#7 Defensive End Stephon TuittHead coach Brian Kelly implied the future NFL first round selection is on the brink of his next big game this weekend, noting that Tuitt will be better off now that the triple-optoin portion of the Irish schedule has concluded. Prior to wins over Air Force and Navy, Tuitt compiled impressive numbers vs. the traditional pro-style offense of USC (7 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries, pass breakup) and the no-huddle spread attack from Arizona State (1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF, 2 QB hurries).
Prior, Tuitt appeared every bit his 322-pound post-hernia surgery listing, struggling mightily vs. Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan in Game Two and doing little vs. either Michigan State or Oklahoma thereafter. He's still not the incredible athlete that roamed the Irish defensive front last fall (6'6" 300-pound half-man, half-monster), but Tuitt's rounding into shape and his impact as the team's field side defensive end in the 3-4 and defensive tackle in a 4-3 front will be a tell-tale toward Saturday night's outcome.
#9 Outside Linebacker Jaylon SmithA true freshman, Smith has been Notre Dame's best defensive player over the last four weeks. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's field-side outside linebacker, Smith contends with perimeter runs as well as slot receivers in space. He can get into the backfield (4.5 TFL over the last four games) and blanket receivers in short zone coverage as he showed vs. USC's Nelson Agholor, picking off a pass intended for the standout sophomore after first pressing the Trojans tight end at the line of scrimmage.
Smith will some day prove to be the best college football player on Notre Dame's 2013 roster and he's the program's most athletic linebacker since Courtney Watson roamed the field in 2002; it's most versatile since former No. 1 high school recruit and later San Francisco 49ers outside 'backer Kory Minor (1995-98).
At present, he's merely very good, and he gets better every week.
#9 Nose Guard Louis NixThe pocket collapsing senior returns after a two-game absence, though a procedure to alleviate tendonitis pain in his knee casts doubt as to Nix's effectiveness in this, his first outing since October 19 vs. USC.
A certain first-round pick, Nix's national standing has been lessened by the defense's fall from grace as a whole, but the 6'4" 330-plus pounder is still among the best at what he does: teams don't run inside vs. the Irish when Nix is entrenched as the anchor.
If he's unable to play more than half the game or is forced to leave early, Pittsburgh could have a field day running inside as his backup, senior nose guard and part-time starting defensive end Kona Schwenke is out due to an ankle injury suffered vs. Navy. Notre Dame is without three of its eight defensive linemen from August camp and including Nix and starter Sheldon Day, has five of the eight injured entering Saturday night's contest (Day is expected to play through a third ankle sprain, the most recent coming vs. the Midshipmen though the first occurred back in Week Three at Purdue.)
#55 Outside Linebacker/Defensive End Prince ShemboShembo remains less-than-ordinary as a coverage 'backer on the boundary in the team's 3-4 defense, but when the 260-pounder puts his hand on the ground, he can wreak havoc coming off the edge, and that's what Panthers fans should watch for Saturday night.
Like Tuitt, Shembo's impact vs. the option offenses of Air Force and Navy was minimal. Like Tuitt, Shembo was surging over Notre Dame's previous two outings vs. Pac-12 foes ASU and USC, registering three sacks vs. the Sun Devils and two key pressures vs. the Trojans.
Shembo has compiled 14 tackles including three for lost yardage, two sacks, three QB hurries, and a pass breakup vs. Pittsburgh in the teams' last two meetings.
#2 Cornerback Bennett JacksonThe defense's boundary cornerback, Jackson ranks fourth on the squad with four tackles for loss while adding 48 stops, a QB hurry, three pass breakups, and an interception touchdown through eight games.
Playing through shoulder pain (Jackson played all of 2012 in need of surgery he put off until after the BCS Championship game) and an ankle sprain this fall, the team captain has been less impressive than during his breakout season last fall. But what he lacks in raw coverage skills Jackson makes up for with winning football plays. When there's a hit to be made in run support, a deep ball to be contested, or a quarterback to be harassed, Jackson will likely be involved Saturday night.