The Match Game
The practice week leading up to the matchup with Boston College offered a fresh start for a few struggling Irish defenders and the opportunity for a handful knocking on the door in backup roles.
How did they fare and can we expect more mixing and matching in the near future?
"We're going to try to keep what we have right now and just work forward from there," Tenuta began. "See what the best matchup is as we go through this game."
"You look at Harrison, the first time he blitzed he knocked the ball loose," Tenuta said of Smith's re-debut as a strong side linebacker/Nickel defender. "There's a guy that's a tremendous athlete. I'm going to use him more and more because he's an outstanding blitzer."
With Smith's move down closer to the line of scrimmage, incumbent Nickel defender Sergio Brown had a chance to earn a start as one of the team's safeties. As head coach Charlie Weis observed in his Tuesday press conference, the Irish defense generally employs one safety down (previously Kyle McCarthy) and one safety back (previously Harrison Smith).
Brown and McCarthy dabbled in both last week, though Brown primarily played the down (or "strong") safety position vs. Boston College. Still, the athletic senior was asked to make a number of plays in the deep secondary, including defending the game's opening play: a gadget double-pass that attempted to burn the new-look Irish with running back Montel Harris sprinting down the post.
The pass fell incomplete with Brown in solid coverage. Though he's a work in progress, Tenuta was pleased with Brown's debut in a new role.
"I thought Sergio did a good job. He's been the Nickel (fifth defensive back - one employed by most defense's in this era) for us for two years, playing in space, and now he may be in a different alignment at times, but he did a good job for us." Part of the defensive backfield's adjustment to their new roles is mental, that's where 5th-year senior captain Kyle McCarthy steps in.
"He's a game veteran that's been around," Tenuta first observed of the team's interceptions and tackles leader. "Even though we haven't played Washington State (for example) before, we've played BC, and even though (WSU) is a little different offense, (McCarthy) can see and he understands and he knows where everybody has to fit.
"Those things (game experience) come into play. He's been ‘Johnny-on-the-spot' for us and he's aware of what's going on; (it seems) he's almost in (the opposing) huddle a couple of times. Being a smart guy…those things come into play.
"And again, you play enough; you should be in their huddle."
Though McCarthy can lead by example, in the film room, and even ensure each Irish DB knows his role on a particular play, it's still up to his position mates to makes plays when the opportunity is presented. The ability to consistently make those plays – as well as the ability to bounce back from opportunities lost – separates top college DBs from those who simply fill starting roles.
"Confidence aspect is the biggest thing of being a secondary player, period," Tenuta responded when asked directly.
Speaking of increased confidence levels, how about the new guys closer to the ball?
The Chess Piece
Not unexpectedly, the bulk of the question's posed to Tenuta involved precocious freshman linebacker Manti Te'o. But there's another integral newcomer who's made recent waves after a rough start to the season: first-year defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore.
After offering a confident "no question" response regarding what the media perceived as major improvement from the sophomore (redshirt-freshman), Tenuta explained why the light might have clicked on for the man they call "Kap" over the last few weeks.
"You line up against huge men who are going to try to knock your block off and based on how they attack – not just the run or the pass – but by alignment and formation; who he's playing against (personnel from each opponent)…and with our scheme, we move him around, sometimes he's over the tackle, sometimes he's over the guard… (a role that we can assume is both physically and mentally taxing for a young defender)…I tell you what, he's improved tremendously in the last three weeks."
What does Lewis-Moore's versatility as both an edge player at left defensive end, and interior pass rusher in the Notre Dame Nickel scheme offer Tenuta as a play-caller?
"I get the speed factor outside at the end that I want," Tenuta observed of Lewis-Moore's ability to move inside the tackle box. "I want (LB/DE) Darius Fleming one-on-one as much as possible."
All Manti All the Time
No meeting with the defensive staff would be complete without an extensive Manti Te'o Q&A. Wednesday evening was no different.
"He's improved week-to-week and in the last three games he's done things he couldn't have done earlier in the season," Tenuta offered. "He does make a couple of mistakes now and then, but it's not like it was when he first (played). He loves to play and makes plays."
Tenuta was asked how the freshman hitter makes players around him better (largely as a tackler, as both poor and sound tackling are often viewed as contagious throughout a defensive unit).
"I think Brian Smith makes everybody better to be honest with you," Tenuta corrected. "He's the MIKE (middle linebacker). But I think Manti is going to be a tremendous football player. He's still learning the system and there are still things he's never seen before that he has to line up against.
"The guys that are combat veterans have seen (the alignments) so they know how to adjust to it."
One of the main aspects of Te'o's improvement over the last month has been his ability to react, rather than think, when a play develops in front of him.
"The No. 1 thing I've (said) for 30 years is ‘If you think, you stink' because then you can't play fast," Tenuta offered.
"But you're talking about a guy that's a freshman who comes in; and now (he) has to play and see things (he's) never seen before and it takes a little bit to adapt and adjust to it."
Tenuta observed this assimilation is not exclusive to Te'o.
"It's like anybody. It takes a whole season as a freshman. Go to Kap (Kapron Lewis-Moore); go to those (other) guys that haven't played before. Until they see every blocking scheme…until Manti sees every run or pass by formation…and now, go back to what we talked about before: the confidence factor comes into play and things become easier."
Tenuta cited a noteworthy example of Te'o's ability to rely on instinct rather than rational thought.
"He did a great job on that screen play (vs. BC) where three weeks ago he probably wouldn't have made that play."
And for the last time (yep, asked again) how why has Manti improved?
"He's better at playing the scheme," Tenuta stated. "He has an understanding of where he's supposed to fit and what he's supposed to do. On top of that he's a tremendous football player."