It is no secret that the Notre Dame defense led the Irish on last year’s magical run all the way to the national championship. With veteran leadership from guys like Manti Te'o and Zeke Motta, the defense ranked seventh in the country and was the anchor for the most accomplished Notre Dame team we have seen in a while.
But with both of those guys no longer on the field for the Irish and with a few fresh faces entering the lineup, the defense can't possibly be as great as it was last season.
Or can it?
The truth is that eight starters from last year’s unit will return to South Bend for next season. That is not only good enough to finish in the same zip code as last year, but with an array of young talent coming in, it wouldn't be surprising if Notre Dame had another Top 10 defense in 2013.
The first thing to pay attention to on this defense is the defensive line. It will lose Kapron Lewis-Moore, but it does get Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt back. Both have the potential to become first-round picks in next year’s NFL draft and finished last season with a combined 13 sacks. Those two guys alone will help give the Irish one of the best defensive fronts in the country, but with a former 5-star recruit in Sheldon Day replacing Moore in the starting lineup, it really helps put the line over the top.
This defensive line has the combination of size and athleticism that you would usually see in the SEC. Both Tuitt and Nix are guys who can take over a ballgame by themselves, and Day has the ability to become a star overnight with increased playing time. It also wouldn't be surprising if Ishaq Williams moved back to his more natural position at defensive end and helped provide depth to this already dominating unit. A quality defense always starts up front, and the Irish are as good as it gets when it comes to this department.
Most would think the linebacker position is going to take a hit because Te'o isn't around to make those incredible clutch plays time and time again. However, this is a unit that will be held together by two fifth-year seniors in Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. Both were productive players last season, and Fox finished fourth on the team with 63 tackles. Danny Spond will likely start at outside linebacker, as he saw increased playing time last season and was an inspiration to the rest of the defense.
As for the guy who has to replace Te'o, that will come down to sophomore Jarrett Grace. He is somebody who has been attached to Te'o's hip since he arrived on campus and has been his understudy, knowing that this day would eventually come. Grace played a little bit last year, picking up 12 tackles, but it will now be time to see what he is truly made of, as he will become a full-time starter at linebacker.
It is impossible to replace the production that Te'o provided, but with the experience at linebacker, losing a Heisman finalist really isn't as daunting as it may seem.
The secondary should give Irish fans belief that this defense could in fact be even better than it was a year ago. Last season, the defensive backfield was an area of concern due injuries and the lack of experience the replacements had. However, the bright side is that those guys picked up valuable playing time, as it will come in handy when they become starters again this year.
Bennett Jackson is the top returning tackler from last season, as he finished with 65. He will remain at his cornerback spot and have a chance to really improve his already-growing NFL draft stock. KeiVarae Russell came to Notre Dame as a highly recruited running back, but he also transformed into a successful corner, intercepting two passes and picking up 58 tackles in his debut on the defensive side of the ball. Like the group of linebackers, cornerback is no longer an area that Irish fans should be concerned about.
The safety position remains a concern, especially with Jamoris Slaughter being denied a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA. But Slaughter missed most of last season anyway, and it allowed Matthias Farley to be a solid contributor. Much like the rest of the secondary, Farley wasn't expected to play in the secondary and make such a huge impact, but it will pay off heading into next season.
As for the other safety spot, it could be occupied by anybody, but don't be surprised if 2013 5-star recruit Max Redfield is back there at some point holding his own. With terrific ball skills and instincts, he is a player that is further along as far as most true freshman and would be an instant upgrade over the lack of depth at the position.
Secondary issues obviously remain at the safety spots, but the coaching staff should feel a lot more confident in the defensive backfield than it did last year. Guys have shown that they can get the job done, and the experience is now there to improve last year’s efforts.
The defense of Notre Dame was remarkable last season. And with the loss of Te'o, it would be easy to think that it could take a step backward in 2013. However, there is an abundance of talent with this group, and it wouldn't be too far-fetched to believe that the Irish could exceed the production from a year ago.
The defensive line is dominant, the linebackers are experienced more than ever, and the secondary is coming along. The Irish will once again have a Top 10 defense, and it should once again be good enough to keep them in the national championship conversation.