A lot has been made of the 2012 Notre Dame defensive unit, and with good reason. The Fighting Irish defenders are obviously a critical component in the team being unbeaten in 10 games and ranked third in the latest BCS standings.
Most notably, a lot of attention is paid to the front seven of that unit and what it achieves both in limiting the passing game by the opposition, as well as stopping its rushing attack. But how important is the scheme that these talented athletes are aligned in? It turns out, not that important after all, as long as they are disciplined in what that specific play calls for them to do.
The Irish alternate between utilizing four linemen and three linemen depending on the expected play call and the personnel package that Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco chooses to implement.
“I started as a four down coach,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Three down became something that I was more interested in because of what we did offensively, spreading the field. I thought three down would be something that needed to be part of your package. But started as a four down and kind of exactly where we are right now, and that is blending both four down and three down together.”
When Kelly was hired at Notre Dame nearly four years ago, he wanted a versatile and athletic defensive player that could fill multiple roles along his defensive front. He didn’t see an abundance of those types of players already within the program, so his coaching staff set out across the country to find them.
“I think we have the pieces because we recruited to it early on that allow us to do it, and I think it's going to get better,” Kelly said. “I think the personnel will continue to allow us to do what we want to do in moving both three and four down.”
In Kelly’s very first recruiting class, he found a couple of those pieces that ultimately have become important to the execution of the nation’s best defensive unit in terms of scoring (just 11.10 points per game allowed).
“Clearly the ability to put Prince Shembo's hand down on the ground and then back him up,” Kelly explained, “and Danny Spond, his ability to play in space, play No. 2 receiver and then line up over at tight end, it starts with those outside backers, and we've got two guys that allow us to do that.”
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o gets placed on the magazine covers, but a defensive unit consists of many players, and what gets lost in the sound bites and headlines are guys like Shembo (43 tackles) and Spond (33 tackles and four pass deflections).
“I like where we are,” Kelly said of his defense. “I think you have to play great defense to be No. 1 in scoring defense in the country over the long haul. Against (Boston College) that's the first time they hadn't scored a touchdown this year. We felt like (Chase) Rettig was an outstanding quarterback. No, I'm really pleased with what we're continuing to build on defensively, and again, I think there's some young players that are playing even better at this point.”