Notre Dame will take the field this fall minus one of the most recognizable Irish players in a generation. Manti Te'o, with his huge stats and compelling personal story came to be a symbol of the unbreakable Irish spirit that defined the 2012 season.
Now that Te'o has matriculated to the NFL, the Irish will be without their biggest star. Before we discuss the team, let's take a look at Te'o's raw numbers.
During his career with the Fighting Irish, Te'o had a total of 437 tackles, 34 of which were for loss. He caught seven interceptions, deflected 17 passes, had 8.5 sacks, recovered one fumble and forced two and was an all-around beast.
He was also the recipient of a few awards you may have heard of:
- 2012 Bronko Nagurski Award
- 2012 Chuck Bednarik Award
- 2012 Consensus All-America
- 2012 Dick Butkus Award
- 2012 Maxwell Award
- 2012 Ronnie Lott Trophy
- 2012 Vince Lombardi Award
- 2012 Walter Camp Player of the Year Award
Clearly the loss of a player of this caliber will leave some big shoes to fill. Here are the ways the defense will change.
Te'o had an astounding seven interceptions in his senior season, tying him for second nationally, just behind Phillip Thomas of Fresno State who had eight. This obviously contributed a great deal to the Irish success in 2012.
While seven interceptions is certainly an outstanding number, there is a possibility that it could happen again. Irish defensive back Harrison Smith had seven interceptions just two years ago in 2010.
In the more likely scenario that one player can not equal Te'o's seven, someone will need to catch at least five in order to keep the defense among the nation's elite in scoring defense. I would be remiss not to mention Bennett Jackson's four interceptions last season, making him the second largest contributor to the overall team total.
As you can see from the following table, the lower the most individual interceptions for a season, the greater the impact on the team total.
Example: In 2010 when Smith caught seven interceptions, the rest of the team picked up a combined 11, bringing the team as a whole to 18 picks. Whereas in 2007 when the most individual interceptions was a mere three, the team as a whole only garnered 11.
Most individual interceptions
My point is this: If someone doesn't step up to the plate and catch at least five or six interceptions, you can expect their elite scoring defense ranking—the Irish are currently ranked No. 2 nationally— to drop. Keep an eye on Jackson, he is the most obvious contender to pull the big numbers.
Te'o has led the team in tackles for the last three years. The reasonable assumption here would be that the linebacker position is going to take a hit as a result of Te'o's loss, but that isn't necessarily the case. Fifth-year seniors in Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox both contributed reasonable numbers last season, totaling 49 and 63 total tackles, respectively.
Look for Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt to pick up a fair amount of slack as well. Both are in their senior year and have plenty of experience to match their raw ability. Former 5-star recruit Sheldon Day will also be among the starters this fall, stepping in for Lewis-Moore.
Don't expect any one player to rival Te'o's numbers this fall, but do expect to see the stats of the other starting linebackers go up. All-in-all, you can anticipate a more even distribution of tackles with a manageable drop off in effectiveness.
3. Improvement of the secondary
Let's be frank—the secondary needs to turn it up a notch this year. With Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore gone from the front seven, the backfield needs to elevate their game to compensate for the loss. This should not be too much of an issue, as inbound 5-star Max Redfield will most likely fill Zeke Motta's shoes as free safety. You can also expect big things from veteran cornerback Bennett Jackson, who will be returning for his senior year.
The rest of the fledgling backfield will have another year of experience under their belts, so I anticipate they will elevate their passing defense —ranked 25th nationally—substantially.
In conclusion, next season you can expect opposing offensive coordinators to zero in on Jarrett Grace, who will take over for Te'o next fall. Look for the rest of the defensive line to cover for him as he acclimitizes to being a starter, while the improved backfield will be better equipped to catch the ones who slip through the front seven.
Also, keep an eye on Bennett Jackson to pull at least five interceptions, killing drives before they become points on the board and keeping the Irish defense among the top in the nation.
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