What makes this Notre Dame defense tick? Why do they rise to the occasion? Talent? Coaching? What other components make the Notre Dame defense great?
The Irish defense is legit. No team will run over the Irish or pass over the Irish with much consistency. Sure, talent plays a big part of the defense’s success. Several current Notre Dame defenders will don NFL jerseys within the next four years. Beyond talent, sure, coaching players to be better plays a vital role as well. So hats off to the defensive coaching staff. They deserve kudos. What else ignites the Irish defense?
This Notre Dame defense plays together because of the combination of personalities. Better put, the players believe in one another physically and mentally, and that comes about because of the dynamics of each player matching with one another. It’s obvious by watching how the Irish players interact with each other before, during, and after plays.
Every watch the Irish defense before a series begins? Take the Michigan game for example. That unit wanted to get after it. Before each play they were bouncing around, talking to one another; a definitive confidence was on display. That confidence started with a special player.
The defense displays its confidence through Manti Te’o more than any other player. His fiery personality pumps up his “brothers” play after play. Of course, Te’o’s emotional outbursts come about because of his performance, both mentally and physically. The senior middle linebacker might just be the best all-around player in the country. He helps to set up the defensive front seven and makes checks. Further, because of Te’o’s presence, the other linebackers receive less attention from the offense. That’s huge because they can be more disruptive by running unabated. Likewise, cannot blame an opposing player from wondering where Te’o is before catching a screen pass because he’s worried about getting rocked on national television! Te’o will take on a talented running back or quarterback (Denard Robinson) that needs to be taken down one-on-one, and he makes the big play. Finally, Te’o’s charisma and character help catapult the Irish defense’s overall confidence into high gear. He’s one of Notre Dame’s all-time great players. Te’o plays behind one of the best defensive lines in the college game, making his job easier.
Kapron Lewis-Moore may not receive the accolades, but he’s sure, steady, and the leader of what he calls “Team no abs” due to how big they are up front. He’s the backbone supported by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, two sure-fire NFL players in the near future. Both players, like Lewis-Moore, bring a fun-natured attitude to practice and game day. They help keep players loose, while also pounding running backs and quarterbacks into the turf. The combo defensive end-slash-outside linebacker that deserves special mention would be Prince Shembo. He’s playing at an elite level and showing some exuberance after each sack or tackle for loss. He brings a swagger to the Irish defense similar to the way Te’o does. Irish defenders feed off his energy and enthusiasm. His pass rushing skills, along with the aforementioned players, allows the secondary to consistent while its inexperience is not exposed.
There’s true freshman KeiVarae Russell and first time starter Bennett Jackson, a junior, at cornerback, redshirt Freshman safety Matthias Farley at safety, and the football-all-the-time veteran senior safety Zeke Motta as the unit’s ring leader. Look, with three new starters, two of which being freshman, it’s a recipe for disaster. That’s why the leadership of Motta means so much. He helps players know what to do, calls numerous checks during the game, and simply makes plays. Motta uses his smarts to make plays as much as he does his feet. He’s a football-lifer, if you know what I mean. That cannot be taught. It rubs off on his defensive back brethren.
That’s just a brief overview of the primary players that NBC broadcasters discuss and ESPNU pundits commonly reference during daily telecasts. All the other starters and reserves play an important role as well. Think about this, how well would a true freshman defensive end such as Sheldon Day perform without the combined talent and leadership of the other Irish front seven players? Football is a team game. He needs to be surrounded by good players and good teachers, and Day certainly is.
Fellow freshman cornerback Elijah Shumate plays with a high level of confidence. Incredibly, he is a nickel back that’s playing well even though he did not play cornerback in high school. Why can he accomplish this transition beyond his obvious physical gifts? There’s competition for playing time that fuels any good football player, and there’s also a group of guys that communicate and interact on the field because they enjoy being around one another. Shumate plays like he belongs. That’s important. He’s a part of a very positive group in the secondary.
Another freshman, safety Nicky Baratti, also plays well despite being another player that did not concentrate on his current college position while he played high school football. The former quarterback made an excellent play to intercept the halfback pass, and it helped turn the momentum in Notre Dame’s favor. Neither of the freshmen defensive backs care that they are inexperienced. They just play to win. That attitude embodies the Irish secondary. Each player comes into the game to make a difference in the secondary, regardless of experience or class.
The Notre Dame defense, a dynamic collection of personalities, possesses a moxie that cannot be taught. The players feed off one another. It’s a special group. For the rest of the season, Irish fans should enjoy every defensive snap.