Perhaps the most illustrious defensive player in the storied history of Notre Dame football, linebacker Manti Te'o, will not be a part of the Fighting Irish football team this fall. His departure leaves a sizable hole in the center of Notre Dame's defense.
If the Irish hope to again sport one of the best defenses in college football, they'll need to replace both Te'o's production at middle linebacker and leadership in the locker room. That likely won't come from one single player.
The veteran Notre Dame defense is loaded with both talent and experience, so there are plenty of viable candidates. We will look at five of them here who must absorb either Te'o's on-field production, leadership, or both, for the Fighting Irish to again contend for a national championship.
2012 begin on a low note for Calabrese, who was suspended for the team's season opener in Ireland against Navy following an offseason arrest. He quickly regained his role as a valuable contributor, however, sharing time at inside linebacker with classmate Dan Fox.
Now a fifth-year senior, Calabrese has played 36 career games at linebacker and will be part of a three-man platoon this season at the two inside linebacker positions. Like Te'o, he is strongest against the run. He enters his final season with 146 career tackles.
Despite being sidelined for most of the spring while nursing a shoulder injury, Fox enters 2013 as one of the clear leaders of the Irish defense. His game complements that of Calabrese, as Fox is the superior player in coverage.
He's played in every game of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame and has made 131 tackles, but is still searching for his first career interception. Of course, Te'o had zero interceptions in his first three seasons as well, but recorded seven in his remarkable senior season a year ago.
The time has finally come for Grace, as the junior has been tabbed as the heir apparent to Te'o for over a year now. Having played only sparingly, he won't necessarily be called upon to match Te'o's leadership, but does need to ensure a smooth transition at the position.
Grace had a strong spring in his first real action with the first-team defense. Kelly has said he and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco plan to rotate Calabrese, Fox and Grace at the two inside linebacker positions, so the roles of the "Mike" and "Will" linebackers may be less specific than they were with Te'o.
No, Jackson is not moving to linebacker. He is, however, the most experienced member of Notre Dame's young secondary. After moving from wide receiver, Jackson quickly claimed the starting role as the team's boundary cornerback following the departures of Robert Blanton and Gary Gray after the 2011 season.
In his fourth year in the program, Jackson has experienced both the highs and the lows of the Brian Kelly era. He'll be a stable presence in position meetings alongside three sophomore starters and a slew of freshmen. And, he'll be a pretty darn good cornerback as well.
Nix isn't a big rah-rah guy, but he is one of the most respected players on the Notre Dame roster for both his play and his personality. He has and will continue to lead more so by example than by words (although he hasn't met a camera or microphone that he didn't like).
Notre Dame doesn't play for the national title last season without Nix. While Te'o got most of the headlines, Nix may have had more of an impact on the team's undefeated regular season. In what is likely his final year in South Bend, expect "Irish Chocolate" to have his best season yet.