How ND’s Defensive Line Compares to the Elite

Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame spring game 2013
20 April 2013: Notre Dame linebacker Stephon Tuitt (7) in action during the 2013 84th Annual Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Game at Notre Dame Stadium, in Notre Dame, IN.

Defense wins championships. If you’re a Notre Dame fan, the weight of such a statement truly strikes home, with the Fighting Irish defense mostly carrying the offense during the 2012 season. Given the importance of defense – and an article last week examining how effective offensive line recruiting has been under Brian Kelly’s watch (ND was tied with LSU for the 2nd best recruiting haul of o-linemen in the Class of 2013 and is currently tied for 1st place, also with LSU, for the best offensive line class this recruiting cycle) – I was curious about the defensive line.

What a long road traveled in a short time when two potential, or almost inevitable, first-round draft picks, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, dot the defensive line, when no more than a few years ago the likes of John Ryan and Pat Kuntz were tasked with holding the line of scrimmage. While players such as Ryan and Kuntz fought nobly and to the best of their ability, the Irish have gone from porous defensive play to possessing one of the very best defenses in all of college football. How did this happen? What, exactly, changed?

If defense wins championships, this is the axiom that led to Charlie Weis’ tenure coming to an end in South Bend. Curious about the vast turnaround in quality, I examined defensive line recruiting and was surprised to see how poor recruiting truly was under Charlie Weis in the defensive trenches. In four years Charlie Weis recruited just 10 defensive linemen, excluding the recruiting classes of 2005 (which he shared with Tyrone Willingham) and 2010 (which he shared with Brian Kelly). To put that number in perspective, Brian Kelly has brought in 12 defensive linemen in just 3.5 years, all while running a 3-4 scheme that does not require the same numbers Charlie Weis’ 4-3 front needed. And to put Kelly’s numbers in perspective, I excluded the 2010 recruiting class he shared with Charlie Weis, which means Louis Nix, a player Kelly has developed from an overweight high school football player who nearly transferred into one of the best defensive linemen in America, isn’t even included in Kelly’s corner.

Charlie Weis’ defensive line recruiting lacked talent and depth, and that fact played a large part in why Brian Kelly now roams the sidelines. So how does Notre Dame stack against the heavyweights of college football? To get a better look, I examined the past four years of recruiting along the defensive line for the college football programs that made up the top ten for the final AP poll of the 2012 season, and emerged with interesting results.

Defensive Line Recruiting, 2009-2012



Total Number of DL Recruits

Average Star Rating










Florida State




Notre Dame




Ohio State








South Carolina












Texas A&M



There are two pieces of information regarding this table that should immediately strike Notre Dame fans. First, the number of defensive line recruits Notre Dame has landed from 2009 to 2012. The Fighting Irish have brought in the lowest number of defensive line recruits of any program examined in the top ten of the final AP poll for the 2012 season. The second piece of relevant information is that, despite the fact Notre Dame has the lowest number of defensive linemen, ND is still 4th best in overall talent by average star rating. This statistic truly displays what a phenomenal job Brian Kelly and his staff have done in turning things around. And of the 14 defensive linemen listed, Charlie Weis recruited two: Tyler Stockton and Justin Utupo.

This graph has made very clear what a mad scramble Kelly’s staff has been engaged in to repair the damage caused by a lack of numbers along the defensive line. And while the Fighting Irish possess elite talent along the defensive line, depth is what still haunts the team, as illustrated by the numbers disparity between ND and Alabama. The Fighting Irish boasted a more talented defensive line than the Crimson Tide in the BCS National Championship match (which is no small feat). However, Alabama was able to rotate their defensive line with very little drop in talent, while the Irish could not say the same when Tuitt or Nix were forced to take a breather on the sidelines.

This examination should make Irish fans excited for the future. The balance in defensive line numbers will come with time, and Kelly and staff have proven to be excellent recruiters. Should Nix and Tuitt both be drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft (which is trending that way), the Fighting Irish will also be able to offer definitive evidence Notre Dame is a place for elite defensive linemen to come and play. Line play is trending up for the Fighting Irish within the confines of Notre Dame Stadium, something nearly unfathomable six years ago.

If defense wins championships, Notre Dame is well on its way.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at

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  1. Some would question if ND defensive line was better than Alabama’s. One thing for sure Alabama’s defensive line was better than ND’s offensive line.

  2. forgive my prior (5/14) comment, This is not an offense-strategy page. This forum is about the Irish D-line. I’m not going to sound like a lot of other fans and tell how the ND-defense compares to the elite D’s. I’m gonna recommend that fans be more confident.
    It’s not about “How ND’s D-line compares to the elite.”
    It is abut how they compare to us.

  3. The team also couldn’t prepare ( for Bama) like would have wanted to because there still building depth in the O line also. They couldn’t hit in practice because of injury’s in within the O line, which as we saw with Charlie’s teams u start slow if u don’t hit in practice.

  4. How does that green Cool-Aid taste guys? The truth, ND had no business thinking they were prepared. There is not a phase of the BCS game they could / should have expected to dominate, or even compare. We were several steps slow in all phases, especially the Defense. And as far as coaching, we had better understand that there are several teams out there that can stand toe-to-toe and beat our brains in, we must get quicker, smarter and bigger or it will be another 25 years till we get back.

  5. Last season KLM-Nix-Tuitt was a formidable D-line. Their replacements were good – in fact, better than a lot of first-string units – but there was a clear fall-off.

    Whenever an opposing offense moved the ball, I checked jersey numbers. When opponents threatened our red zone, the first unit would go back in, and usually stonewall the opponent. That’s how they averaged only 10-points against.

    This year, Day-Nix-Tuitt should be very tough. The guys behind them – let’s say Vanderdoes-Kona-Springmann – should be better than last year. Who knows what roles Ishaq and Romeo might play. Or Rochell and Jarron Jones.

    The Ones will always be more dominant than the Twos, but the gap will close year by year.

    1. You touched on a key point – depth. While ND ranked #4 for DL recruits, its depth lacked what Florida, FSU, etc., had. That is key.

      In the SEC (or bowl games), it is a long, drawn-out slugfest. That is where depth in the 2nd half pays huge dividends. And it is the long-term goal I think ND needs to address on D. They have a Top 5 D as far as starters. Where they are lacking is in the drop off in talent to the 2nd and 3rd string.

      And partly, that’s why winning the BCS game was a long shot. Barring a miracle, it would have been tough to see ND’s 2nd and 3rd string D competing – or holding – Alabama’s offense in check.

  6. True, I don’t think Notre Dame is that far away from a national title. The key to this season is special teams and the offense. If both are really good, Notre Dame will be able to hang with anyone.

  7. Well written article! Thank you.

    It wasn’t too long ago (prior to 2012 season) I posted that Notre Dame wasn’t ready to play the likes of Bama in a BCS game. My thoughts of not being ready was lack of a talented rotation on the d-line. I’m very happy to see Kelly & Co. Aggressively seeking high end talent on the dLine. I can’t wait to see this young group of freshman and sophomores rotate with Nix And Tuiit.

  8. Those are not analogies guys. One is an unprovable, counterfactual theory and the other is an opinion (which I share). Thank you, good night, and good luck.

  9. My simple analogy is this – last year’s BCS game was a year early. This year – and next – should see the team come into its own. Which quite frankly, I’m 32 years old, and never saw the Holtz glory years. This should be reminiscent of it. Who knows how many titles they will get. But I feel fully confident in the coaching, players and recruiting that they should be a Top 10 team for a while.

    Alabama game showed where it needed to go. Now they just need to get a few more pieces in place. Which, is much better than where we were under Davie, Willingham or Weis.

    1. patrick, just a minor difference of opinion. Last year’s BCS game may possibly have been two years early. If you study the roster carefully, you can see that the 2013 roster, top to bottom, will be much stronger than 2012. And my surmise is that the 2014 roster will be stronger than the 2013 roster. The key area of differentiation will be that by Fall, 2014, our offensive line talent will be upgraded to BCS level.

  10. My simple analogy is as follows: Were ND able to curtail or just slow the Alabama passing attack general during the 1st qtr BCS NC game ND wins. That is my simple belief. Due to ND’s powerful D line, linebackers.

      1. True however it occurs to me that even in the great victory in Norman Oklahoma N.D. had trouble slowing OU’S passing attack. A great D line ND has. A great cornerback, safety squad? No.


        I believe that in order to defeat Alabama, OSU, etc. a defense must possess balance …

    1. Two factors that Kelly is working on. Game prep for a team like Alabama. The truth is that Notre Dame would have lost, but should have competed within a 12 point spread. The coaches were not prepared. The coaches did not have the players prepared. A few bad calls by the refs early and the entire team was psyched out. Correct that and it’s a different story. Kelly is not good at adapting quickly, like hotly was. But he is excellent at assessing his own weaknesses and correcting given enough time.

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