With the Irish poised to start the 2012 season behind red-shirt freshman and new starting quarterback Everett Golson and an offense in transition without the likes of Michael Floyd and Jonas Gray, plenty of pressure will be on the Irish defense to step up. However, there are many questions surrounding the Notre Dame defense that will determine if the Irish will make strides this season or continue their form from recent years.
1. How will the Irish replace Aaron Lynch?
Last season Lynch led the Irish in sacks with 5.5 as a freshman. With Lynch choosing to transfer to USF to be closer to home and his girlfriend, the Irish find themselves trying to replace their most disruptive and productive pass-rusher. The Irish will need to replace Lynch’s production by committee. Players such fellow sophomore standout Stephon Tuitt, fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, Chase Hounshell, as well as pass rushing linebackers Prince Shembo, and Ishaq Williams will be relied on to pressure the quarterback.
2. Can the inexperienced secondary do the job?
The Irish will return only one of four starters in the secondary this season in Jamoris Slaughter. With Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton, and Gary Gray all graduating there are many holes to fill. Senior Zeke Motta will fill in for Smith at safety opposite Slaughter to create a veteran duo. However, the cornerback position is not nearly as experienced. Bennett Jackson will start at one corner spot. The New Jersey native is coming off his first season at corner after spending his freshman campaign at wide receiver. Jackson showed flashes of ability last season and will be counted on to be the Irish’s shutdown corner. Lo Wood was scheduled to start alongside Jackson until he suffered a season ending Achilles injury; as a result converted slot receiver and true freshman KeiVarae Russell will be thrust into the spotlight as a starter. With such inexperience and lack of depth in the secondary the Irish will need to rotate defensive backs often, which means Jalen Brown, Josh Atkinson, Chris Salvi, Mathius Farley, and others will all be relied upon to play different roles.
3. Are the true freshmen ready to step up?
As a result of injuries and depth issues many true freshman will be counted on to make an instant impact for the Irish defense. As a result of the Lo Wood injury, KeiVarae Russell will start the opening game of the season versus rival Navy. With cornerback being a position of need Russell will need to play strongly throughout the season for the Irish. Elijah Shumate is another freshman cornerback that may see the field in certain packages. Early enrollee Sheldon Day has caught the eye of the Irish coaching staff and will see playing time instantly for the Irish along the defensive line. Finally Romeo Okwara could see time at outside linebacker as well as occasionally putting his hand on the ground as a pass rushing specialist.
4. Can the defense create enough turnovers?
Last season Notre Dame’s turnover differential simply wasn’t good enough, and not only because of the numerous turnovers by the offense. Last season the Irish recorded only eight interceptions and eight forced fumbles, recovering six. A total of 14 turnovers and two defensive touchdowns needs to be improved on. With a freshman quarterback the Irish defense need to create turnovers to give the offense extra opportunities to score as well as chipping in by scoring themselves.
5. Can the front seven make enough plays?
With an inexperienced secondary that lacks depth the Irish front seven will be relied on to lead the defense. One of the best ways to protect the secondary is to pressure the opposing quarterback and force him to make mistakes. Another way the front seven can help the secondary is to play well against the run and force the opposition into passing down and distances where the linebacking corps can help in coverage. The Irish front seven also needs to create more turnovers as Manti Te’o hasn’t had an interception or fumble recovery in his Notre Dame career. Furthermore the front seven as a whole only created three turnovers all of last season, all of which by players no longer on the Irish defense, Darius Fleming, and Ethan Johnson whose Notre Dame careers ended, and Troy Niklas who has moved to tight end.
6. Can Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt take their play to the next level?
Two of the biggest stars with the most potential on the Notre Dame defense are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. Both have three years of eligibility left and the Irish will look for the duo to increase their level of play. Nix had 45 tackles last season, the most of anyone on the Irish defensive line; however, Nix found himself in a battle for his starting job all spring with Kona Schwenke. Questions came up regarding Nix’s work ethic, but he will be the opening game starter. Nix will need to continue to record plenty of tackles while eating up blocks in the middle as well as increasing his disruptiveness as he only recorded a half sack last season. If Nix’s play drops off he could find himself on the bench. The other half of the talented duo is Georgia native Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt recorded 30 tackles and two sacks in nine games last season, three of which he started. Tuitt’s workload will increase with Aaron Lynch’s departure and he will be looked to as one of the premier pass-rushers for the Irish. Tuitt has been reported to be looking very strong and dominant at times in practice and the Irish will look for him to continue that form in the season.
7. How will the Irish coaching staff utilize Jamoris Slaughter?
The Notre Dame coaching staff has a good problem to have when it comes to what to do with Jamoris Slaughter. Slaughter will begin the season at his natural position of safety and will be looked on as the leader of the Irish secondary. When Lo Wood was injured there were rumblings that Slaughter would be shifted to corner because he possesses the athleticism to do so. If need be due to further injuries or poor play at the cornerback position Slaughter could factor into the rotation to help the defense. Additionally Slaughter has played a hybrid linebacker role against power run/option teams such as Navy and Air Force, and Slaughter will likely continue that role this year as he has the size and physicality to move up and play against the run. Slaughter is an instrumental player to the Irish success as he possesses the size, speed, and athleticism to be a jack of all trades for the defense.
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