NOTRE DAME, Ind. - Speaking softly while carrying a big stick is not necessarily Louis Nix's forte. Nix's new determination on the field made both him and the Fighting Irish defense a force to be reckoned with during the 2012 season. His candidness while talking with reporters makes him a force that head coach Brian Kelly may have to contain in the future.
"Coming off that ass-whooping from Alabama, we just want to get back on track and focus and make our way back to a national championship game," Nix said this week in his first chat with reporters since Notre Dame's spring football practice began nearly three weeks ago.
Nix's response came after he was asked how he had seen the team progress during practice this spring. Nix was also still defiant about the perception that he and the Irish defense were "dominated" in the lopsided loss to the Crimson Tide.
"Honestly, I don't think I was personally dominated," Nix said with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice. "And that guy that quoted me..."
Nix cut himself off from the sheer honesty of his thoughts in that moment, but the look on his face said it all. Nix stood tall while limping on and off the field for most of the second half despite the fact that the game's outcome had long been decided. Louis Nix knows who he is, and Kelly and his team know what they have in the 6'2, 347 pound nose guard.
"Louis is his own personality in itself," Kelly said a day after Nix's words shot through the Twittersphere and beyond. "He's a fierce competitor, but we're not going to ask him to give any Knute Rockne speeches either before the game or during the game. I think he knows that about himself."
"I think what you're hearing from Louis is he's trying to articulate himself as to the kind of player he is," Kelly continued. "Here's what I will tell you - he does his job, he comes to practice to get better and he's respected by his teammates, because he's a ferocious competitor. And that's what his teammates know about him."
Kelly says Nix's teammates are not looking for the big man to be the team's motivational heartbeat. They all have to "let Louis be Louis" Sunday through Friday, because they all know where his priorities lie on Saturdays.
Nix's 50 tackles last season were the most by an Irish defensive lineman. His interior presence also played a huge role in Manti Te'o's ability to stay away from opposing offensive linemen while totaling a team-high 113 tackles last season. Nix is listed at 347 pounds this spring - up from 326 on last year's roster. Weight is not high on his list of preferred topics though.
"Who knows, me, I don't usually look at my weight," he said when asked his target playing weight for next fall. "(When) people ask for my weight I just throw some random numbers out there. Realistically, I would love to play at 280, but I'll take 340 any day."
While Nix's weight is up, the number on his jersey is down this spring. He has switched from No. 9 to No. 1.
"I thought it would be entertaining to see a big guy (with) a smaller number," he explained of the switch in digits. "Never seen it before, so why not?"
If Nix plays next season like he did in 2012, his jersey number and playing weight will be the last thing eight Kelly or defensive coordinator Bob Diaco will care about. His play while anchoring the Irish defensive line helped ND rank 11th nationally against the run (105 yards/game) and second in scoring defense (12.7 points/game).
Nix was projected by many draft analysts to go as high as the second round of this month's NFL Draft had he decided to declare. His decision to remain on campus for another year could be as pivotal for Irish fortunes as when Te'o made the same choice last year. The question now becomes whether Nix and his teammates can take their game up another notch in 2013.
"We just keep working," Nix said. "I can't tell you how to get to the next level, because I haven't been there yet, but we just keep progressing and building our brotherhood. Just keep sticking to what we've been doing. Just keep eating what coach Diaco and (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston and all the defensive coaches are feeding us. Hopefully, we just keep progressing overall."
Nix said Diaco is yet to feed him "vanilla cake" this spring - a reference to the analogy Diaco used recently about adding a new ingredient to a recipe and coming up with a different result. The new ingredients defensively this spring include replacements for Kapron Lewis-Moore at defensive end, Zeke Motta at safety and Te'o at Mike linebacker.
"No one stays the same," Nix said of the changes. "No team stays the same (and) no person stays the same, so we just keep working together. We put guys in different spots. We teach stuff over and over. We basically went back to the basics. We're doing it all over again. We stick by coach Diaco's philosophy and we're just trying to get past the level we were last year."
The bar is set high in 2013 after Notre Dame's first ever appearance in the BCS Championship game three months ago. The personal bar is high for Nix as well as he looks to not only lead with his play on Saturdays, but also bull his way into a potential first round NFL pick a year from now.
"Just keep doing what I've been doing," Nix said of his priority this spring after turning down the chance to go pro. "Just going with what coach Kelly and coach Elston and coach Diaco tells me to do. Work in the weight room, work in the classroom - just keep doing what I do the Louis Nix way, I don't know how to explain it."
Not much explanation needed.