Winner of the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o has to find a way to stop Alabama's bruising running game in order to help the Irish win its first national title in 25 years.
The fourth edition of my weekly series breaking down the rosters by position for the BCS Championship Game showdown between Notre Dame and Alabama will zero in on the linebackers and defensive backs.
With both defenses ranking amongst the nation’s best in most statistical categories, there is a significant amount of talent playing off the line of scrimmage that will take the field in Sun Life Stadium on Jan. 7.
While both teams have dominating defensive lines, the units behind them are personified by big and agile linebackers capable of getting after the quarterback and wreaking havoc against the run, and opportunistic secondaries that aren’t afraid to come up and lay the wood on backs and receivers.
Notre Dame's Brian Kelly has the luxury of relying on Heisman Trophy runner-up and All-American linebacker Manti Te’o to lead his back eight.
Alabama's Nick Saban counters with a versatile group of linebackers led by star junior C.J. Mosley and one of the nation’s top cover corners in junior Dee Milliner.
How do these teams stack up against one another at these positions, and where are they vulnerable at each spot in this game?
Find out as I delve into the matchups by comparing the linebackers and defensive backs for both the Crimson Tide and the Fighting Irish.
Nico Johnson is one of a handful of seniors providing leadership to a younger Tide defense.
While Mosley is the most recognizable name for Alabama’s middle level, the Tide has a flexible group that specializes in different areas.
For example, players like Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest excel against the run while Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson are edge rushers that are at their best getting after quarterbacks.
Mosley is one of the best coverage linebackers in the entire country.
This unit qualifies as one of the nation’s best, but it is a segment noticeably different from past defensive juggernauts under Saban.
Aside from the five linebackers mentioned, most of the available depth comes in the form of a handful of talented, but green freshmen.
Also, for a defense that has produced freaks like Rolando McClain, Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower, this year’s group lacks an intimidating presence similar to those recent Tide greats.
Shembo has quietly put together a solid season playing in the shadow of Te'o.
Any discussions of Notre Dame’s linebacker unit has to start with Te’o—the unquestioned heart and soul of this Irish team and the nation’s best linebacker this season.
However, Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has a deep and explosive cast of playmakers surrounding their senior leader.
Juniors Prince Shembo (48 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Danny Spond (38 tackles) and seniors Dan Fox (57 tackles) and Carlo Calabrese (46 tackles) are all veteran linebackers that have different strengths that complement Te’o.
This is a bunch that is sound in its tackling fundamentals, and it rarely gives up big plays or misses tackles in space.
While Te’o has shown a remarkable ability to shine in coverage (seven interceptions), the rest of the linebacker unit isn’t as adept against the pass.
In fact, opposing tight ends and running backs have accounted for 93 receptions against the Irish this season, which could be an area the Tide chooses to attack through the air.
Dee Milliner broke up an astounding 18 passes this season.
Saban has long been lauded for his ability to mold quality defensive backs, with Milliner serving as his latest protégé to have NFL scouts drooling.
Senior safety Robert Lester (14 career interceptions) is the leader of a unit that ranks fifth nationally in pass defense.
Typical of Saban’s past secondary units, this group plays physical in run support.
However, most of the struggles the Tide’s defense had late in the season came as a result of breakdowns in the secondary.
Deion Belue—the starting corner opposite Milliner—was a player that opponents seemed to target in the air as the season went on.
Additionally, Lester and fellow safety Vinnie Sunseri have had issues when they have been isolated in one-on-one matchups in coverage.
Russell had a standout freshman season racking up 50 tackles and two INTs, including this one against USC's Marqise Lee.
The Irish’s secondary was able to shake off the early season-ending injury to starting safety Jamorris Slaughter and still manage to finish 20th nationally in pass defense.
Junior corner Bennett Jackson (61 tackles, four interceptions this season) is one of the more unheralded members of this defense, and along with senior safety Zeke Motta, the pair of upperclassmen have been a steadying presence for Diaco’s unit on the back end.
This group has allowed only one receiver (Oklahoma’s Jalen Saunders) to crack the 100-yard barrier this season.
However, while Bennett and KeiVarae Russell have formed a nice starting duo at corner, the depth behind them is limited at best.
The same concern applies behind safeties Motta and Matthias Farley, which may become an issue if the starters are playing heavier minutes in what should be an extremely physical clash.
Mosley has returned three of his five career INTs for touchdowns.
Mosley is one of the few linebackers capable of sticking with Notre Dame standout tight end Tyler Eifert in coverage (more on that later).
But he is also the Tide’s leading tackler (99 tackles) and he is a huge key in his club’s effort to contain Irish quarterback Everett Golson—a dual-threat quarterback that can hurt defenses by escaping the pocket and keeping plays alive with his legs.
Mosley is also one of the Tide’s best weapons when defensive coordinator Kirby Smart chooses to bring pressure; he has recorded four sacks, seven tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in 2012.
If Alabama’s defense is going to be successful in slowing down the Irish’s balanced offense, expect Mosley to play a significant role in helping the Tide control the action when his unit is on the field.
Te'o accounted for seven INTs and one fumble recovery this season.
The Irish are far from a one-man show on defense, but Te’o is a player that has shown the ability to make big plays in big games throughout his career.
In his final college game on the sport’s biggest stage, Te’o has the ultimate opportunity to cement his legacy as one of the greatest players to ever don the famed gold helmet.
Considering Alabama prides itself on playing a physical brand of football, this game seems to play into Bednarik Award winner’s hands.
The Irish will need Te’o to be the best player on the field if they hope to have a chance at flustering Alabama’s high-powered offense.
Sunseri's versatility could prove to be a huge asset for Nick Saban's defense against the Irish.
Although I noted Sunseri earlier as someone who struggled in coverage, this game is tailored for his strengths considering he played linebacker in high school.
Saban has shown the tendency to move Sunseri around depending on the personnel employed by their opponents, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the sophomore safety in the box or as a corner in nickel and dime looks.
Sunseri is one of the best tacklers on the team (his 52 stops are the most for the secondary unit and fourth on the club), and he is another player that Saban trusts to send on a blitz.
With Golson a candidate to try and break the pocket and extend plays with his legs, Sunseri could play a valuable role in helping the Tide keep him contained inside the tackle box.
Farley stepped in for Jamorris Slaughter and helped the secondary limit big plays all season.
Notre Dame’s safety tandem of Motta and Farley has done a remarkable job of keeping things in front of them and not allowing the big play.
In fact, the longest touchdown pass the Irish allowed all season was a 25-yarder given up in the season-opening 50-10 win over Navy.
Additionally, Notre Dame only allowed three completions of 40 yards or more all season.
However, Alabama freshman sensation Amari Cooper has seven catches of more than 35 yards this season—including four scoring grabs from long distance coming in the Tide’s last four games.
Motta and Farley will both have to weary of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron looking for Cooper over the top on play-action passes.
Jackson will have his hands full trying to stop Alabama WR Amari Cooper.
C.J. Mosley vs. Tyler Eifert
Eifert is regarded as potentially the nation’s best tight end, but Mosley (five career interceptions) is the rare linebacker prospect that can match up with him in the open field.
Eifert still has a size advantage (three inches taller and 19 pounds heavier) on Mosley, but the speedy Tide defender has great ball instincts and is a natural at dropping into coverage.
Mosley will almost certainly not be matched up on Eifert exclusively, but he is the best pass-defender amongst Alabama’s linebackers, and the side that gets the better of this individual battle will have a huge say in the outcome of this game.
Bennett Jackson vs. Amari Cooper
Similar to the Mosely vs. Eifert matchup, Jackson and Russell will both have turns lining up against Alabama’s electric freshman wideout.
Jackson has held his own against the likes of Marqise Lee of USC and Kenny Stills of Oklahoma. But Cooper has been on a tear over the last half of the season and is primed to stake his claim as being one of the top pass-catchers in the country if he can come up with a big effort in the national title game.
On the other hand, if Jackson can lock up Cooper—something most corners in SEC struggled to do—it would erase any doubts of his abilities as one of the nation’s top cover corners.
Manti Te’o vs. Eddie Lacy/T.J. Yeldon
This may as well read Te’o vs. Alabama’s interior offensive line trio of Chance Warmack, Barrett Jones and Anthony Steen.
But assuming the Irish’s defensive line can hold its own against the Tide’s vaunted offensive line, Te’o will have the unenviable task of dealing with two of the nation’s most explosive backs in the hole.
The nation’s best linebacker against potentially the nation’s top running back duo is a juicy subplot to a matchup that needs little primping with regards to hype. However, if Te’o and his teammates can conquer the SEC’s most physical ground attack, the Irish defense will earn the distinction of being labeled as the nation's best defense.