An already underperforming Notre Dame defense will likely take a turn for the worse with the announcement that defensive tackle Louis Nix will miss the remainder of the season.
The senior underwent surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee on Thursday, according to The Chicago Tribune’s Brian Hamilton:
It’s a significant loss to the Irish defense, as the 6-foot-2, 342-pound defender is widely considered a lock to be a first-round selection in the NFL draft. Nix was also named to the Bednarik and Maxwell Award watchlists prior to the season.
He has recorded 27 tackles (2.0 for loss) in eight appearances.
Replacing Nix will be no easy task. But it’s one that is pivotal if Notre Dame hopes to come out victorious in its final two games of the season against BYU and Stanford.
Here are three players who must step up.
DL Kona Schwenke (Sr.)
Schwenke will have extra motivation to perform in the absence of Nix.
“We’re getting a lot of favorable reports on him being able to play next year as well, at the next level,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, via The Post-Tribune’s LaMond Pope. “He’s a kid who is lean at 305 pounds right now. They’re hard to find at 6-foot-4. And he’s played well for us.”
In seven games, the senior has recorded 19 tackles and a quarterback hurry. Not exactly the mind-blowing statistics you expect from a pro prospect.
However, starting in place of Nix against Navy on Nov. 2, Schwenke had a breakout performance. He registered 11 tackles to help Notre Dame eek out a 38-34 victory.
Now, with Nix out on a permanent basis, the Irish will be relying on that kind of performance from Schwenke week in and week out.
Not only could he help Notre Dame wrap up two big victories to conclude the season, but he could also help boost his NFL stock as well.
DL Stephon Tuitt (Jr.)
Nobody has benefited more from the attention given to Nix from opposing offensive lines than Tuitt.
In 10 games, the junior has recorded 35 tackles (6.5 for loss), 5.0 sacks and forced a fumble. He even took back an interception for a touchdown.
Tuitt has saved his biggest performances for the big games this season. He recorded seven tackles and 2.0 sacks in a 14-10 win over USC and his lone interception gave the Irish a chance for a comeback in a 41-30 loss to Michigan earlier in the year.
In Nix’s absence, Tuitt is likely going to face tougher challenges each week.
It’s imperative that he finds a way to continue his success.
LB Jaylon Smith (Fr.)
The impact Smith has had in his first 10 games of his career has been phenomenal.
Thus far, the freshman has tallied 53 tackles (6.5 for loss), broken up two passes, forced a fumble and picked off one pass. He has shown the ability to both make a play in the secondary and create havoc in the backfield.
Smith proved as much in Notre Dame’s 28-21 loss to Pittsburgh last weekend, recording a career-high 11 tackles (1.0 for loss).
With Nix out, the Irish defense will be without its leader. That’s where Smith—who has arguably been the unit’s top performer—will need to emerge as Nix’s replacement.
Expect to see a lot of growing up out of Smith over these final two games.
Summing It All Up
Notre Dame has a tall task in front of it to make up for Nix's absence. However, the team certainly has the players who can make a valiant effort at doing so.
Besides, with the season all but lost already, why not get in some significant experience for the younger players on defense?
In the short run, the injury will make it a lot tougher for the Irish to win their remaining games. But in the long run, this stretch will ultimately pay dividends.
The Irish can only win in this situation.
All stats and rankings used in this article are courtesy of NCAA.com.