Key to the versatility of the package was junior Prince Shembo's ability to play the Cat linebacker in the 3-4, and defensive end in the 4-3 -- a practice that worked exceptionally well until the BCS Championship loss to Alabama.
Regardless if the Irish staff prefers a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment -- or another mixture of the two -- going forward, the need for true defensive ends and nose guards/defensive tackles is great.
Below is a look at the 2013 team's outlook on the line and at Cat linebacker, two positions intertwined in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's scheme. Notes on 2014 are included as well.
Nose Guards, Defensive Tackles, Defensive Ends (9)Seniors Kona Schwenke (1) and Louis Nix (2), juniors Stephon Tuitt (2), Tony Springmann (3) and Chase Hounshell (3), sophomores Sheldon Day (3) and Jarron Jones (4), incoming freshmen Isaac Rochell (4/5) and Jacob Matuska (4/5).
Chance of Defection: With the exception of injury to a veteran, though not-yet proven player, It wouldn't be surprising to see a player from the mix lost in the shuffle. And if Notre Dame adds just two prospects for the 2013 cycle (Rochell and Matuska), this following the pledge of just one last year (Jones), any veteran would be foolish to jump ship. Opportunity knocks for all.
Strength at Present: Among the nation's best assuming Sheldon Day improves as expected entering his sophomore season. Depth is at a Top 10 level, though as we found out earlier this week, not necessarily representative of champions. Jones is the key player for 2013 -- he must give the squad at least what Tony Springmann did as a reliable redshirt-freshman last fall, then take the next step in 2014.
Need for addition to 2013 class: Great. Imperative. Absolute. For the better part of six months I've reiterated the need for two more true defensive line prospects in the 2013 class (along with Rochell and the versatile Matuska), it's now painfully obvious more quality players up front are needed -- not necessarily for 2013 where the Irish are in good shape, but for the 2014 squad.
Thus, the 2013 class needs a rock (5-star Eddie Vanderdoes is the chief target; flipping Alquandin Muhammad from Miami remains an option) and could use a "project" as well to help the roster in 2014-15 and beyond. 6'6" 265-pound 3-star Jack Powers, who could visit South Bend this month, would qualify for as the latter.
Also in the fold are USC pledge Torodney Prevot, though at 6'4" 205 pounds, Prevot appears to be more of a Cat 'backer candidate as does 6'2" 222-pound pass rusher Deon Hollins. Prevot will visit South Bend on January 25; Hollins was to hit town this weekend but will join Prevot on the 25th.
Need for addition in 2014 class: If Vanderdoes does not join the fray in 2014, Kelly's Irish will have to bring in the nation's best defensive line haul for 2014 to keep pace with national contenders -- two years down the road, because Notre Dame isn't going to a BCS game in 2014 if it loses Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, and Kona Schwenke and adds no one to its 2013 class.
It should be assumed the trio will depart after 2013 (Nix and Schwenke to graduation; Tuitt to a top five overall draft selection), leaving Notre Dame with just six returning defensive linemen.
Notre Dame is in dire need of defensive line numbers for the 2014 season -- the addition of 2013 star Vanderdoes could ease the pain, if not the overall depth.
Note: Irisheyes.com moderator Morrissey79 notes that 2014 OL/DL prospect Jay Hayes could play a true defensive end position as well. Relevant to that point: Notre Dame needs at least four if not five offensive linemen in the 2014 cycle.)
Cat Linebackers/Nickel Defensive Ends (6)Seniors Prince Shembo (1) and Justin Utupo (2), juniors Ishaq Williams (2) and Anthony Rabasa (3), sophomore Romeo Okwara (3), incoming freshman Doug Randolph (4/5).
Chance of Defection: Not likely. Rabasa appears to be a fully engaged teammate and prospect -- his class status and lack of playing time is the only drawback to date that suggests he could be lost in the shuffle. This spring will be big for the speedy pass-rusher. Utupo is a Cat in position designation only, serving mostly as a blocker on kick return.
Okwara began at Dog linebacker in 2012 but it is believed he later worked at Cat. At 6'4" 240 as a true freshman, he could fill out and become the defensive end Notre Dame needs for 2014-15.
Strength at Present: In great hands, though maybe not on the national level I had assumed, as Shembo was hammered by Alabama and Williams was removed completely from the line of scrimmage at will. Of course, that matchup won't be an issue again until (it is to be hoped) early January 2014, and Irish fans would take their chances with a title game rematch.
Williams has shown flashes -- precious few. Okwara appears to be a keeper and could (should) push Williams if standard effort is all the junior remains capable. In short, Williams is far too talented and versatile to make his biggest season impact against Navy.
Need for addition to 2013 class: None with Doug Randolph, but the addition of Prevot or Hollins would make this a ridiculously deep and well-tiered position for the next four seasons. Jaylon Smith could be a dominant Cat 'Backer as well, though I think the Dog position is tailor-made for his skill set.
Need for addition in 2014 class: One would suffice at present -- should Prevot or Hollins be added in 2013, the Irish could take a break and search for another Dog to play in space or, as always, a true defensive end. Lines win championships -- its important to note that had Alabama not found its way back in the title game this season, Notre Dame might be celebrating such an honor on the strength of its defensive front.
ObservationsThe Cat 'backer position is in good hands and appears to be a position to which the Irish can recruit. In order to defeat teams such as Alabama (and maybe LSU or USC should they return to prominence), Notre Dame needs a continuous cycle of quality defensive ends and interior linemen entering its program.
In 2012 the Irish staff added one prospect (Jarron Jones). In 2013 there are but two on board (Rochell and Matuska). That's not enough. Couple those results with the defection of Aaron Lynch from the 2011 class, and the move of Troy Niklas to offense from the same haul, and its easy to trace the recent attrition at a position that was one of distinction for the Irish in January 2012.
15 of the team's 41 (projected) 2013 defensive roster spots are defensive linemen or Cat 'backers. Five are unlikely to be on board entering 2014. (Schwenke, Nix, Tuitt, Utupo, and Shembo).