SOUTH BEND - If the Notre Dame football program plans to ride its defense through another spectacular season beginning in August, Saturday's performance in the Blue-Gold spring football game was a fairly good indicator of such.
The Fighting Irish defense created multiple problems for a fairly experienced offensive group and the defensive starters never allowed the first group of Irish players to sniff the end zone.
“I think it's a very confident group of guys,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of his team afterward. “They have got a lot of confidence in themselves. They believe that they are going to be successful.”
Here is a look at the Notre Dame defensive unit by position group heading out of the spring sessions.
This was the strength of the 2012 squad and should be the same next fall. The Blue team registered 10 sacks (take that for what it's worth in the spring game) and hurried the various quarterbacks all day.
“At the D-line with the losses, we have to establish our brotherhood again,” Irish noseguard Louis Nix III said.
Nix is flanked by Stephon Tuitt and second-year player Sheldon Day. However, Bishop Dwenger graduate Tony Springmann played well on Saturday, as did another relatively unknown player according to Nix.
“We had to pick up guys like Tyler Stockton,” Nix said. “You don't hear his name much but he's the guy, he's the heartbeat of our D-line.
“You hear a lot about me making plays, but he's the one that keeps us together. We hang out a lot. He's the guy that we look up to a lot, because he has a lot of stress off the field, he's trying to get his MBA and stuff like that. He shows us how much he works off the field and he did all he could to get us here. He's worked all spring and he's actually been doing a great job.
“Today he had two sacks and I think that was a good push.”
Another depth player Saturday was Ishaq Williams, who tied linebacker Jarrett Grace with a team-best eight tackles.
Senior Kona Schwenke got a lot of repetitions on Saturday, as did first-year player Jarron Jones.
Worry factor: None
Will this unit miss the Heisman Trophy runner-up? Certainly.
Will this unit actually be better as a whole than it was last year? It can be.
Here is how deep and talented the Notre Dame linebacking corps will be in 2013: Heralded recruit Jaylon Smith will be a bonus addition, but really isn't needed.
Returning starters Danny Spond and Prince Shembo have the potential to be very good – if not great – players next fall on the outside. Williams showed he has continually developed, and on the inside, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese are talented and experienced.
And then there is Grace.
"I felt good,” Grace said of his first extensive look as a starter on the inside. “For me, personally, I felt like I put a lot together during the other practices, but this brought the game atmosphere to it. For me, it was just carrying over the bodywork that I'd already done and implementing that out on the field today."
Grace is replacing All-American Manti Te'o, and Kelly has really liked what he's seen all spring from the second-year player.
"Those are big shoes to fill,” Grace said of replacing an Irish legend. “But not one guy has to fill those shoes. The defense has 11 guys out on the field and it takes every guy doing their job.”
Worry factor: None
The defensive secondary has one big plus going for it: The group is deep in bodies, if not experience. Because of the number of evenly talented athletes, every day in practice will bring fierce competition. And unlike past seasons, if a guy isn't performing well, there will be alternatives to insert into the lineup.
Veterans Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson should start, but KeiVarae Russell will get extensive time, as will Josh Atkinson and more than likely Jalen Brown.
Worry factor: Some
The same can be said for the safeties, as it is for the corners. Notre Dame has more bodies than it could possibly utilize equitably. But one player that will be on the field a lot is sophomore Matthias Farley.
"It's a lot different,” Farley said of this spring. “The games slowed down for me a lot now that I have some experience under my belt. Last year, everything was new and it was my first time really getting out there. The game has definitely slowed down, and it's exciting for me, because I can see things a lot quicker and understand things a lot better. At the same time, I know there's a lot of things that I need to work on, so getting good competition from the offense was definitely encouraging in a lot of ways but also showed me what I need to work on."
Farley and classmate Nicky Barratti are the most experienced of the group, and they have been quick to help guys like Austin Collinsworth, Elijah Shumate, and Eilar Hardy.
“That just comes with having some experience and now being in the position to help other guys line up,” Farley said. “I know what I am doing now so I can help out on a play - if someone's not lined up I can see it now."
Much like Smith at linebacker, another incoming freshman, Max Redfield, may get an early opportunity at safety in the fall.
Worry factor: Some