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.