(The number in parenthesis represents each player's remaining eligibility entering the 2012 season.)
Notre Dame's base defense has shown just 17 combined 3-4 fronts over the last two games, with 90-plus 4-3 alignments and a nickel package that has rarely included a fifth defensive back (just four snaps vs. Stanford, none last week).
DEFENSIVE END5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, 6'4" 306 pounds (1)
Sophomore Tony Springmann, 6'6" 300 pounds (4)
Notes: Springmann played perhaps his best game of the season last week vs. Brigham Young, excelling as a defensive tackle in the preferred four-man fronts. Lewis-Moore's last month of action ranks among the best of his four-year starting career, and last week's effort vs. the Cougars was his most dominant game vs. a quality foe to date, earning Irisheyes.com's defensive MVP award following film reviews. His six QB hurries are a career-best with six games remaining.
DEFENSIVE ENDSophomore Stephon Tuitt, 6'6" 303 pounds (3)
Freshman Sheldon Day, 6'2" 286 pounds (4/5)
Notes: Tuitt ranks third among the nation's sack leaders (8.5) and is tied with Prince Shembo for the team lead in QB hurries (8). Day has excelled in a backup role, recording key defensive plays vs. Purdue (QB pressure that led to a Bennett Jackson interception), Michigan State (a sack and PD on back-to-back plays to push the Spartans out of scoring territory), and Michigan (a late sack to force a field goal). He has 2.5 tackles for loss among his 13 stops.
Sophomore Chase Hounshell did not play as anticipated this season and will receive a medical redshirt after shoulder surgery.
NOSE GUARDJunior Louis Nix, 6'3" 326 pounds (3)
Junior Kona Schwenke, 6'4" 290 pounds (2)
Sophomore Tony Springmann, 6'6" 300 pounds (4)
Notes: Schwenke sees more time in the first half than second -- though drop-off remains evident, he's developing into a quality backup for the surging Nix, who could garner All-America mention should the Irish continue to dominate defensively. Springmann provides insurance on the nose in addition to his role as a DE and 3-technique tackle.
Nix was our defensive MVP last week post-game, earning a game ball instead upon film review. He is, as always, the most important cog of many in the dominant Irish front seven.
CAT LINEBACKERJunior Prince Shembo, 6'2" 250 pounds, (2)
Sophomore Ishaq Williams, 6'5" 255 pounds (3)
Notes: Shembo logs far more time in the base than does Williams, but the latter has a dual-role in the team's nickel package, playing both defensive end in 4-man fronts and dropping to a nickel linebacker (coverage) spot as well.
Said Kelly of Shembo this week: "First of all, a guy for us that can match up against any tight end (in the running game) in the country. We feel like that's a favorable matchup for us when we have Prince Shembo over at tight end. That coupled with his ability to rush the quarterback, I think both of those things stand out for us; that you've got a guy that could be so strong against the runs and then give you great effort, too. He's a guy that doesn't take a play off."
DOG LINEBACKERJunior Danny Spond, 6'3, 242 pounds (2)
Sophomore Ben Councell, 6'5" 240 pounds (4)
Notes: Spond plays the vast majority of snaps, though Councell receives a first-half series on occasion. Spond has also forged a role as the team's strong side linebacker (field side) in 4-3 fronts, with Dan Fox on the opposite flank. He remains on the field in nickel situations as well, his past as a high school safety allowing him to matchup in bracket coverage (underneath coverage with safety help over the top).
MIKE LINEBACKERSenior Manti Te'o, 6'2" 255 pounds (1)
Sophomore Jarrett Grace, 6'3" 240 pounds (4)
Notes: Te'o rarely leaves the field, starting in the nickel package as well. He leads the team with seven passes defended, 69 tackles, and four interceptions. Grace is his technical backup though most of the redshirt-freshman's playing time has come on the Irish run teams (kickoff and punt coverage and return) where he's recorded five stops.
WILL LINEBACKERSenior Dan Fox, 6'3" 240 pounds (2) AND
Senior Carlo Calabrese, 6'1 255 pounds (2)
Notes: Fox generally starts with Calabrese offering ample time in relief. Fox is third on the team with 33 tackles while Calabrese is tied for sixth (27). Fox's tackle-for-loss on an overtime screen pass vs. Stanford was the play of the day defensively prior to Notre Dame's epic goal line stand. Calabrese was one of the chief heroes of the final two plays vs. the Cardinal, lining up as an extra defensive end and hammering into much bigger blockers, winning at the point.
The latter was targeted for a play-action pass at the goal line last week vs. Brigham Young; the play resulted in a (disputed) Cougars touchdown.
BOUNDARY CORNERBACKJunior Bennett Jackson, 6'0" 185 pounds (2)
Sophomore Jalen Brown, 6'1" 199 pounds (4)
Notes: Brown replaced Jackson when the latter injured his neck last week vs. Brigham Young (returning on the ensuing series). Jackson is tied with Te'o for the team lead in interceptions (4).
FIELD CORNERBACKFreshman Keivarae Russell, 5'11" 182 pounds (4/5)
Sophomore Josh Atkinson, 5'11" 185 pounds (3)
Notes: Atkinson has yet to register a tackle or PD in relief but he does have an uncredited QB hurry (Michigan State) to his name. Russell and Jackson have flip-flopped field to boundary assignments pending the scheme, offense faced, and perimeter talent on the other side of scrimmage. Look for that to be the case again tonight as the Irish might attempt to hide Russell a bit after Brigham Young targeted him with bubble screens last week.
FIELD SAFETYSenior Zeke Motta, 6'2" 215 pounds (1)
Freshman Nicky Baratti, 6'1" 206 pounds (4/5)
Notes: Motta has morphed from Notre Dame starter to nationally relevant safety, playing far and away the best ball of his college career as a senior. He ranks second on the team in tackles (40) and importance to the back seven (behind Te'o). Baratti secured an end zone interception in the first competitive appearance from scrimmage of his career, taking away a potential score from Michigan in Week Four. The freshman tweeted that he dislocated his shoulder last week though Kelly noted Baratti returned and finished the contest vs. the Cougars -- separation and "pop" back in appears the more likely football-related injury.
BOUNDARY SAFETYSophomore Matthias Farley, 5'11" 200 pounds (4)
Senior Chris Salvi, 5'10" 190 pounds (1)
Notes: Farley has started five of seven games this season, the first at Dog linebacker vs. Navy's triple option, the last four at safety in place of injured 5th-year safety Jamoris Slaughter, out for the season since the win at Michigan State with a ruptured Achilles.
Farley saved a touchdown with a take down of Cardinal running back Stepfan Taylor at the ND 4-yard line in overtime two weeks ago with the Irish defense holding on four snaps thereafter to secure victory.
The redshirt-freshman's mental error (blown coverage) on third-and-goal last week vs. Brigham Young resulted in the first touchdown scored vs. his defense since Week Two -- a red zone touchdown pass in which Farley's coverage also played a role.
Nickel DefenseInterior defensive linemen rotate among Nix, Lewis-Moore, Springmann, and Tuitt while the edge rushers include Tuitt, Shembo, Williams, and Day.
The team's linebackers are generally Spond, Fox, and Williams with Te'o never leaving the field. The team's official nickel defender (fifth defensive back) is freshman cornerback Elijah Shumate, who has broken up three passes in his limited role. Shumate did not appear at all last week from scrimmage, giving way to Williams instead. The true freshman played just four snaps vs. Stanford one week prior as the Irish looked to bigger bodies on third down, even in passing situations.
The Irish have not shown a Dime package (six defensive backs) since Slaughter was lost to injury in Week Three at Michigan State.
Said Kelly of the nickel defense Thursday night:
"I've been the first one to gloat on Danny (Spond) and his play. But we'd like to have (Jamoris) Slaughter so that we'd be in a lot more nickel and dime. It's one of those things where (Spond's) done a really good job, but if we had our way, we'd be in nickel and dime situations. We're trying to groom some young guys to get to that level where we can take Danny off the field. No disrespect to Danny, but we think even in this game, if we can get a nickel…we can't even think about dime. So it's kind of a Catch 22."
For more on the team's nickel situation, listen to our latest Irisheyes.com Podcast here.