As a result, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit used the services of 19 different starters, a stark contrast from the championship run of 2012 that featured just 14, including two split starters at inside linebacker in Dan Fox (8) and Carlo Calabrese (5) alongside Manti Te'o. Only two "backups" cracked the starting lineup throughout the 13-game slate, OLB/S Matthias Farley (1/10), and NG Kona Schwenke (2).
Talent, continuity, coaching, toughness, and good fortune in terms of defensive attrition resulted in the best effort by a defense at the program in 25 years.
In 2014, I expect the Irish defense to exceed last season's total of 19 defensive starters used under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder, partly by design (a good thing) and due in part to need (not good).
First, a review of last year's defensive starters:
-- Seven defensive backs including five safeties: Keivarae Russell (13 at cornerback), Bennett Jackson (13 at CB), Austin Collinsworth (11 at safety), Matthias Farley (8 at S), Elijah Shumate (4 at S), Eilar Hardy (2 at S), and Max Redfield (1 at S).
Add to that total regularly used nickel back Cole Luke (CB) and dime defenders Devin Butler (CB) and Joe Schmidt (MLB), weekly appearances by Lo Wood (CB), Ben Councell (LB), Tyler Stockton (DL), and Isaac Rochell (DE), plus spot appearances from John Turner (S), Justin Utupo (DL), Anthony Rabasa (OLB/DE), and Kendall Moore (ILB), and it was far more than the announced starting 11 that decided the Irish defensive fate last fall.
Why they'll exceed 19 in 2014Regardless of good health, and to a lesser extent, the chosen starters' overall performance, it's likely that VanGorder will utilize the following on a weekly basis, at least in September before the unit establishes its identity:
-- D-LINE Day, Jones, Williams, Okwara, and Rochell. From that group, only Day and Jones seem beyond reproach as 13-game starters (though Williams and Okwara are likely). Rochell is likely to earn a start vs. power-oriented offenses in place of Williams/Okwara.
Considering attrition, use of talent, game-plan specific starts, and the ebb and flow of a season, it's likely VanGorder and defensive line coach Mike Elston will need the services of six, potentially seven starting defensive linemen next season.
-- Linebackers: Smith and Schmidt are locked in as weekly starters to open the season. Former safety John Turner and Councell (returning from November knee surgery), are projected to share the third starting linebacker spot, the Sam (strong side).
Five-star freshman Nyles Morgan won't start early, but he's a good bet to be needed as such somewhere throughout the three-month grind.
Add to that reality that Turner is unproven in his new role and it's likely at least one more outside 'backer earns a shot. Injury, it seems, would be the only cause to replace Schmidt alongside Smith, perhaps the team's best player.
With four starters guaranteed (two at Sam), it's a safe bet two more will be pressed into action, potentially a freshman such as Grant Blankenship or emerging senior pass-rusher Anthony Rabasa.
-- Cornerbacks: Russell is a 13-game starter if healthy. Luke and incoming transfer Cody Riggs are near-certain starters (part-time or otherwise) as well. So too is nickel Matthias Farley when the Irish open against a spread offense. Butler is in reserve should either Luke or Riggs go down. Expect at least four from this quintet to start a game next fall.
-- Safety: Collinsworth is locked in as an opening day starter, flanked by Redfield. Shumate will doubtless earn a start or more along the way, while Hardy is next in line. It's a safe bet that four earn starts with injured junior Nicky Baratti (no official report on his status following a Blue Gold game shoulder injury) a potential late-season addition to the competition.Add them up and it's a solid 18 "guaranteed."
The reality of a long football season will take care of the rest as VanGorder's group exceeds last year's total of 19 defensive starters for 2014.