Notre Dame Football: Defense Will Set the Pace for Fighting Irish in 2012

Michael FelderNational CFB Lead WriterMarch 21, 2012

ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 29: Running back Cierre Wood #20 of the Notre Dame Fight Irish rushes upfield in the first quarter against the Florida State Seminoles in the Champs Sports Bowl December 29, 2011 at the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Last season, Notre Dame was a sloppy, turnover filled game against USF and an epic fourth-quarter collapse against Michigan away from returning to the BCS picture. Two games, back to back at the start of the season, took the Irish from possibly participating in the Sugar Bowl to traveling to the Champs Sports Bowl to take on Florida State. Just two games from a 10-2 season.

But those are the breaks, and while the Irish rebounded well, they finished with a loss to Florida State in a game that was a peek into things to come from both sides. The Noles started up spring ball on Monday, and today Notre Dame follows suit with a BCS Bowl on their minds.

Notre Dame enters their third spring with Brian Kelly at the helm, and to say things in South Bend are better than under Charlie Weis would be an understatement. Look past all the Brian Kelly yelling and the disappointment of another year without a major bowl, and it is easy to see improvements at all levels. The team is in better shape, they are making plays all over the field and the Irish are Fighting again.

Kelly was brought in, billed the man who created dynamic offensive systems at Cincinnati and Central Michigan. The coach has done just that as he has finally got the Fighting Irish's run game going. Last year, it was Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray who led the way; this spring we'll see Wood paired with both Theo Riddick and George Atkinson.

Both backs have potential to work well with Wood, and this spring they will be fighting for time as their backfield mate, Cam McDaniel, has been transitioned to the defensive side of the ball. Throw in Amir Carlisle, who will be recovering from a broken ankle, and the Irish have a full stable in the backfield.

Up front, the offensive line will continue to improve as the kids are growing up and Kelly is now just plugging holes in the line instead of rebuilding the entire unit. Everything Kelly does, both run and pass, starts on the line, and with starters returning at four of the spots, finding cohesion this spring is the name of the game. These guys will keep Kelly's quarterback upright and give him a chance to find tight end Tyler Eifert and the emerging wide receivers.

Quarterback and wide receiver are the two spots where there will be some serious competition this spring. Brian Kelly has not anointed any one of his four options as the starter. That means Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and early enrollee Gunner Kiel will all get reps and an opportunity to lead the squad.

At receiver, replacing standout Michael Floyd will be the biggest task. No one on the Irish roster can duplicate the big guy's production; the goal will be to find a group of players who can be viable options all over the field.

Alright, I've stalled long enough folks. The best part about this Notre Dame team entering the spring is their defense.

While Brian Kelly was brought in to rev up the offense, the true growth on the Notre Dame roster has come through their defensive growth. Bob Diaco has created a group that finished 30th in total defense last season and 24th in points allowed. That's higher than the Irish's 35th and 49th finishes in the same categories on offense. They are playing defense in South Bend again and that is something that could not be said for much of the Charlie Weis era.

Diaco has big-time playmakers all over the field, starting with Manti Te'o and trickling down through guys like Zeke Motta, Jamoris Slaughter, Prince Shembo and the youngster Aaron Lynch. These guys are big-time college football players; not big-time players because they are at Notre Dame, but big-time players capable of starting on just about anyone's roster. That, folks, is one of the biggest compliments that can be given to the revamped Fighting Irish defense. 

The biggest task for the Irish on defense this spring will be replacing Harrison Smith, the safety who is slated to go in the early rounds of the NFL draft next month. Not a small task, but with Motta and Slaughter manning the deep halves, the Irish should be in good shape with playmakers capable of controlling the back end.

Notre Dame folks—players, coaches, students and fans—should be excited about this team. As they look for how to replace Floyd on offense, there is the running game that has the players and the blockers to take center stage.

On the defensive side of the football, Notre Dame should be particularly fun to watch. There are playmakers at all three levels. There is talent. There is speed. Anytime you can put all three of those things together, the defense definitely has a chance to be solid.