Five to Watch: Irish Defense publisher Tim O'Malley offers Scarlet Knights fans five players to watch -- both their best and potentially vulnerable -- on Notre Dame's defense.

Defensive End #7 Stephon Tuitt: A pre-season All-America candidate, Tuitt was a far better player in October and November than during a September quintet of games in which he worked back into shape after off-season hernia surgery. (Though a diving touchdown interception at Michigan ranks as one of the more remarkable plays made by a defensive lineman this season.)

At 6-foot-6, 320-plus pounds, Tuitt is a force vs. the run and has explosive short-space speed as a pass-rusher. He'll decide between the NFL and a likely first-round draft selection and as senior season in South Bend following Saturday's contest. In 2012, Tuitt finished third nationally for the Hendricks Award presented to the nation's outstanding defensive lineman, registering 12 sacks despite playing half the season with a sports hernia.

At full strength and fully engaged, he's capable of dominating Saturday's contest up front.

Outside Linebacker #55 Prince Shembo: Chosen as Notre Dame's defensive player of the year, Shembo -- like Tuitt, and Louis Nix -- was a more explosive playmaker in 2012 than this fall. Shembo finished with 42 tackles, five sacks, and 17 quarterback hurries, though five from the latter category came against Temple in the season-opener. Undersized at defensive end at 6-foot-2, 258 pounds, Shembo nevertheless holds up well on the edge, both with his hand down and as a 3-4 outside linebacker to the boundary side of the formation.

One of three senior linebackers playing his last game at Notre Dame, Shembo brings 100 percent effort to each contest and practice, making him a staff favorite. He's occasionally spelled by junior Ishaq Williams, a former five-star prospect that, at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, has not yet learned to emulate Shembo's approach to his craft.

Shembo can be taken advantage of in pass coverage though he's improved in that regard and rarely is asked to cover more than the short-side curl.

Outside Linebacker #9 Jaylon Smith: Arguably the team's best defensive player in October and November, Smith plays to the field (wide) side of the defense where he not only is asked to seal the edge vs. blocking tight ends in the running game but also drop into zone (and man) coverage with slot receivers, running backs, and detached tight ends.

Smith's final seven weeks (Oct. 5 vs. ASU through season's end) included 43 solo stops, 5.5 of which went for loss, a forced fumble, an interception, and four passes defended. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound true freshman will enter spring ball 2014 among the team's top five players -- just 13 games into his college career.

Inside Linebacker #48 Dan Fox: The fifth-year senior saved his best for last, surging at the end of his three-season starting career, the final year of which was played at mike (middle) linebacker after previous seasons at the will (weak side). Fox was replaced as a starter by junior Jarrett Grace after three games but regained his job when Grace was lost for the season on the Cowboys Stadium turf, a broken leg ending his 2013 campaign.

Fox recovered a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown in relief vs. Arizona State that evening then finished the final six games with 54 tackles including a whopping 15 in the team's season-ending loss at Stanford. Fox led the Irish with 90 tackles including five for loss while also posting a sack, fumble recovery (the only one of the season for the Irish defense), and the aforementioned pick six.

A 35-game starter, Fox is a much better player today than he was in September.

Safety #41 Matthias Farley: The lone experienced safety along the back line entering 2013, Farley struggled throughout the season, missing key tackles that led to crucial touchdowns (Michigan, Purdue, Pittsburgh), and committing both mental and physical mistakes in coverage that led to opponents' scores (Michigan, Stanford).

Farley excelled near the goal line in 2012 as part of a stout Irish defense and was solid as a field side safety. He was however the most vulnerable of the myriad Irish safeties tried by head coach Brian Kelly in 2013 and will be one to watch as the last line of defense in Saturday's contest.

A better player than he showed during the regular season, Farley needs to play well in the Pinstripe Bowl and throughout the spring to return as a starter entering August camp.

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