If preseason accolades are any indication, don’t expect the Notre Dame defense to take a step backwards this season. Even without the most highly decorated defensive player in the school’s history, the preseason Maxwell and Bednarik watch lists are covered with Notre Dame defenders, a sign of elevated expectations for one of the most surprising units in the country last year.
Leading the way are preseason All-Americans Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt. Not only are the two Irish defensive linemen on the (kinda) short list for the Bednarik, given to college football’s defensive player of the year, they both were nominated for the Maxwell Award, given to college football’s player of the year. In case you forgot, Manti Te’o won both the Maxwell and Bednarik Awards last season.
Other Bednarik watch-listers are senior cornerback Bennett Jackson and senior outside linebacker Prince Shembo. Notre Dame is the only school in college football with four players featured on the Bednarik list. Alabama, Florida State, Ohio State and Stanford have three each.
It’s hard to get too pumped up about Watch List season, but it does do a nice job of qualifying the mainstream opinion on your team and players. While just about everyone following college football knew that Nix and Tuitt were among the country’s best players, seeing guys like Jackson and Shembo receive national awards notice does a good job of qualifying expectations for two veterans that should play big roles on the field this season.
Earlier in the offseason, ESPN tabbed Shembo as one of college football’s top five linebackers, quite a statement for a guy that only truly emerged last season after struggling to find his footing in 2011 as a field-side linebacker. Likewise, Jackson has a sneaky chance to make his way into All-American consideration, with the physical, athletic cornerback doing a lot of elite things last season, even with a shoulder that needed surgery.