The 2012 Notre Dame defense finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, holding its 12 opponents to fewer than 11 points per game.
Almost the entire two-deep returns in 2013, with the only notable losses being defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, linebacker Manti Te’o and safety Zeke Motta. What could hold the Fighting Irish defense back from repeating its 2012 performance?
When you open the various preseason magazines that are about to be released and see two first-team All-Americans on Notre Dame’s defensive line, it will be difficult to imagine that the unit is a significant concern heading into the fall. Further inspection will tell you, however, that not all is well in the trenches.
Despite strong recruiting efforts at nearly every position since Brian Kelly’s arrival in 2010, there are still depth concerns at the defensive line, particularly now that incoming freshman Eddie Vanderdoes may be looking to get out of his letter of intent.
Is there a better pair of defensive linemen in the country than Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt? Nope. Is Sheldon Day likely to become an elite player as a sophomore this fall? Probably.
Behind those three, however, the situation is a bit murky. Veterans Tony Springmann, a junior, and seniors Kona Schwenke and Tyler Stockton are serviceable contributors, but neither are the type of elite athletes that can consistently perform against top offensive lines.
Junior Chase Hounshell was expected to back up Day and Tuitt, but a shoulder injury this spring ended his season before it even got started. His return, even in 2014, is still in question given the multitude of injuries he has suffered.
Sophomore Jarron Jones remains a bit of a mystery. He came to Notre Dame having not played against elite competition growing up in upstate New York. A redshirt year in 2012 should help, but Jones, the most talented of the Irish’s non-starters, now has to quickly make his level of play match his physical ability. He’s more of a three-technique player than a true nose tackle, but he may be Nix’s successor in 2014.
Senior linebacker Justin Utupo, who is eligible for a fifth year in 2014, saw some repetitions this spring at defensive end (a sign that Vanderdoes’ enrollment was already in doubt?), but that doesn’t appear to be a long-term solution. The Irish signed Jacob Matuska and Isaac Rochell in February, but they hope to save a year of eligibility for both young players.
Are Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara options at defensive end? The ship seems to have sailed on Williams being anything but a Cat linebacker, but Okwara has the size to play multiple positions. With only a year of separation between him and Williams, Okwara may be the best option if Vanderdoes does not ultimately enroll at Notre Dame next month.
Nix was under the weather during last year’s game against Pittsburgh. With his snaps limited, the Panthers had the most productive day any team had against Notre Dame prior to the BCS Championship Game and nearly stunned the third-ranked Irish before falling in triple overtime.
The concern heading into the fall is that if something should keep Nix or Tuitt out for a longer period of time, numbers like those put up by Pittsburgh will become more the norm than the exception.
The Irish know what they have in Schwenke, Springmann and Stockton. They’re fundamentally sound players who won’t make a ton of mistakes, but they won’t help you go 12-0. It’s players like Jones and Okwara who have to make strides from either redshirts (Jones) or special teams player (Okwara) to regular contributors.
Obviously, how the Vanderdoes situation plays out between now and when the summer session begins in mid-June will have a major impact on what happens with Utupo and Okwara when fall camp begins some 10 weeks from now.
With another gauntlet of a schedule, one that ends with what should be the most physical game of the year when the Irish travel to Stanford, health is again a premium, even more so when depth is lacking.
The same unit that propelled Notre Dame to the BCS Championship Game last season could be the one that ultimately keeps them out of a major bowl this year, should the roll of the injury dice go against them.