Power of the Program

Notre Dame's defensive front played 12 outstanding games in 2012, then suffered by comparison at the outset of 2013. The goal for this spring, summer, and fall? Preparing for 13 straight as the best unit in the nation.

Expectations have changed in South Bend, and the program's defensive front ranks chief among reasons. With just one loss from last year's front -- the best at the program in at least a decade -- defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's group will again determine if head coach Brian Kelly's Irish can navigate a three-month stretch unscathed, likely its only path to a return trip to the BCS Championship game.

Two potential All-Americans head the group, with senior nose guard Louis Nix among the nation's most unheralded players last fall, and sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt the team's breakout performer. Tuitt earned post-season accolades, but there's no doubt the 6'6" 300-pound sack machine benefited from Nix's presence -- two offensive linemen were needed to hold off the team's rock in the middle on most snaps.

Better Still?

Notre Dame finished the regular season 12-0 and made it to the BCS Championship game largely because of its defensive front. The unit lost just one of its top eight players to graduation and looks to be deeper in 2013 thanks to incoming talent and the development of two from within.

Position Coach: Mike Elston -- Enters his fourth season at Notre Dame and ninth consecutive coaching under head coach Brian Kelly, including six as Kelly's defensive line coach.

Spring Combatants: Kona Schwenke and (redshirt-junior) Louis Nix; juniors Stephon Tuitt and (redshirt-sophomore) Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann; sophomores Sheldon Day and (redshirt-freshman) Jarron Jones.

Incoming Talent: Five-star prospect Eddie Vanderdoes (Auburn, CA), four start prospects Jacob Matuska (Columbus, Ohio) and Isaac Rochell (McDonough, GA)

Returning Starters: Tuitt and Nix

The loss of 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore -- a hugely improved player last fall -- could be felt more than most fans care to admit, but Kelly's roster has been re-stocked with potential replacements.

A New Day

Lewis-Moore's expected replacement is sophomore Sheldon Day, a stout spark plug who forced his way into the team's defensive end rotation after enrolling early last spring and playing as a high level backup in the season's opening month.

The challenge for Day this fall will be an increased workload and raised expectations. Tuitt handled the same last year; if Day takes similar steps (not statistically, but in overall quality of play), the Irish front will be the nation's best.

Joining Day in the rotation will be junior Tony Springmann, one of the pleasant surprises of 2012, and Springmann's returning classmate Chase Hounshell, who missed the season due to shoulder surgery after earning a varsity spot as a true freshman in 2011.

New to the mix this spring is Day's classmate Jarron Jones. The 6'5" 299-pounder was withheld from action last season, his skill set nowhere near in congress with his massive wingspan and frame.

One of the Jones/Hounshell/Springmann trio will likely be tasked with true nose guard duty, but each of the threesome can play inside in a four-man front, Notre Dame's preferred alignment over the last three seasons.

The X-Factor

Senior Kona Schwenke enters his final season of eligibility, and by most accounts -- staff, head coach, and otherwise -- that wasn't part of the master plan. Pressed into service as a pass rusher in 2010, then as a not-ready, bulked up nose guard in 2011 due to injury and suspension to teammate Stephon Tuitt, Schwenke enjoyed his best season as a true junior last fall. He was a quality backup that spelled both Nix and Lewis-Moore, able to play nose, the three-technique tackle, and defensive end.

But with the exception of his effort vs. Oklahoma in late October, there was a noticeable drop-off vs. quality teams when Nix left the field and Schwenke rotated in.

If Schwenke can hold his gap vs. the likes of Michigan, Oklahoma, USC, and Stanford next season, it will be tough sledding vs. Notre Dame's defensive front. The former 227-pound edge rushing recruit has had more than two years to acclimate to his new 300-pound frame -- and this is his last chance to prove the position/role change a success.

Summer Reinforcements

Spring ball 2013 will feature just seven true defensive linemen (not including Cat 'backers Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, and Romeo Okwara). But three will join in late June, and the Vanderdoes, Rochell, Matuska trio offers a bright future in 2014 (Rochell), 2015 (Matuska?) and beyond.

For Vanderdoes, there may be no time like the present. A rotation spot seems likely for the formidable five-star -- it's paramount that the likes of Hounshell, Jones, and Schwenke improve enough this spring to enter training camp with a leg up on their talented incoming teammate.

Note: To read previews of each offensive unit in our spring series, click the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs

Searching for Six: Wide Receivers

Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends

The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback

Links Remain: Offensive Line

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