Michigan v Notre Dame

Breaking down 4-0: The front seven

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Part four in our bye week on Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. For more, check out our introduction, the secondary, the running backs, and the receiving corps

OFF-SEASON PERSPECTIVE

Most outsiders thought the loss of defensive end Aaron Lynch would be a deathblow to a promising pass rush. The sophomore defensive end, who led the Irish in sacks as a freshman, was set to team with Stephon Tuitt on the edge of the defensive line, a group that had the look of a very strong unit. Most thought it was coach speak when Brian Kelly said he wasn’t worried about the defensive front. But after four games, we now know why.

With a linebacking corps that was all but locked in, it was up to the defensive line to improve, even without Lynch. That meant getting more from Stephon Tuitt, who looked the part of an elite defender. And Louis Nix building on a promising first season in the middle. With Prince Shembo stepping in for Darius Fleming to provide a spark in the pass rush and Ben Councell and Danny Spond looking to anchor the drop linebacker, the pieces looked in place even before the premise was proven this September.

PERSONNEL CHANGES

The Irish said goodbye to veteran Ethan Johnson and then were surprised that versatile defensive tackle Sean Cwynar decided to walk away from his final year of eligibility. Countering that move with a shift of Kona Schwenke to the inside, the Irish then needed to depend on some youth to step up and fill some important roles.

Meanwhile with the linebackers, the depth chart at the Dog linebacker was thrown out of whack when Danny Spond suffered a scary injury during preseason camp. The Irish toyed with moving safety CJ Prosise down in the box while shifting Romeo Okwara to the wide side of the field.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sr.
Sean Cwynar, Sr. (Decided to forgo a possible fifth year of eligibility.)
Tyler Stockton, Sr.
Kona Schwenke, Jr.
Louis Nix, Jr.
Aaron Lynch, Soph. (Left the team in the spring. Enrolled at South Florida.)
Stephon Tuitt, Soph.
Tony Springmann, Soph.
Sheldon Day, Fr.
Jarron Jones, Fr.

Manti Te’o, Sr.
Dan Fox, Sr.
Carlo Calabrese, Sr.
Prince Shembo, Jr.
Danny Spond, Jr.
Justin Utupo, Jr.
Kendall Moore, Jr.
Jarrett Grace, Soph.
Ben Councell, Soph.
Joe Schmidt, Soph.
Ishaq Williams, Soph.
Anthony Rabasa, Soph.
Romeo Okwara, Fr.

STATISTICAL BREAKDOWN

It isn’t hard to see the difference in the statistical performance from 2011 to 2012. Across the board, the Irish have taken a step forward with their defense. After being middle of the road getting after the quarterback, Bob Diaco’s unit has taken a huge leap forward, with the run defense playing equally stingy. And with turnovers, the difference is night and day.

Scoring Defense:
2011: 20.7 (24th)
2012: 9.0 (4th)

Rushing Defense:
2011: 138.9 (47th)
2012: 112.5 (29th)

Yards Per Carry:
2011: 3.78 (45th)
2012: 3.31 (31st)

Sacks:
2011: 25 (56th)
2012: 14 (7th)

Turnovers Forced:
2011: 14 (112th)
2012: 13 (2nd)

Two amazing stats that jump out at you are the sacks and turnovers. The Irish have already notched 14 sacks, over halfway to their total of 25 last season. They’ve produced those sacks mostly from their defensive front, with Stephon Tuitt leading the way with six sacks and rookie Sheldon Day chipping in two as well. With Prince Shembo ratcheting up  the pressure over the past few games, the pass rush only looks to improve as the season goes on.

Even more incredible is the jump the Irish have made in forcing turnovers. From the bottom of the barrel to the cream of the crop, Notre Dame’s defense has already forced 13 turnovers, nearly matching their season long total from last year. With an offense that hasn’t advanced the cause, those turnovers have been huge in getting victories and a large part of why Notre Dame has given up only nine points a game.

OVERALL

With Manti Te’o leading the way for the linebackers and Stephon Tuitt wreaking havoc up front, the front seven is the undeniable strength of this football team. With a defensive front that rolls through young talent, and a linebacking group that seems like it’s hitting its stride, the defense could be poised to power this football team, and faces a nice measuring stick next Saturday against Miami.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”