Defensive End #90 Ethan Johnson – 6'4" 285-pound (true) junior ranks as the team's active sack leader with 12.5 sacks including six this season. Johnson's improvement at the point of attack over the last three contests has keyed the team's defensive turnaround. The Oregon native ranked as one of two Irish players that appeared to belong on the field in the 2008 blowout loss at The Coliseum (5 solos and a sack), then followed that effort with a key sack last season of Matt Barkley. Solid but unspectacular, Johnson and his bookend Lewis-Moore (below) will decide the fate of the defense with their performance up front Saturday night.
Defensive End #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore – Leads all defensive linemen with 51 tackles, good for fourth among Irish defenders. One of the few bright spots in a Week Eight loss to Navy, Lewis-Moore excels at knifing through the B gap to disrupt inside running plays and has amassed 28 tackles over the last four games. The 6'4" 283-pound redshirt-junior is knocking on the door as one of Notre Dame's 10 best players for the 2010 season as we enter the final week.
Nose Guard #98 Sean Cwynar – The Irish D lost its perceived best player in nose guard Ian Williams during the Week Eight loss to Navy. The redshirt-junior Cwynar stepped in and opponents stopped scoring: literally, as the Irish have since surrendered just one touchdown in Williams' absence. Cwynar will have his hands full with Trojans center Kristopher O'Dowd but the base 3-man Irish front line has kicked down to more 4-man looks over the last three contests – a set from which Cwynar excels due to his quickness off the snap.
CAT Linebacker #45 Darius Fleming – The team's most disruptive perimeter defender, Fleming leads the squad with six sacks and nine tackles-for-loss in as an 11-game starter outside. The versatile junior also drops down to a DE role when the Irish kick into a four-man front, a position from which he excels as a pass rusher but can be controlled in run support. Fleming has been solid this season but his third position in as many seasons likely precluded him from taking "the leap" most (including IrishEyes) expected of him in 2010.
DROP Linebacker #56 Kerry Neal – Speaking of position changes…four years, four positions for a player touted as Notre Dame's next great pass rusher entering the 2007 season. That never came to fruition but the senior has held down the starting Drop linebacker spot since late in August camp, yielding last week to cornerback Robert Blanton due solely to the opponent's triple-option attack. Neal has 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks this season. He's appeared as a pass rushing OLB (freshman), a hybrid DE/OLB (sophomore) a true defensive end (junior) and now in what is largely a coverage role as a senior ‘backer. Look for the Irish to take Neal off the field in nickel situations and in more than a few packages Saturday night.
Inside Linebacker (MIKE) #5 Manti Te'o – The key to the team's defense, Te'o has largely eradicated the "Rocket" screen (WR underneath) and RB screen from opposing offenses due to his instinctive reads and explosion to the play. The 6'2" 250-pound true sophomore leads the defense with 118 tackles including a 21-tackle effort in Week Four vs. Pac 10 foe Stanford. Te'o ranks second on the squad with 8.5 tackles-for-loss and though he chases down pass catchers in short zones, the second-year player can still be had by crafty tight ends in zone coverage. Easily the group's hardest hitter, Te'o occasionally overruns plays on the perimeter though he's in position to make a far greater number of plays compared to the remainder of his fellow ‘backers.
Inside Linebacker (WILL) #58 Brian Smith – The versatile senior has shifted back inside for the last three games after serving as the team's backup DROP linebacker over the first eight contests. Smith ranks second on the squad (just ahead of Te'o) in career tackles and has responded to his re-immersion inside (Smith played mostly ILB in 2008 and 2009) with 18 stops over the last three contests. A big playmaker (for both his defense and opposing offenses), Smith played the best half of his college career in last year's near-comeback against the Trojans in South Bend.
Cornerback #2 Darrin Walls – Prior to a late-season run it appeared the senior corner was destined to play his best football as a true sophomore in the lost season of 2007 (the Irish were 3-9; Walls was very good). But like the unit around him, the 6'0" 190 pound Walls has saved his best for last, picking off a career high three passes including an interception touchdown last week in Yankee Stadium (his first since the '07 season in Happy Valley) and recording a tackle-for-loss in both of the last two contests. Walls sees less action from opposing quarterbacks at field corner than either Gray (boundary) or Robert Blanton (nickel) do each week but that could change vs. USC's deeper receiving corps. The team's most fluid if not fastest player, look for Walls to matchup with speedster Robert Woods often Saturday evening.
Cornerback #4 Gary Gray – Gray will likely finish second in the voting for the squad's defensive MVP and has been a consistent presence since his 9-tackle performance in a Week One win over Purdue. The 5'11" 190-pound boundary cornerback ranks as one of the position's most physical players over the last five seasons at the program (only 2006 graduate Mike Richardson comes to mind as comparable). Gray intercepted a pass in the 4th Quarter last season vs. USC QB Matt Barkley and has recorded 53 tackles (5 for lost yardage) to go with a forced fumble and seven passes defended including the game-ender vs. Pittsburgh in Week Six, a 23-17 Irish victory.
Strong Safety #22 Harrison Smith – The defense's most improved player since last year (and maybe from the beginning of the season), Smith lost his free safety job following a poor performance vs. the Trojans in Week Six last fall (he switched to a starting, hybrid linebacker role). Back at safety this season, Smith has since recorded the first three interceptions of his Irish career; emerged as a team leader and the back line's voice, and ranks as the only player in program history to record more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 pass breakups over the course of his career. The 6'2" 215-pounder announced earlier this month he plans to return for a 5th season of eligibility (if granted) next season. Ranks second on the squad with 81 tackles and first with 8 passes defended.
Free Safety #17 Zeke Motta – Likely the team's 5th best defensive back, Motta was pressed into immediate action as a true sophomore starter when free safety Jamoris Slaughter suffered a (lingering) high ankle sprain in Week One. More of a hybrid linebacker prior to this season, the 6'2" 210-pound Motta has recorded 42 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 1 forced fumble and 1 end zone interception on the season. Te'o is the team's biggest hitter; Slaughter is likely No. 2, but Motta is 2A. He'll be targeted Saturday in coverage as the 2011 version of Motta will far outperform the player originally slated for Nickel duties this fall.
Key Defensive Reserves
Nickel Defender #12 Robert Blanton – Tremendous as a freshman; sub par as a sophomore and now at the top of his game as a true junior, the versatile Blanton ranks third on the squad in tackles-for-loss (7), 9th in tackles (39) while recording an interception, a blocked punt on which he scored, and six passes defended, four of which saved touchdowns. Blanton will see ample playing time Saturday night vs. the Trojans.
Free Safety #26 Jamoris Slaughter – Missed the bulk of the season due to a lingering ankle (and heel) injury but has played well over the last three weeks as he's worked his way back. Won't start; should play plenty, and lends speed and aggressiveness to the back line.
CAT Linebacker #55 Prince Shembo – The team's best freshman defensive player has emerged as a late-season pass rush threat. At 6'2" 243, Shembo possesses one of the best first steps (not to mention finishing step) on the squad and will have to make an impact off the edge for the Irish to prevail in The Coliseum. Sat out the bulk of last week's contest due to the scheme and his unfamiliarity with the triple-option.
Nose Guard/Defensive End #94 Hafis Williams – Redshirt-junior serves as a crucial backup to classmate Sean Cwynar inside. Williams moved inside from a defensive end role after the Week Eight injury to Ian Williams on the nose. The 6'1" 285-pounder has six tackles over the last three games since assuming a regular role in the rotation.
Inside Linebacker #44 Carlo Calabrese – Manned the starting inside linebacker role next to Te'o for the season's first eight games before suffering a hamstring injury vs. Navy in Week Eight. The 6'1" 240-pound redshirt-freshman will reportedly play – though not start – but IrishEyes expects you'll see very little of the still-not-100 percent physical ‘backer.
Defensive End #96 Kona Schwenke – Head coach Brian Kelly lifted the true freshman's possible redshirt status in a Week Nine matchup vs. Tulsa. Schwenke has since recorded two tackles, a fumble recovery, a QB hit and additional QB pressure while spelling Johnson and Lewis-Moore up front.
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