- Notre Dame can again compete at the highest level of the sport, and…
- Alabama represents the highest level of this sport.
Entering 2013, there's Alabama, and everybody else. Or as Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick opined in the wake of January's bloodletting: "They're not just better than us, they're better than everyone."
Over the summer and through the first third of August training camp, I've whittled down a list of 20 necessary developments for the already short-handed Irish to return to the top of the sport's mountain at season's end.
We'll begin today at the top of the list, adding a preview per day in the 2013 20 for a Title, series:
#1 -- Tuitt and Nix must be as advertisedTuck and Landri, Campbell and Hilliard, Young and Flanigan, Williams, Zorich, and Alm. And now, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.
Notre Dame's top rush defenses of the last 25 years shared in common the pairing of stout defensive linemen (if you forgot the '04 Justin Tuck and Derek Landri-led line stifled foes to the tune of just 88 rushing yards per game -- or fewer than last year's Irish allowed -- you're not alone).
Not since Young and Flanigan in 1993 has a Notre Dame team returned such a battle-tested tandem. Not since Chris Zorich and Jeff Alm in 1989 (the third member of their all-star trio from '88, George "Boo" Williams, was ruled academically ineligible), has the program returned such a prominent, nationally recognized pair.
And Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix exceed each of the pairings listed above in terms of pro potential.
But the 2013 season isn't about the professional future of either Nix or Tuitt, it's about again dominating the line of scrimmage and thus controlling the tenor of each contest, just as the Irish defense did in its run to 12-0 last fall.
"We have different people. A lot of guys left the team," said Nix. "Now we start over and rebuild our brotherhood according to how this team is formed. We go about things differently, we see mistakes from the past to build off of."
Nix ranks as every scout's -- college, pro or otherwise -- No. 1 or No. 2 nose guard entering the season. Tuitt earned the moniker "NFL" the moment his massive 6'6" 300-pound frame hit campus.
Actually, make that 322…at least.
"Nothing was a goal," said a noticeably annoyed Tuitt when peppered with questions regarding weight gain since last season. "It just was working hard, body did the rest. Now that we're in camp now, my body will do the rest again.
"I just go out every day and practice and my body will react the way it does."
Tuitt initially gained weight following surgery to repair a sports hernia he suffered somewhere around mid-season 2012. (8.5 of his team-best 12 sacks occurred prior to the team's trip to Oklahoma to end October). He lacked explosiveness, and according to his chief tutor Mike Elston, confidence as a result.
"I think it affected him a tremendous amount," said the four-year Irish defensive line coach. "His production went down, his confidence in his play went down, and that's something we need to work on getting back this fall…
"I think it hurt him significantly and he's to be commended for fighting through it. That's a tough injury and he fought through that for however many weeks and was a very serviceable player, but he's the kind of guy that wants to change the game. Physically he was unable to change the game. But he fought through it and did a great job."
Elston said the injury lessened Tuitt's athleticism and ability to get off blocks, both largely because his hips lacked pre-injury flexibility. Tuitt said the injury and recovery from it is no longer an issue.
"Everybody knows that was one of the reasons (my production dropped off)," said Tuitt of his rediscovered quickness off the snap. "This year I'm working hard, I'm perfectly in shape, I'm ready to go.
"I feel great. I feel great right now. I feel stronger, faster, quicker."
Louis Nix: 2012's "1B"I take pride in the Irisheyes.com top 10. It's penned following every game on the spot, re-written following every film review, and tallied from there for end-season rankings. Late last year I showed the list to an Irish staff member and he immediately offered one piece of advice:
"No. 2 is more like, '1B.'"
No. 2 on my list was Louis Nix; No. 1 was Manti Te'o. Nix is now No. 1, not only in terms of jersey designation, but his place among interior defensive linemen in the college game.
"He's part of the reason why Manti was so good. He clogged up the hole and was able to take up so many people that were trying to block him," said Irish offensive guard Chris Watt, a player who's squared off vs. Nix daily over the last three seasons. "What makes him so tough to block is just that he's big. He's solid. He's got some country strength. Sometimes that's better than weight room strength. He's going to fight the whole time so if you don't get your hands on him right away, you're kind of screwed."
At least 10 sets of opposing offensive lines were similarly screwed last fall. That's how many times Nix appeared on the IE top 10, with two more game designations among the honorable mention list. He and Tuitt both earned four game MVP honors from our website as well, tied with Te'o among defenders.
"We can be as good as we want to be if we push ourselves," Nix said. "We strive to be No. 1. Every defense wants to be the best. We have to strive for that through perfection. You have to do all the little things right and you have to do them every day and get better at it as you do it.
"Coaches focus mostly on mistakes, they don't pat us on the back for the things we do good. So we go back, look at our mistakes and try to build off them."
Fans, media, and pundits often assume players can take it to another level. While Nix can improve his production, "another level" isn't necessary, at least in terms of his approach between the lines.
"I know as Louis Nix's coach what I'm going to get from him on Saturday," said Elston. "He prepares himself in practice to get ready for Saturday. I've been a coach 14 years now, 13 years in Division One. He's one of the most ferocious competitors -- I mean, just watch the Alabama game. He was competing on every single play. He's a competitive young man that's trying to win the game.
"I don't see where he needs to take that to another level, I already see a high, high level. He's working on the day-to-day things that will make that even higher on Saturday, but he's progressing well. I don't see the need for 'another level.'
Returning to -- and potentially exceeding -- their production from 2012 will allow Notre Dame to again vie for a spot in the BCS title game (aka: the Alabama Invitational) at season's end.
"This team just wants to be better than we were last year," Nix said. "12-1 was great, 13-0 would have been better."
Note: Next in the 20 For a Title series, "The Left-Siders."