Will starter Danny Spond, a former safety, simply remain in the contest to scrap with Cardinal tight ends in short zones?

If you're looking for an indicator of the tenor of the game, and of Notre Dame's nickel progress to date, it's Shumate's (#22) presence on third down.

#5 -- Linebacker Manti Te'o (6'2" 255):
Posted a career-best 21 tackles in the 2010 loss to Stanford. The outing was far from Te'o's best game, but it was his continually presence vs. Stanford's overload power running game that kept the Irish within shouting distance late in the third quarter.

Te'o has since evolved from Notre Dame's best to the nation's top defensive player: a dominant force vs. the run, the screen game, and short passing attacks (six passes defended and three interceptions in five games). He'll be tested in the red zone vs. Stanford's tight end pairing, but no longer is that matchup considered, Advantage Cardinal, as it was in season's past.

Never coming off the field and serving as the team's key nickel linebacker as well, the only thing that has plagued Te'o and the Irish third-down pass defense to date has been a mobile quarterback escaping through the pocket and then gaining first-down yardage up the middle. Though not a runner, Cardinal triggerman Josh Nunes proved capable of gaining crucial yardage vs. both USC and Arizona -- the Irish and Te'o can't let that extra weapon manifest on third-down Saturday in South Bend.

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