In-Depth: Irish D

A look at Notre Dame's defense entering Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl battle with Rutgers.

The first 51 games of the Brian Kelly era included trusted aid Bob Diaco coordinating the Irish defense. With Diaco now entrenched as the head coach of the Connecticut Huskies, it appears the 52nd will include contributions from the remaining trio of assistants.

"We've broken it up so our defensive coaches have more responsibility," Kelly told Tim Prister of Irish Illustrated following a Christmas Day practice. "Bobby Elliott has taken a bigger piece on third down situations. Mike Elston has taken a lot of the short-yardage situations. So it's actually the opposite where I'm having less to do whereas I was on third down (with Diaco). I'll have less to do and more on the offensive side of the ball. The defensive coaches will take more of a responsibility in situations."

Asked who would replace Diaco in the coach's booth, Kelly offered that the 2012-13 co-defensive coordinator (and official bowl defensive coordinator) Kerry Cooks would likely move from the sidelines to the booth. Cooks though wouldn't mind if Elliott, a game day fixture upstairs, handled the role as the defense's eye in the sky.

"Kerry has been politicking me about staying on the sideline and letting Bobby run the calls down. So we're still in that process of figuring that out."

Defensive Line – One Man Down

The only 2013 season combatant not available for Saturday is senior Louis Nix, out since mid-November following knee surgery (and off the team since signing with an agent earlier this month).

With four weeks past since Notre Dame's loss at Stanford, expect senior nose guard Kona Schwenke to be close to full strength (high ankle sprain) and in a starter's role inside. He'll be backed by redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones who played extensively in the former's absence vs. Brigham Young and the Cardinal.

Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day – another high-ankle sprain victim dating back to Week Three at Purdue – should be close to 100 percent as one defensive end while junior Stephon Tuitt will make his 26th consecutive start opposite. Tuitt mans the "Stud" position, or field-side defensive end while Day plays to the boundary.

Including Jones on the nose, backups include freshman defensive end Isaac Rochell and junior linebacker Ishaq Williams opposite. Jones can also play defensive end, his position for the first half of the season before injuries forced his move inside. New Jersey native Tyler Stockton will likely offer time on the nose for the fifth consecutive game. The 5th-year senior will play his last game in an Irish uniform and end on a high note after sitting out all of the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

Senior defensive end Justin Utupo will likely lend time up front as well while sophomore linebacker Romeo Okwara spent the second half of the season as a "starter" in a variety of nickel and dime packages as described below.

Linebackers – Finishing Strong

The unit as a whole played below expectations early but has come on late, led by a dialed-in Dan Fox and 5th-year classmate Carlo Calabrese inside. The pair played their best football over the season's final month, most notably Fox who was replaced by since-injured Jarrett Grace (broken tibia) in the opening month. Since reclaiming his spot in Grace's stead, Fox has racked up 61 tackles including two for loss, a sack, a fumble recovery, and an interception returned for a touchdown.

Senior Prince Shembo will make his 38th straight start at boundary linebacker – and his first since winning the team's Defensive Player of the Year Award earlier this month. All five of Shembo's sacks came in the second half of the season. His 17 official quarterback hurries were the most at Notre Dame since Justin Tuck in 2004 (the first season the statistic was consistently recorded).

Freshman Jaylon Smith will make his 13th straight start at the field (wide-side) linebacker spot. Smith's 61 stops were the fifth-highest ever by an Irish freshman defender, his 6.5 TFL ranked second on the squad. Along with Fox, Calabrese, and the Irish safeties, Smith's play vs. Rutgers' myriad screen passes will be essential to the defense's ability to get off the field on third down.

None from the starting quartet will see much time on the sidelines in the base defense, though senior Kendall Moore will likely earn minutes inside as the No. 3 man behind Fox and Calabrese. Shembo will be occasionally spelled by Williams on the boundary but with this the former's last game, and considering Williams' myriad other roles (nickel linebacker, dime defensive end, backup base DE), expect Shembo's total snaps to be a season-high should the game remain close.

Smith will be backed by the aforementioned Okwara, though like Williams, the versatile Okwara fills many roles, the least of which is spelling Smith in the base defense.

Defensive Backs – Redemption?

Uneven throughout 2013, Notre Dame's defensive backfield could have a try-out of sorts Saturday, losing only team captain Bennett Jackson among its top eight performers heading into 2014.

A New Jersey native, Jackson and sophomore Keivarae Russell will make their 26th consecutive start together as the team's cornerback tandem. They're backed by freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler, with senior Lo Wood in reserve. Wood has asked for his release from the team (granted) to play elsewhere as a fifth-year senior.

Depth at safety proved fruitless in 2013 but the entire lot of available bodies can return to the fray for '14. Expect Austin Collinsworth to make his 12th start of the season on the boundary (and to return as a 5th-year player this spring) with junior Matthias Farley playing again to the field side. Farley's unexpected struggles throughout the season, coupled with a final game suspension for sophomore Elijah Shumate and junior Eilar Hardy have reportedly opened the door for freshman Max Redfield to see meaningful scrimmage time in the bowl game.

Both Shumate and Hardy have been reinstated, but it would seem Redfield's best opportunity to seize practice snaps (and therefore, game day playing time) was in their stead.

Dime Package

The Irish didn't regularly employ a nickel (five defensive backs, 4-2-5 alignment) after a loss to Oklahoma in Game Five. The dime (six defensive backs, one linebacker, four defensive linemen) thus became the defense's preferred third-down package in obvious passing situations.

Look for a defensive front with the following rotating pieces: Williams and Shembo outside, Okwara and Tuitt inside in a four-down alignment. Day is also available in reserve both inside and out.

The solo linebacker is junior Joe Schmidt, a former preferred walk-on that carved a niche in the role after Jarrett Grace was lost to injury.

Backup cornerbacks Cole Luke and Devin Butler join starters Jackson and Russell in the package with the freshmen pair taking on slot receivers inside. Expect Collinsworth and Farley to remain as the safeties (especially if Redfield joins the base defense), though Shumate has been a dime regular in multiple roles – struggling as a slot cover man but showing well as a true safety.

It's unlikely Redfield will be both a base player (best guess) and dime package participant with limited bowl preparation, though it's unclear which he's been prepared for due to closed practices.


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