Notre Dame Defensive PersonnelIf not for one terrible quarter of defensive football, Bob Diaco's Irish unit would be in the midst of one of the better eight-game runs of the program's modern era.
The Irish allowed four touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a Week Two defeat at Michigan. Over the game's first three quarters, the season's other two contests (Week One vs. South Florida and Week Three vs. Michigan State), plus the last five games of the 2010 season, Diaco's unit yielded a total of six offensive touchdowns – a span of 31 quarters. Two of the six were in garbage time vs. Miami (staked to a 30-3 lead) and another was a one-yard drive – that took four plays to complete – at USC.
LDE: Ethan Johnson – With the exception of a crucial personal foul penalty in the opening contest, Johnson has been a standout, securing the left edge of the Irish defense vs. a pair of mobile quarterbacks and again Saturday against Michigan State's power running game. At 6'4" 300 pounds, Johnson has the strength to battle with the nation's top right tackles while also ranking as the roster's current career sack leader (12.5). He finished with three of Notre Dame's 10 quarterback hurries vs. the Spartans (backup LDE Aaron Lynch had an astounding six.
RDE: Kapron Lewis-Moore – Lewis-Moore's knack for knifing into the backfield is key in short-yardage situations. The senior has totaled a defensive- line high 17 tackles including two for lost yardage. More important: 11 of his total stops have limited the opposing ball career to three yards or fewer.
Lewis-Moore serves at defensive tackle in the team's nickel package. His backup, 6'6 ½" 295-pound freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt, should see his time increase long with Lynch on the other side, providing the Irish with an impressive 1-2 bookend punch.
NG: Louis Nix – Was pressed into his first start in Week Two due to an injury to senior starter Sean Cwynar (broken hand), but Nix may be tough to move from the role in the future. The 325-pound redshirt-freshman has shown impressive tackle-to-tackle quickness over his first three career contests, ranking second behind Lewis-Moore in total stops along the defensive front.
Nix should continue to split snaps with Cwynar over the next few weeks as the former fully recovers from his injury (Cwynar returned to action in Week Three). Senior Hafis Williams is a third option inside for defensive line coach Mike Elston.
OLB (DOG): Prince Shembo – Missed last week's game due to a family emergency. The team's defensive rookie of the year last fall has moved to the more complicated Dog linebacker position, one that requires a blend of pass coverage and pass-rushing acumen – Shembo possesses plenty of the latter with the former serving as a key question mark entering the season. Shembo lines up at defensive tackle in the team's nickel package, though that role may change after Aaron Lynch's performance vs. the Spartans in his stead (Shembo could shift outside to provide more edge pressure on 3rd Down).
OLB (CAT): Darius Fleming – The team's active leader in tackles for loss, Fleming played his best game of the season in the Week Three win over the Spartans. As Brian Kelly noted during game week of his prior efforts: "Good, not great. We want more. We have a high bar for him.We're waiting for him to be great. Maybe that's unfair that we put such a high bar for him because some other guys don't have such a high bar set. We think he's capable of more, and I know he feels he's capable of more."
The senior made two huge athletic plays in the opening loss to South Florida, both negating what appeared to be sure gains on screen passes. That was not the case vs. the Wolverines in Week Two as Fleming's whiff in space yielded a go-ahead fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Vincent Smith on a throwback screen play.
ILB (MIKE): Manti Te'o – Solid but unspectacular through three games, Te'o leads the Irish with 26 tackles (two for lost yardage) and a sack. A Butkus Award finalist last season, Te'o's recorded a team-high 12 tackles (10 assisted) Saturday vs. the Spartans.
A true junior, Te'o received his first moment of respite in Week Three – taking a series off per half in favor of backup Anthony McDonald. The ability to give Te'o – a three-down player as a nickel and dime linebacker – an occasional break will be a key storyline over the next two months for the Irish defense.
ILB (WILL): Dan Fox – Shares the job with fellow junior Carlo Calabrese; the pair receiving nearly the same number of snaps through three weeks. Fox is tied for second on the squad with two tackles for loss while he and Calabrese have combined for 22 tackles through three games.
FS: Jamoris Slaughter – Quiet in the opening pair of contests with just four tackles and no passes defended, Slaughter starts at free safety and switches to a slot cornerback role when the Irish go to their nickel defensive package. Slaughter missed the bulk of the first eight games last fall due to a high ankle sprain and heel injury; his addition to the lineup on a regular basis this fall has made the secondary a much faster, more cohesive group against the pass.
SS: Harrison Smith – The lone team captain has had his moments this season, first forcing a key goal line fumble with a remarkable leaping strike in mid-air vs. the Wolverines – unfortunately for the Irish, the ball bounced to the quickest player on the field – Michigan's Denard Robinson – who scooped up the near miscue for a fourth quarter score. Smith recorded four passes defended last week vs. Michigan State, adding eight tackles; his 19 stops ranks second to Te'o through three contests.
Smith's lone coverage error resulted in a 45-yard jump ball reception during the Wolverines frantic comeback victory in Week Two.
Boundary CB: Gary Gray – Suffered the worst outing of his college career vs. Michigan yielding nearly 240 passing yards and three touchdowns while being beaten for a 77-yard gain that set up a fourth in a nightmarish evening in Ann Arbor. Gray bounced back with a strong game vs. Michigan State, recording a pass break-up and 10 tackles – his calling card as one of the more rugged cornerbacks in the nation.
Ranked as Irisheyes.com's No. 3 overall player last fall, allowing just one touchdown pass in 13 starts. He produced five tackles and two pass break-ups including the game-ender in last year's Irish/Panthers matchup in South Bend.
Field CB: Robert Blanton – A solid tackler and top-notch cover man, Blanton has been the team's best defensive player this season, allowing just one relevant pass reception (a third-and-seven conversion). He starred last week in the 31-13 victory over Michigan State, recording three tackles for loss, three pass breakups (two in the end zone) and sealing the game with an interception at the Irish 6-yard line, one he returned 82 yards to set up the game-clinching field goal (affording the Irish a three-score margin).
Blanton has started intermittently since his true freshman season of 2009 and ranks first on the roster in career interceptions (8) including a fourth quarter juggling end zone grab vs. Michigan; one of the few plays made by an Irish defender in a dismal fourth quarter collapse. He finished third among all Irish defenders in statistical "big plays" last season (sacks, tackles-for-loss, passes defender, interceptions, touchdowns, fumbles forced and caused).