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The way too early 2012 starting lineup: Defense

Apr 26, 2012, 3:26 PM EDT

Manti Te'o junior

Two guys expected to push their way into the starting defensive lineup instead pushed their way out of town. With Aaron Lynch and Tee Shepard both leaving the Irish football team before spring practice concluded, Notre Dame will have to win with the players they have on the roster, and see if any incoming freshmen have the ability to come in this June and fight their way onto the field.

After watching the positional battles play out during 15 spring practices, here’s the way too early defensive depth chart, heading into unofficial workouts.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The loss of Lynch will certainly sting, but there’s plenty of depth here and it’s not like the Irish will be piecing things together. Rarely does a four-year starter get overlooked, but expect Kapron Lewis-Moore to step his game up during his final season in South Bend, and hold down one defensive end spot. Stephon Tuitt, who had a promising freshman season held back by some early immaturity and then a bout with mono, looks like a future star across from him.

The talk of spring practice was Kona Schwenke. Named the most improved defensive player of the spring, Schwenke pushed Louis Nix at nose guard, running with the first team while Nix battled his fitness and the coaching staff motivated him.

With Chase Hounshell limited and Tony Springmann out for the spring, early-enrollee Sheldon Day impressed during his first work with the team. If the season started tomorrow, Day would likely be in the rotation, though that might not be the case next fall. Tyler Stockton, undersized for the Irish system, but an effort player during spring drills, will also try to work his way into the rotation.

Early projections for opening day:

Kapron Lewis-Moore
Louis Nix
Stephon Tuitt

Chase Hounshell
Kona Schwenke
Tony Springmann
Sheldon Day
Tyler Stockton
Jarron Jones

Thoughts: Dropping Nix back to the second-team was motivation 101 for a defensive tackle that looked to add a few unwanted pounds in the months between the season and spring ball. While the pass rush undoubtedly is hurt with the loss of Lynch, the Irish still feel like the front seven of this team is its strength, and it’ll be interesting to see the step forward made by guys like Hounshell, who played last year, and Springmann, who didn’t, but has a ton of promise.

LINEBACKERS

This group is the strength of the defense. Headlined by All-American candidate Manti Te’o, who took off 10 pounds in the offseason and looks better than ever, there’s a ton of versatile talent across the line. While Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese split time next to Te’o last season, expect to hear from guys like Jarrett Grace and Kendall Moore. Both Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo impressed during spring drills, and walk-on Joe Schmidt is a guy that’s going to help the team win as well.

On the outside, Prince Shembo suffered a turf toe injury that required surgery. The injury pushed Ishaq Williams to the forefront, and the rising sophomore took command of the position. Danny Spond and Ben Councell will battle for the dog linebacker job, with Councell looking to gain the edge by the end of spring practice. There’s not a ton of depth here, especially with Troy Niklas switching to tight end, though Romeo Okwara will enter the outside linebacking group come summer.

Early projections for opening day:

Prince Shembo, OLB
Manti Te’o, ILB
Dan Fox, ILB
Ben Councell, OLB

Ishaq Williams
Carlo Calabrese
Danny Spond
Kendall Moore
Jarrett Grace
Anthony Rabasa
Joe Schmidt
Romeo Okwara

Thoughts: I think Williams and Shembo will be on the field together plenty, so saying Prince beats out Ishaq for the job isn’t truly reality. Last season, we saw Fox and Calabrese split time and they’ll likely do the same again this year, with Jarrett Grace fighting to get in the mix as well. You can’t call the season Manti Te’o put together last year disappointing, but I expect to see a man on fire next season. Visibly lighter and moving quicker, he’ll be among the best defenders in college football. I also think the future behind him is bright with Kendall Moore. All he seems to do is make plays when given the chance. The dog linebacker position is one to watch. Ben Councell’s physicality was impressive, but he’ll be taking his first real snaps next season. The strengths of this defense could put the unit in more three-linebacker sets, with Shembo putting a hand on the ground in pass rushing situations.

SECONDARY

This might as well be an open casting call, after regulars Harrison Smith, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray depart after holding down jobs for multiple seasons. There’s no question that cornerback is a question mark on this roster. But don’t think Bennett Jackson is part of that conversation. Privately, the coaching staff thinks they might have a first round talent playing the boundary corner, where Jackson’s size, physicality and speed make an intriguing player.

Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will likely battle for the field corner job. The winner will be the guy who can do the least wrong, as nobody wants to field a defense that gives up the play over the top. Wood doesn’t have the upside of Atkinson, but he’s put in workmanlike hours, and if he keeps things in front of him, he’ll be okay. Jalen Brown looks the part of a starting cornerback, but he’s got to do a better job covering receivers if the staff is going to feel like they can count on him. (When the UND.com videos even show you getting beat, that’s not good…) New addition to the mix Cam McDaniel proved to the staff that he’s a good football player, moving to corner after Tee Shepard left South Bend, and impressing with his ability to get up to speed.

At safety, the staff feels good about Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta and Austin Collinsworth. Slaughter has the ability to make “the leap” this year, building on a season that saw him turn into one of the Irish’s true impact defenders. It’s also the end of the road for Motta, who certainly passes the eyeball test as an athlete and safety. Former walk-on Chris Salvi was brought back on scholarship and will headline the special teams, and Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy found their footing this spring. The Irish will also welcome reinforcements this summer with Nick Baratti, CJ Prosise, Elijah Shumate, and John Turner. (Thanks to the readers that reminded me that Chris Badger will return to the Irish after missing two years after his Mormon Mission. Depth chart adjusted)

Early projections for opening day:

Bennett Jackson
Zeke Motta
Jamoris Slaughter
Josh Atkinson

Austin Collinsworth
Lo Wood
Cam McDaniel
Eilar Hardy
Jalen Brown
Matthias Farley
Chris Badger
CJ Prosise
Elijah Shumate
Nick Baratti
John Turner

Thoughts: We’ll likely see a lot of the top six guys in the secondary, and it’ll be up to Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott to get the guys up to speed. This defense will be as good as the secondary lets them be, and Elliott has made a great impact wherever he’s been. You’ve got to wonder if any of the safeties recruited can slide into the cornerback mix. My guess? CJ Prosise will get a chance, which helps explain why we’ve heard some rumblings about Prosise trying to cut weight.

  1. mattnef - Apr 26, 2012 at 3:50 PM

    And don’t forget Mike Heuerman! Oh wait, he is a 2013 TE, sorry just got a bit over excited!
    Like most things on this Irish team the defense both scares the crap out of me and gets me excited about the future. I guess you can say at least they keep it interesting? I predict a solid, yet frustrating group that keeps us in most games, wins us 1 or 2, but also gives up some bone head plays. I’m espeically looking forward to the 3rd down pass rush of Tuitt, Williams, Schembo and someone else from the deep D-line..

  2. patells07 - Apr 26, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    two things. I like how fast McDaniel has picked up his position but lets face it he still has a long way to go. I highly doubt he ends up ahead of Brown and Hardy in playing time in the secondary. Secondly, Prosise has actually put on weight, adding about 10 pounds, most of it muscle, to be up to 216 and the staff said to watch it as they don’t want him any bigger at this point. He said he will try to cut down to a more solid 210, but lets face it, thats still not size being groomed for corner. He is being groomed for safety and could maybe be a great fit at the hybrid dog position like Slaughter. Also short note, Bennett Jackson may be a great athlete but think we are getting a little carried away with first round talk

  3. dmac4real - Apr 26, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    KA has just been all about potential while predicting these pics. Golson, Atkinson, Councell, Daniels….I like it.

  4. Jennifer - Apr 26, 2012 at 6:02 PM

    Really excited to have Mike Heurman give verbal commit to ND! Rivals has him at #10 TE. Love it that he’s from Florida and that Miami was on his short list. Also relieved that Mike’s brother is TE at Ohio State, and imagine they wouldn’t want to compete for the same position. And the ONLY way I ever want to hear the word “Urban” again is in reference to a large city. But it’s the other bit in this story that has me especially loving this commit. Aside from Mike’s outstanding talent, LSU was also in the hunt, so maybe we’ll be treated to another “Les Miles’ bizarre player assassination rant” that he lets fly when a potential recruit decides instead for ND. The Gunner Kiel attack from him for not choosing LSU was so ludicrous and absurd that it was just laughable. And for the chronically nervous ND fans like myself, well, we can ALWAYS use a good laugh! Welcome to ND Mike! And GO IRISH!

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Apr 26, 2012 at 6:17 PM

      Love it Jen, the bizarre player assassination rant was great. I bet the loss of Heurman will make ole Les blow his cork again! As far as being chronically nervous fans, we are still a good four months away from any game action and I already feel the need for a prozac the size of a golf ball.

      Note to KA…..I saw a photo of DaVaris Daniels (I don’t think it was your site) holding that goofy orange football that we switched to a year or two ago. Do you think the new ball had any influence on our turnover margin? We play with our ball at home and we did turn it over against USF and USC there. I wonder if we had more TO’s at home than on the road? Might be something to look at. Tell BK to switch back to a regular ball, preferably one with some tack to it.

  5. irishdodger - Apr 26, 2012 at 6:24 PM

    Time for these “highly rated” DBs to step to the forefront. Lots of talk when they were freshmen, but zero action yet. If we just get two kids that can turn around & find the ball, we’ll be fine.

  6. ndfanwabashman - Apr 26, 2012 at 9:32 PM

    Am I the only one who thinks Carlo is a better player than Dan Fox? Not that I think Fox is a bad player, but every time I watch Calabrese I’m excited about the way he plays football. Obviously the coaches are seeing something different, but Carlo really brings the wood.

  7. ndnphx - Apr 26, 2012 at 11:44 PM

    Our front seven should be one of the best in the country: against the run. Once the ball’s in the air, all bets are off. I don’t blame the personnel. I question the scheme.

    As we saw in the FSU game, BK has no confidence/belief in an attacking defense, even when it’s working. Instead, he wants to hang his hat on this cover-two thing. Defend the field, keep everything in front of you, contain. Might as well call it a game long prevent, because that what it is. Hope the other team does something stupid. Meanwhile, our guys back-peddle as soon as the ball is snapped, and we turn even mediocre QBs into studs against such a passive defense. You can measure the success of this concept by looking at how many turnovers the defense has “forced” over the past two years.

    One more piece of evidence about the effectiveness of our scheme: Harrison Smith was a first-round draft choice tonight. Last year, he was invisible in our defense, except for making tackles after the other team had already racked up a big gain.

    I hope the offense averages 40 points a game. Gonna have to…

    • dmac4real - Apr 26, 2012 at 11:52 PM

      I disagree with almost everything you say. I believe (i cant say im certain) that Diaco calls the plays, and its his cover two thing. Also, you can quite easily make the case for it. The point is to not let up long plays, and really the only game we did let up the big play was the implosion vs Michigan. The point isnt to force turnovers, the point is to keep the points low, which you apparently dont care about. The defense let up 20 points per game last year with 3 of the top offenses (Michigan, Stanford, USC) in the schedule. The defense played pretty well and im not sure why you are complaining about the side of the ball that won many games for us.

      O by the way, your “Evidence” is completely inaccurate. Harrison Smith didnt get any interceptions because nobody threw the ball his way because he had 7 picks in the “passive” defense the year before. Even freaking Mel Kiper said this tonight that his JR year he was a ball hawk, but not SR year because nobody threw his way.

      My gosh, tonight was supposed to be a good night with two First round draft picks…first since ’94. But of course Notre Dame fans always have to complain….smh.

  8. mtflsmitty - Apr 27, 2012 at 2:11 AM

    The complaining is too much. A great night for ND football. Huerman is a great win for the future. And the good news for Floyd and Smith says good things about our recent past…which of course can excite recruits, and around it goes.

    Last thing for the night…I sure hope Jonas grey gets a shot somewhere. Terrible timing on the injury. Had he not been injured, been able to workout at the combine or at Senior Day I wonder if he could have been a top 10 RB in the draft this year. Never know. But I hope good things happen for him.

    • papadec - Apr 27, 2012 at 3:51 AM

      The NY Giants need a better running game. I’d love to see them take a late round flyer on Jonas, and it turn out great for both of them. Maybe our man Tuck can blow in their ear?

  9. bearcatirishfan - Apr 27, 2012 at 10:03 AM

    I’ve been on this site for a couple of weeks now, just want to say I’m a little surprised by all the negatiVe comments. I think I have figured it out, as ND fans we are all sadomasochists. We have gotten to the point where we have gotten so used to bad things happening we all just wallow in the pain, even in the off season. When there is hope we immediately slap ourselves with a cattail and get back into our bad place. Let’s have some positivity here, pull off that mask with the zipper mouth and drop the pig ball. I’m tired of punishing myself for being an ND fan. Maybe I have ND daddy issues. Sorry for the rant.

  10. irishfan2791 - Apr 27, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    I really, really, really like our defense! I think we have speed all over the field now and that we are getting closer and closer to looking like a top tier SEC defense, only our kids can spell! I think the Linebackers are definitely a strength, with all the depth at that position we should be able to be a top 25 possibly top 15 defense. I think with Shembo, Williams, and Tuitt, QB’s shouldn’t have all day to sit back there and take advantage of the field corner. I like Bennett Jackson, I watched him at the spring game and was happy because I thought he was going to be a lot worse. But with Slaughter and Te’o running things we’re in really good hands on D. Just have to take care of the ball and tackle and the sky is the limit for this squad.

  11. fnc111 - Apr 27, 2012 at 1:10 PM

    As much as you want to vomit when you look at the lack of talent on offense I get super excited seeing the depth on this defense. This D is gooooood. I’m more disappointed that Tee left than anything. He was going to be a stud. If the cb’s can hang in there we are going to see ND in every game outside of the USC and OU games. Kelly should shut his mouth but I would be pleased to see ND go 8-4 this year.

  12. bearcatirishfan - Apr 27, 2012 at 4:12 PM

    I don’t think there is lack of talent on offense EG is obviously talented. Just not ready for prime time yet.

    • joeschulz - Apr 27, 2012 at 6:28 PM

      I disagree. EG is ready for prime time. Anyone with that arm and those instincts is ready to play. The problem is defining his upside. If he can manage the offense, his upside becomes incredible. If he can’t, he’s still the best QB anywhere near South Bend.

  13. bearcatirishfan - Apr 28, 2012 at 12:23 AM

    I guess that’s what I meant, the game management part is the ready for prime time part. One interception ND nation is done with the kid and he’s a bum, maybe Kelly is protecting him from guys like nude.

    • nudeman - Apr 28, 2012 at 1:28 PM

      I won’t dump on EG. The kid is raw but tremendously talented.
      If he throws a pick or 2, so what?

      Continuing to play the paperboy is just a concession to mediocrity

    • joeschulz - Apr 28, 2012 at 3:11 PM

      Personally, I think Kelly sees it too. He wants the game management; but he’ll take the skills. It’s up to Everett. If he adds game management, he can make this offense unstoppable. Based on his HS stats he knows how to avoid interceptions. I would love to see Kelly run with Everett, 3 tight ends and Toma.

  14. bearcatirishfan - Apr 28, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    I agree even Kelly should be able to run behind those three tight ends.

  15. cpfirish - Apr 29, 2012 at 1:39 AM

    TR is done!! Why cant BK see that???.. He BETTER hand it over to EG!! And the ND offense is loaded with talent!!

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