How good will the Notre Dame defense be in 2013? The Fighting Irish have not one, not two, not merely three, but four - yes four members of the defense on the Bednarik Award Watch List. Nose guard Louis Nix, defensive end Stephon Tuitt, outside linebacker Prince Shembo, and cornerback Bennett Jackson make Notre Dame the only FBS school to have four players on the list heading into the season.
A year ago at this time there were questions about all four of those players as they prepared for the 2012 season, but they were all major reasons for Notre Dame's emergence as one of the premiere defensive units in all of college football. Those four helped lead an Irish defense that ranked second in the nation in scoring defense last fall (12.7 points per game).
"Consistency", or lack thereof, was a key word that followed both Nix and Tuitt into training camp last summer, but both emerged as key performers on Notre Dame's stellar defensive line. They are also now not only Maxwell Award candidates (best player in the country), but also early projections to be selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Maybe it was merely a motivational ploy, but Nix found himself at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Kona Schwenke last fall. That Louis Nix was far from the Louis Nix who became a force in the middle of Notre Dame's defense in 2012. He played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman in 2011 and was a solid contributor with 33 tackles.
Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston thought Nix was capable of far more though and they challenged him to shed his inconsistencies throughout the spring and fall of 2012.
“It’s just me getting my head on straight and I think I have that now,” Nix said last fall as he prepared for his second season on the Irish defensive line. “There’s a lot of things I was worried about (and) I didn’t have my head on straight and I’m fine now.”
Nix, who weighed-in at 347 pounds this spring, turned into Notre Dame's defensive anchor last season. His tackles increased to 50 and he helped pave the way for Manti Te'o to roam free behind him en-route to a Heisman Trophy runner-up season that included a team-high 113 tackles. Inconsistency is not something Irish coaches have to worry about with Nix now.
"I know, being Louis Nix's coach, what I'm going to get from him on Saturday," Elston said of the big man this spring. "He prepares himself in practice to get ready for Saturday. He's one of the most ferocious competitors,"
Tuitt had to shed inconsistencies of his own despite playing in nine games as a true freshman in 2011. The Monroe, Ga native recorded 33 tackles and 2.0 sacks that season, but he was largely overshadowed by fellow freshman Aaron Lynch, who seemed to make a splash nearly every Saturday before transferring to USF in the spring of 2012.
Lynch's departure left more available opportunities for Tuitt and the 6-foot-6, 320 pound sophomore took advantage. He was a wrecking machine at defensive end with team-highs for 12.0 sacks and 13.0 tackles for loss. Tuitt was on pace to set Notre Dame's single-season sack record, but his pace slowed over the second half of the season due to a sports hernia injury that was not revealed until well after the season.
"I think it hurt him significantly," Elston said of Tuitt's injury. "I think he's to be commended for fighting through it. That's a tough injury and he fought through it."
Tuitt only recorded 2.5 sacks over Notre Dame's last six games. The lack of production was a mystery to the rest of the world at the time and was only revealed by Kelly at the start of spring practice. Tuitt's 12.0 sacks are the second-most in a season at ND. His 14.0 career sacks are tied for 11th in the school record books.
Along with Nix and Tuitt, Cat linebacker Prince Shembo will again help comprise one of the top front seven defensive units in all of college football in 2013. Shembo has 14.0 career sacks of his own through his first three seasons after recording 7.5 last fall.
The Shembo-Tuitt combination combined for 19.5 sacks last season. The teammates were just 5.0 sacks behind Arizona State teammates Will Sutton and Carl Bradford, who share the same positions as the Irish defenders. Sutton and Bradford's 24.5 sacks last season led all of college football.
"Louis Nix to me has got first round (NFL Draft) talent," NBC's Mike Mayock recently told ISD. "Stephon Tuitt has first round talent. Sheldon Day has come on as the other five-technique defensive end when they're in their base and Prince Shembo is going to be one of the better edge rushers in college football."
Shembo's tackles for loss exploded from 3.5 in 2011 to 10.5 last season. He had 4.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks in Notre Dame's win over Boston College last November and finished the season with 51 tackles after totaling 46 in his first two seasons combined.
Notre Dame's final Bednarik candidate is Bennett Jackson, who has gone from reserve wide receiver and special teams stalwart to stud cornerback in seemingly the blink of an eye. Jackson was ND's Special Teams Player of the Year as a true freshman in 2010 and continued to see primarily special teams action in 2011 as well.
"Bennett Jackson's a kid who when he came in as a freshman he and (Austin) Collinsworth were probably the two best special teams players that year and they were both wide receivers," Mayock told ISD. "That's why I started laughing when they both got moved to defense the next year, because I knew they would - they were so aggressive on special teams."
Jackson had never started at cornerback prior to his 2012 junior season, but his 65 total tackles (45 solo) were the third-most for the Irish behind Te'o and safety Zeke Motta. His four interceptions were also second to Te'o's seven.
"You never see him shuffling his feet around," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said of Jackson last fall. "He’s got so many qualities, not only tangibly on the field, because he’s fast and long and aggressive, but also intangibly he’s constantly adding. He never detracts."
If Notre Dame's quartet of star defenders adds to its tangible 2012 play, the upcoming season will again be a long one for opposing offenses.