5 to Watch: Irish Defense

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley offers Panthers fans five key Notre Dame players to watch on the defensive side of scrimmage -- other than Manti Te'o -- for Saturday's game in South Bend.

1 -- NG #9 Louis Nix: From project to legitimate first-round prospect, the 330-pound junior has become one of the team's 2-3 most important players in this, his second season as a competitor. Dominant at nose guard, disruptive at defensive tackle when the front switches to four-down lineman, and rarely successfully blocked by one opponent, Nix keys the team base defense, its short-yardage and goal line defense, and has stayed on the field in occasional four-down nickel situations as well thanks to his ability to push the pocket and quickness in short space.

For the Panthers to move the ball Saturday, they'll have to find a way to control Nix inside.

2 -- DE #7 Stephon Tuitt and DE #55 Prince Shembo: The 6'6" 300-pound man-child Tuitt leads the team in sacks at 8.5 while the squatly built Shembo -- technically a boundary linebacker -- leads defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's unit with 9 pressures (to Tuitt's 8). Together they've afforded Diaco the luxury of consistent pressure on opposing passers without the disadvantage of a blitzing player leaving a void in his "no crease" defense.

Shembo will split time with sophomore Ishaq Williams at boundary linebacker in 3-4 defensive fronts while manning a defensive end spot when the Irish use a 4-3 alignment, the preferred front through eight games to date.

Tuitt is a first-team All-America candidate as a true sophomore.

3 -- CB #6 Keivarae Russell: Recruited primarily as a running back, Russell switched to corner at the outset of August training camp, later became the first true freshman to start a season opener at CB for Notre Dame in program history, and has since steadily improved, especially as a tackler in space, his chief job in the team's soft shell secondary.

At least five inches shorter than Devin Street and six to Mike Shanahan, look for the Panthers to target Russell for short passes as well as fade routes in the rare situations where he (or fellow CB Bennett Jackson) don't receive help over the top from the team's safety duo.

4 -- S #17 Zeke Motta: Merely solid in 2011 and maybe a shade below that in 2010, Motta was named this week as a Thorpe Award semi-finalist thanks to his rugged play and leadership in a secondary that starts a former running back, a former wide receiver, and a redshirt-freshman former high school soccer star alongside him.

At his best supporting the run, Motta has greatly improved in his downfield coverage, negating every deep ball in his vicinity with the exception of a dropped touchdown pass by Miami in early October. Now in a leadership role, Motta has become more vocal on the field, antagonizing opposing receivers with contact away from the play, after the play, and at anytime possible in between.

He and the Panthers RB duo of Ray Graham and Rushel Shell should have more than a few meetings after scrimmage as well.

5 -- DE #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore: Perhaps the team's unsung hero this fall, Lewis-Moore is in his fourth season as a starter for the Irish defense. After beginning to emerge as a force at mid-season last year, Lewis-Moore was lost for the final six games due to a torn ACL suffered vs. USC. He returned as a backup to the since-transferred Aaron Lynch, has evolved into a team captain and one of the 7-10 best overall players on the roster.

Graded as a fourth round NFL Draft prospect entering October, Lewis-Moore has blossomed as a 5th-year senior, already posting a career-best in QB pressures (6) and sacks (3) while playing 3-4 DE, 4-3 DT, and nose guard in nickel packages. Solid vs. the run for the last three seasons, Lewis-Moore has 29 tackles in his last six games; 11 of which have occurred within three yards of scrimmage.

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