Notre Dame Preview: Defense

Irish Eyes Publisher Tim O'Malley breaks down Notre Dame's defense.

Irish Defense

The Irish defense has allowed just three rushing scores this season – two by quarterbacks. Only Alabama and Utah (2) have yielded fewer. Air Force tailback Jonathan Lee is the only non-quarterback to score a rushing TD vs. the Irish since Week Eight of 2010 (Lee scored with 0:33 remaining in Notre Dame's 59-33 win over the Falcons on October 8).

Left Defensive End #90 Ethan Johnson – Missed the Week Six win over Air Force with a high ankle sprain, one suffered on the second defensive series in a Week Five win at Purdue. Previously notched four QB hurries in four starts, a number that remains second on the squad. A three-plus year starter, the 6'4" 295-pound senior is expected to return to action this week – potentially his fourth career start vs. the Trojans – though his volume of plays is in question.

Nose Guard #9 Louis Nix – 6'3" 325-pound redshirt freshman lost nearly 50 pounds in the off-season; now he sheds blockers in the middle of the team's improved rush defense. Nix began the year as senior Sean Cwynar's backup on the nose but the former's broken hand and Nix's ascent earned him a starting role over the last five contests. His six tackles in his debut (as a reserve) curiously stands as nearly half his total (13) on the season.

Right Defensive End #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore – The team's most consistent defensive lineman through six games, Lewis-Moore has led the unit in tackles each of the last two seasons and ranks at the top again this fall with 26 stops including four for loss (tied for third on the defense). Eligible for a 5th-season of eligibility next fall, Lewis-Moore recorded seven stops vs. USC in last year's Irish win and five with 1.5 for lost yardage in a 2009 loss in South Bend. The senior often shifts inside to a defensive tackle role in the team's nickel package and remains on the field for most snaps of the dime look as well.

Cat Linebacker #45 Darius Fleming – Senior outside linebacker lines up on the boundary side of the team's defense, playing both defensive end when the front shifts to a 4-3 and outside ‘backer with both short zone coverage and pass-rushing responsibilities. Fleming starred in last year's contest with a team-high seven tackles including a key lost yardage stop on the Trojans' final drive. After a slow start this season, the three-year starter has produced 18 tackles including 3.5 for loss with two sacks over his last four contests.

Dog Linebacker #55 Prince Shembo – Has started four of the team's six games, missing the Week Three win over Michigan State for a family emergency and serving in a backup role vs. Air Force's triple-option attack in Week Six (Notre Dame employed three safeties and three linebackers throughout the contest). The sophomore outside linebacker lines up on the field side of the team's defensive formation, contending often with opposing pass targets in the flat and at times down the seam of the Irish defense. Shembo shifts to a defensive end, sometimes defensive tackle role in the team's nickel and dime defenses, though the emergence of younger defensive linemen has allowed him to play more on the edge over the last month.

Mike Linebacker #5 Manti Te'o – The team's best defensive player and one of the nation's best linebackers, Te'o leads the Irish in tackles (59), tackles-for-loss (8.5), and sacks (4). A Butkus Award finalist last season, Te'o had a pedestrian outing in the win over USC, recording just six tackles while being beaten by fullback Rhett Ellison on a key 4th-down conversion on the Trojans final drive.

The 6'2" 255-pound junior played through an ankle sprain in Week Six to lead the team with 10 total tackles, his fourth double-digit tackle game of the season. Te'o's greatest skill, his ability to sniff out and destroy the screen game, will be put to the test this week in South Bend vs. the Trojans myriad short-field targets.

Will Linebacker #48 Dan Fox – Won the August camp battle vs. classmate and 2010 starter Carlo Calabrese for the inside role next to Te'o though Fox and Calabrese have earned a nearly equal split of snaps to date. A former high school safety and 4-3 outside ‘backer early in his Irish career, Fox's strength has always been pass coverage, but head coach Brian Kelly noted the junior strides at the point of attack was the impetus for his expanded role. Fox has posted 23 stops on the season including two for loss with a sack against Michigan QB, Denard Robinson.

Free Safety #26 Jamoris Slaughter – Splits free safety snaps with junior Zeke Motta but Slaughter earns extended action as the team's nickel defender, aligned in the slot – his previous experience as a cornerback proving valuable in the defensive scheme. The senior from Stone Mountain, GA played the best game of his college career in Notre Dame's last outing, starting at outside linebacker vs. the Air Force triple-option. Slaughter recorded six tackles and was responsible for both of the Falcons turnovers: a strip on the visitor's first offensive snap and a remarkable diving interception of a backfield swing pass one quarter later. Kelly awarded the versatile defender the defensive MVP award for his efforts.

The 6'0" 195-pounder is reportedly suffering from an (unconfirmed) ankle injury suffered late in the third quarter vs. the Falcons. Slaughter was hobbled for nine games last season with an ankle, heel injury sustained in the opening game.

Strong Safety #22 Harrison Smith – The lone team captain and one of the defense's two most important players, Smith is in charge of secondary calls and adjustments, but its his burst on the back line that allows an otherwise pedestrian group (in terms of athleticism) to excel in zone coverage

The Knoxville, TN-native ranks second to Te'o in total tackles (40) and leads the team with seven passes defended. Smith broke up a flare pass and intercepted a Mitch Mustain throw one play later to seal Notre Dame's victory in Los Angeles last November. The 5th-year senior is the only player in program history to record more than 200 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss, and 15 pass breakups in his Irish career.

Cornerback #12 Robert Blanton – One of the team's best players this fall (ranked No. 3 on our mid-season list), Blanton simply picked up where he left off last season, though now in a starting role (Blanton was our #7 overall player (offense/defense/special teams) as the team's nickel back last season. Physical, confident, blessed with an off-the-charts defensive IQ, quick, but by no means fast, the 6'1" 200-pound senior has not been beaten on a completion of consequence through six games this fall. That string will be put to the test early and often vs. USC's deep, explosive receiving corps.

One of the unit's most versatile players, Blanton ranks third in tackles (39), second in tackles-for-loss (6), is tied for second in passes defended (5) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (2).

Cornerback #4 Gary Gray – A 5th-year senior, Gray broke out last season; earning the #3 spot on the Top 10 list for 13 weeks of consistent, sometimes dominant play on the corner. Conversely, his 2011 season has seen intermittent struggles, famously marked by an all-time poor performance in the team's vexing loss at Michigan. A physical tackler that excels in short zone coverage, Gray has the ability to tackle USC star Robert Woods one-on-one in space…but covering the aggressive target will be his greatest challenge of the season.

Gray finished third on the squad in tackles last season and was beaten just once for a score (vs. BC). He's currently tied for fifth this year (26) with two interceptions and five passes defended to his credit. Unlike last year, Gray has been a magnet for pass interference penalties including four in the opponents' end zones over the first four weeks.

Key Reserves: The Irish regularly employ six defensive linemen, two Will linebackers opposite Te'o, and two free safeties opposite Smith in their game day rotation.

Free Safety #17 Zeke Motta – Has started twice at free safety, splitting time with Jamoris Slaughter, regardless of the opponent. Motta is steady in run support though he's had his share of misses in open space this season.

Linebacker #44 Carlo Calabrese – Has 24 stops (one more than Will starter Dan Fox) a sack and two passes defended, the first a fourth-down breakup sealing the victory at Pittsburgh. Throwback linebacker excels at defending the running game, especially between the tackles.

Nose Guard #98 Sean Cwynar – Undersized nose guard (6'4" 285) started the final five games of 2010 and the first this year before breaking his hand – an injury he's been battling since the season opener (missed Week Two in Ann Arbor and played sparingly vs. Air Force in Week Six). Cwynar was one of five key subs that helped save the Irish season last fall after a 4-5 start.

Defensive End #19 Aaron Lynch – Leads the team with 8 QB hurries as a true freshman; the 6'6" 265-pounder earned his first career start in place of injured Ethan Johnson in the team's last outing. Was dominant vs. the best team on the Irish schedule to date, recording a sack, forced fumble, and an obscene six QB hurries in an 18-point win over Michigan State in mid-September.

Defensive End #7 Stephon Tuitt – Massive defensive lineman (6'7" 295) rotates at nose guard and right defensive end and appears to have earned a starting role in the team's nickel and dime defensive package.

Should also see time: Outside linebackers Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas, defensive tackle Chase Hounshell, dime safety Austin Collinsworth, cornerback Lo Wood. Top Stories