Notre Dame Defensive Personnel:
The 2010 Irish defense allowed just two rushing touchdowns – one on a four-play, one-yard drive by USC – and no passing touchdowns over a 19-quarter span from Game Nine through the first 50 minutes of a bowl blowout over Miami. One week prior to that stellar effort, Notre Dame yielded more than 360 rushing yards and five touchdowns in a blowout loss at Navy – thus, while the rush defense ranks as a strength entering 2011, recent evidence to the contrary exists.
LDE: Ethan Johnson – Ranks 1-2 with classmate Darius Fleming on the current roster in career sacks and tackles-for-loss; the pair rank #11-12 in program history in quarterback take downs…Head coach Brian Kelly offered Johnson was the team's "best pass rusher" but was overworked last year due to a lack of depth…Has played in 38 games, starting 28 entering his final season – the first in which he returns to the same position (LDE) as the previous year.
RDE: Kapron Lewis-Moore – While Johnson is the more consistent run defender, Lewis-Moore's knack for knifing into the backfield should not be overlooked…A senior that has started for the better part of two seasons after sitting out his freshman year as a 215-pound recruit – weighs in at a robust 300 entering 2011…Has totaled a D-Line best 108 tackles over the last two seasons…Versatility allows him to play defensive tackle when the front switches to a 4-3 alignment as well.
NG: Sean Cwynar – Quietly helped save the Irish season last fall, stepping in for injured nose guard Ian Williams over the final four regular season games while splitting time upon the latter's return for the Sun Bowl…Cwynar and the Irish finished 4-1 without the since-graduated Williams and the defense – especially the rush D – improved dramatically upon Cwynar's ascent…Will likely participate in 60 percent of the defense's snaps with massive redshirt-freshman nose guard Louis Nix holding down the fort for close to 40 percent and in all short-yardage situations.
OLB (DOG): Prince Shembo – 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…Extremely athletic defender is one of the unit's X-factors, especially early in 2011.
OLB (CAT): Darius Fleming – Referred to by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco as a potential national breakout player at his position; Kelly echoed those sentiments…A top-notch pass-rusher and scrimmage player who will also be counted upon to cover the boundary side of the field vs. pass-heavy units…Shifts to defensive end in the team's 4-3 sets.
ILB (MIKE): Manti Te'o – Along with senior wide receiver Michael Floyd, ranks as the team's best player, pro prospect, and most explosive weapon…Excels vs. opposing screen games and in every aspect vs. the run though he can be beaten in one-on-one situations by talented ‘backs and tight ends…If his ascent continues, Te'o will exit the school in 2011 or 2012 as the best linebacker at the program since two-time first-team All-America Michael Stonebreaker (1988-90).
ILB (WILL): Dan Fox – Won the job over incumbent Carlo Calabrese with an excellent August camp, though Diaco notes the position will be a job share and both are considered starters…Has played little after sitting out 2009 as a true freshman and serving in a backup role inside last year…Former high school safety and 2009 outside ‘backer for the Irish is comfortable in pass protection but had to work on becoming amore physical player at his new inside position…Calabrese's skill set is the polar opposite: a thumper whose weakness was his coverage ability last season.
FS: Jamoris Slaughter – Was hobbled for most of 2010 after injuring his ankle in the opener vs. Purdue…Won the starting role last August but backup Zeke Motta started eight games in his stead: the pair is another considered a starting "tandem" entering the season…A senior, but not overly experienced after sitting out 2008, playing as a backup cornerback in 2009, and limping through the bulk of 2010…Adds speed and a penchant for the big hit despite sub-200 pound frame.
SS: Harrison Smith – Team captain and breakout player of 2010…Smith did not intercept a pass in his first 29 games (2008-Week Five 2010) but has since thieved seven over his last eight outings…The only player in Notre Dame history to record more than 200 tackles with 15 pass breakups and 15 tackles-for-loss, though the latter came courtesy time served at outside linebacker under the previous staff (a terrible fit for the natural born safety)…
Boundary CB: Gary Gray – Ranked as Irisheyes.com's No. 3 overall player last fall…Extremely aggressive run defender excels in zone coverage…Allowed one touchdown pass last season in 13 starts…Could be the team's best open-field tackler…5th-year senior could be an excellent college safety as well though might not possess top-end speed of other potential All-America cornerbacks.
Field CB: Robert Blanton – Has started intermittently since his true freshman season of 2009 and is considered an upgrade over departed senior Darrin Walls at the field cornerback spot…Finished third among all Irish defenders in statistical "big plays" last season (sacks, tackles-for-loss, passes defender, interceptions, touchdowns, fumbles forced and caused)…Has had two interceptions in each of his three collegiate seasons, scoring two touchdowns over that span…A solid tackler and top-notch zone defender but not the fleetest cornerback the Bulls will face this fall.
Key Reserves: DE Aaron Lynch; DE Stephon Tuitt; LB Carlo Calabrese; S Zeke Motta; LB Steve Filer; NG Louis Nix.