SOUTH BEND – A year after the Notre Dame defense became one of the nation's best units, many Fighting Irish fans have braced themselves for a fall back into normalcy and lowered their expectations heading into Saturday's season-opening game with Temple (3:30 p.m., NBC).
The Notre Dame defensive coaches aren't joining in that belief.
“Every year you have to put the team back together and the team is going to take on a different persona,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said recently. “We had maybe not a large exodus of personnel depart, but a major void in leadership and some real stalwart players. So that really needed to be created or redirected or reshaped. Through the course of camp we have done that and the players have responded to that.
“We have great energy over there, really solid leadership and everybody really likes and cares about each other a bunch so that part has been accomplished.”
Notre Dame lost the face of its defense in Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o. Coach Brian Kelly said even the loss of an All-American can be overcome – collectively.
“I think you'll have to look at it in its scope of 11 players, right,” Kelly said. “If you ask me, is (linebacker) Danny Fox or is (linebacker) Jarrett Grace better than Manti Te'o? Well, I don't know. They haven't played. But you could probably begin by saying, well, probably not.
“But could (cornerbacks) Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell tie down and play more man, and we can pressure a little bit more, or we can play some more coverages that can compress and bring down a safety more to supplant maybe some of the things that we were not doing last year in run fronts? Yeah, sure, we could do that maybe this year.”
Both Kelly and Diaco hope that each defensive player's individual development ultimately makes the 2013 unit just as staunch as the 2012 group, which finished the season ranked among the nation's top 10 units in a dozen defensive categories.
Diaco isn't looking to evaluate this unit to that depth quite yet.
“All I can say is that we don't think big picture that way,” Diaco said. “But we have an expectation that the defense is going to improve because the players improve and the coaches improve. So the people in the organization improve in all aspects that we're working on and talking about, so when you get that done the overall unit should improve and that is what we are trying to get done.”
A key part of the players' individual improvement has come in the offseason according to Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo. This past offseason brought about an opportunity for the Irish coaching staff to take their players' development to a level that they haven't been able to reach in a long time as Kelly's staff.
“The neat thing now is that we are in Year 4,” Longo said. “Since being with coach Kelly the last 10 years, this is the first time that we have really had a Year 4 together. Since we went to Central Michigan together, then moved on to Cincinnati and then moved on (to Notre Dame).
“The first two years is when the heavy lifting is done, because you got to put the foundation in of your program and everything you are doing. Then you begin to see the fruits of your work in the third year.
“The fourth year is fun because you got the culture in and everyone in the program is trained under your system. So that is the year that you like to harvest most of the stuff you have done in the last four years.”