Five to watch: Irish defense

NORMAN, Okla. — publisher Tim O'Malley offers Sooners fans five key defenders to monitor in Saturday's matchup vs. No. 5 Notre Dame. 

1 -- MLB #5 Manti Te'o: The nation's most improved football player among those already "very good," Te'o has dominated from the outset this fall, recording the first four interceptions of his career, the first three fumble recoveries of his career, surpassed his career output in terms of passes defended with seven through seven games (vs. just six in the previous 38 games entering his senior year), and is halfway to matching his career total for official quarterback hurries (8). Three of his 2012 hurries have resulted in Irish interceptions at the back end of the play and he records a minimum of 10 tackles per game, most of them assisted as part of a swarming front seven.

His defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said of the senior standout, "I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America, all positions, all teams in college, and that he's the best football player that I've personally coached."

Te'o asked Diaco to coach him, "as the worst player on the team," when he decided last January to return for his senior season. It's paid off. At worst, Te'o will play very well Saturday night. At his best, he'll be the chief reason the Irish pull off an upset. 

2 -- DE #7 Stephon Tuitt: Most close to the program saw stardom in the 6'6" 300-pound Tuitt when the true freshman broke into the team's six-man defensive line rotation last season. The Catch-22 for Irish fans is Tuitt the sophomore has arrived far ahead of schedule, with NFL Draft Guru Mel Kiper, Jr. already calling him the best defensive lineman prospect in America.

Tuitt is tied for third nationally with 8.5 sacks and is tied with bookend Prince Shembo for the team lead with eight official quarterback hurries. The Monroe, Ga., product has barely scratched the surface of his talents, but a 77-yard scoop-sprint, and score for a touchdown vs. Navy, a seven-tackle day at scrimmage vs. Stanford, and a trio of contests with multiple tackles for losses on the season are indicators that greatness awaits. 

Tuitt will receive a stiff test Saturday night. He occasionally plays with too high of a pad level in short-yardage situations, something to monitor when the Sooners turn to their Bell-Dozer package near the Irish goal. 

3 -- CB #6 KeiVarae Russell: Quick: Prior to KeiVarae Russell, name the last true freshman cornerback to start the season opener for Notre Dame? If there's a name on the tip of your tongue, don't bother, it's wrong. He doesn't exist. 

Remarkably, Russell, a 4-star running back prospect from xx Washington was the first, earning the nod vs. Navy on September 1. Russell was asked to and embraced a pre-camp switch from tailback to the corner, then ascended up the ranks thanks to a season-ending injury to junior Lo Wood and his own best efforts in August. 

Teams have since targeted the squatly-built DB, but Russell has won more battles than he's lost, due largely it appears to three key factors: his eagerness to be coached and improve, adherence to fundamentals and mechanics (with no history as a cornerback, he had nothing to "un-learn"), and a zone defense and pass rush that protects the team's cornerbacks, relying on the play of its dominant front four. 

The former running back is joined in the starting lineup by a former wide receiver (junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, a player in his second season on defense and first in the lineup), redshirt-freshman safety and former scout team receiver Matthias Farley, and three-year starter Zeke Motta… a former dime package linebacker as a true freshman under former head coach Charlie Weis. 

Their backups, a sophomore, a redshirt-freshman, a true freshman, and a former walk-on, are unlikely to play barring injury. What you see is what you get from the Irish secondary that ranks an improbable eighth nationally in pass efficiency defense -- but its a group about to be tested by just the second viable passing game its faced.

4 -- S #41 Matthias Farley: Speaking of getting tested…

Farley has played football for just four years, spending last season running opponents' plays as a wide receiver on the Irish scout team. But the former high school soccer star from Charlotte has taken to his role as Notre Dame's last line of defense, recording a key interception vs. Stanford (plus an overtime tackle prior to the team's game-saving goal line stand), and playing his best football in October after a solid September in which he was thrust into the starting lineup after the loss of 5th-year safety standout Jamoris Slaughter.

Farley has also played a direct role in two of the five touchdowns Notre Dame has allowed this season, both inside the red zone and with (mental) coverage errors in the end zone. 

He'll need to play the best game of his young career Saturday night to ensure he's not actively involved in a third. 

5 -- Dog LB #13 Danny Spond and Cat LB #55 Prince Shembo: The junior outside 'backers play disparate roles, yet work in congress on every snap on opposite sides of scrimmage. Spond is the team's Dog (Drop) 'backer, one who rarely leaves the field serving as a defensive back in the evolving Irish nickel package (at 245 pounds, Spond played cornerback in bracket coverage on third down in each of the last three games). 

Shembo is the Cat (boundary) linebacker, one who sets the edge of the defense on runs to the short side, but who is at his best as a 4-3 defensive end in the team's changing 4-3/3-4 front. He remains on the field in the nickel package as well, instead resting as part of a six-player, first and second down defensive line rotation. 

Spond excels in space and as a key cog to the field side vs. the run; Shembo as a pass-rusher and run defender. Both were either absent or the object of fan scorn at this point last fall, Shembo mis-cast as a drop linebacker,  Spond oft-injured and off the defensive radar.

If both play well, it will be a long day for the Sooners offense. Conversely, both will be tested by more athleticism (Spond) and offensive tackle talent (Shembo) than at any point this season.

Tim O'Malley is the publisher of

Sooners Illustrated Top Stories