Notre Dame’s Biggest Strength: Possibly Defensive Front 7


In last season’s wins over Utah, Army and USC, the Notre Dame defense allowed an average of just 233.3 yards per game. In the first nine games of the season, the Fighting Irish allowed 393.1 yards per game. After surrendering 20+ points in six of the first nine contests in 2010, the Irish rebounded from their 4-5 start to go 4-0 down the stretch (including the Sun Bowl win over Miami). In that undefeated stretch, they averaged less than 10 ppg against.

The growth and development of the defense is one reason many college football pundits are very high on the Irish this season; and it starts with their fearsome front seven.


Senior Defensive Ends Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson are on the Ted Hendricks Award watch list- honoring the nation’s best at the position. Freshman pass-rushers Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch — the 6-foot-6, 260-pound beast from Cape Coral, Fla., whose seven tackles, 1.5 TFL performance was the talk of the spring game, are now here too. So It’ll be interesting to see how ND gets all their talented DEs from this highly rated recruiting class out on the field. Williams moved over to outside linebacker. It’s quite common for defensive ends to move to OLB when they make the jump from college football to the NFL. Therefore, the transition is common from high school to college as well.

I brought up this topic at Media Day, this is what Coach Brian Kelly said in response:

We really believe that Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson had to take too many snaps last year. I think it was reflected mainly in third down scenarios where if there was an area that we needed to address, it was third down. That occurs through depth and situational substitution. We didn’t have that versatility last year.

So that depth that we have is going to allow Ethan and Kap, who are starters, to be fresh on third down, take a blow here or there, so we’re really coming at you for four quarters. That depth allows that as well as versatility.

Now we can look at situational substitution in certain times within different packages we have defensively. We didn’t have the ability to do that last year. We had to be in a couple of fronts, this is what we did. We had to live with that. It gives us a lot more versatility.

And this idea came up later in Kelly’s response to a question about the overall talent and depth in the program:

Question was asked about the defensive line. Defensively at the linebacker and defensive line position, we feel like we’ve got enough depth there that we can roll out the next guy.

Our shortcomings are going to be on offense after that next level.

We’re really thin offensively in the depth of our football program. So if you’re looking at where the perceived weaknesses are in the program, it’s through recruiting and that skill position. That’s got to be addressed.

We had to come in immediately and address the defense. That was easy. We knew where we had to go immediately, and that was on the defensive side of the ball. These next couple years are going to be focused on building depth in those skill areas. 

Sean Cwynar starts at Nose Guard (backed up by Louis Nix III) to complete the starting d line. At linebacker, Darius Fleming will start at the Cat Outside Linebacker position, with Prince Shembo at the Dog, the other outside position. Probably the biggest overall talent, and quite certainly the top NFL prospect on the entire team is Manti Te’o, who starts at inside linebacker alongside Dan Fox. Carlo Calabrese, who started last season, will see a lot of time, splitting reps with Fox.

Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco gave a great soundbite as to how the Irish fill in their two-deep at the defensive front seven.

“You look at their tangible traits to see who has the physical attributes to do the job specific to that. Guys who are more athletic and faster, and can stop and start in space from two point, have the ability and flexibility in their torso and core to create stress on pass setters and get around them and bend and get in to create pressure on the quarterback, those are players who will do those specific jobs.”

“The battlers and the bangers and the grinders, your blue collar, warehouse, knock ’em back players that aren’t necessarily electric and probably wouldn’t be able to do well in a two point stance and play in space. They’ll be closer to the ball and line of scrimmage.”

Pretty thorough and exactly what you defense junkies are looking to hear, right?

Diaco also talked about the progression of the linebackers.

“The linebackers are improving and are moving their game along. We are moving along and trying to reach towards that 300 and 400 level of teaching. The WILL linebacker is shaping up where the two players there can go in and play competitively and win their individual matchups. The MIKE linebacker may be the most efficient position at this point for a multitude of reasons and there will be enough at the outside linebacker position to have a rotation if that is necessary.”

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports 

He does regular weekly radio spots in Chicago and Cleveland and has appeared on live shows all across the world from Houston to New Zealand. You can follow him on Twitter

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