It’s hard to improve statistically after finishing No. 1 in scoring defense, but that’s the challenge defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the Notre Dame defense is facing in preparation for 2013, following the team’s 42-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
As good as the departing Manti Te’o and the 2012 defense were, next season’s group could be even better. They may allow more points, but they’ll also fare better on the big stage after a humbling performance against the mighty Crimson Tide.
Let’s look at five reasons why losing the Heisman Trophy runner-up won’t cause the Irish defense to regress in 2013.
Irish fans were in full-blown panic mode last August when junior cornerback Lo Wood was lost for the season with an Achilles’ tendon injury. Little did they know how well true freshman and former-tailback KeiVarae Russell would perform in his new role as Wood’s replacement.
Along with Bennett Jackson, the Notre Dame cornerbacks kept big plays to a minimum during the team’s run to the BCS Championship Game. Both now have a year of experience under their belts, likely meaning the 2013 version of their defense will be a bit more aggressive than it was this past season.
Second-year defensive linemen Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt went from good to great in 2012, but it’s now time for the duo to go from great players to All-Americans in 2013. Nix is a rare breed, a dominant nose tackle that so many teams covet but are unable to find or develop.
Tuitt stormed out of the gate with a dominant first two months, but regressed later in the season and was a non-factor in the BCS Championship Game loss to Alabama. The pair both have freakish athletic ability and should anchor arguably the best defensive line the country next season.
Yes, Manti Te’o is gone, but that doesn’t mean Notre Dame will regress at the second level. Both Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese should return as fifth-year seniors on the inside, and Jarrett Grace, a favorite of the coaching staff, should assume Te'o’s role at Mike linebacker.
Notre Dame will also add in three true freshmen: Michael Deeb, Doug Randolph and Jaylon Smith. Smith is an instant impact player, and should be on the two-deep at Dog linebacker behind Danny Spond. Randolph could back up Prince Shembo at Cat if rising junior Ishaq Williams slides to defensive end.
Fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter was expected to be one of the most critical players on the Irish defense in 2012, but was lost for the season after just three weeks. Notre Dame is attempting to receive a waiver for a sixth season for Slaughter after redshirting as a true freshman in 2008.
The combination of Slaughter and Matthias Farley would give Notre Dame a pair of experienced safeties, something it lacked for all of 2012 with Farley in his first season after moving from wide receiver. A decision from the NCAA is expected in the coming weeks.
Notre Dame’s pride took a major hit in last week’s loss to Alabama. The Irish defense hadn’t allowed more than 20 points in regulation all season, but the Crimson Tide more than doubled that number with plenty of time to spare.
Motivation should not be a problem for this group during the long offseason, as they look to prove their dominance was more than just a one-year wonder. The Irish learned what it takes to be a champion by facing Alabama.
They’re not there yet, but experiencing it firsthand in Miami will pay major dividends for a program on the cusp of greatness.