The offensive side of the football has been covered so now we turn our attention to the defense. Notre Dame’s defense last season may have been the best in decades led by a Heisman Trophy candidate and several All-American caliber players. Many of those great players find themselves where we look today–along the defensive line.
Kapron Lewis-Moore is gone, but two of the three starters from last season are back in rising junior Stephon Tuitt and senior-to-be Louis Nix. With both of these guys returning, the Irish defensive line already can be listed as one of the nation’s best. Tuitt had a breakout season last year on the edge collecting 47 tackles, 13 for loss, a team-high 12 sacks, and one long fumble recovery for a touchdown. For a guy that was supposed to be the run stopper, Tuitt looked very comfortable in getting after the quarterback. If he can improve even more this season, this could be his final year in South Bend.
Louis Nix, on the other hand, became the anchor in the middle of the defensive line. Almost impossible to block, Nix recorded 50 tackles, two sacks, and five passes deflected. He’s a space eater if there ever was one and Notre Dame got lucky with Nix announcing his return for his senior season. He’s an All-American candidate for sure and could become the top defensive tackle in the country this year.
On the other end, with Lewis-Moore gone, the door is open for rising sophomore Sheldon Day to take over. Day had a solid freshman campaign appearing in all 13 games while making 23 tackles and two sacks. He showed he can play on this level, but now is the time for him to make a leap and solidify the right side of the line for the Irish.
Other guys filling in at end include sophomore-to-be Jarron Jones, rising juniors Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, senior-to-be Justin Utupo, and fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton.
Jones may be the most intriguing option of the bunch. A highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, he spent last season learning behind Tuitt, Lewis-Moore, and Day. He’s got great size (6’5″, 295) and a good burst of speed. He’s going to play this year and the Irish need him to become a regular in the rotation. Springmann showed a great motor last season in limited action. He’s a valuable player to have in that he brings solid play off the bench when needed. Hounshell didn’t play much last season seeing action in only one game because of a shoulder injury and the play of Tuitt ahead of him. Another shoulder injury has knocked him out this spring and could cost him the 2013 season itself. If he can come back, he adds talented depth on the end. Utupo and Stockton also come back, but neither will probably play this season. Both are there for depth, and Stockton especially add some leadership. They’re program players which every team needs.
In the middle, rising senior Kona Schwenke returns to once again backup Nix. Schwenke played in 11 games last season collecting five tackles and a half sack. With Nix playing so well, Schwenke may not see a ton of action again, but his presence does add a veteran on the bench.
The fall adds freshmen Isaac Rochell, Eddie Vanderdoes, and Jacob Matuska. Rochell could quickly find himself in the rotation as could Vanderdoes. Both have a ton of talent that could make it tough to keep them on the bench. Vanderdoes seems to be the heir apparent to Nix at tackle already even before he steps on campus. Matuska probably won’t play this season, but he keeps depth up at this crucial position.
What used to be a liability has become a strength for the Fighting Irish. Give Brian Kelly and his staff credit for recognizing the problem and correcting it. Tuitt and Nix could be the best at their positions this fall and with guys like Day, Jones, Springmann, and Schwenke all returning, the defensive line boasts incredible talent and depth. Throw in the freshmen in the fall and there will be no shortage of options to choose from. If this Irish defense is going to be as good as last year’s it’s going to be the line leading the way. Fortunately, the talent is there to do just that.
1. Stephon Tuitt, Jr.
2. Tony Springmann, Jr.
3. Isaac Rochell, Fr.
4. Chase Hounshell, Jr.*
1. Sheldon Day, So.
2. Jarron Jones, So.
3. Tyler Stockton, 5th Sr.
4. Justin Utupo, Sr.
5. Jacob Matuska, Fr.*
1. Louis Nix, Sr.
2. Kona Schwenke, Sr.
3. Eddie Vanderdoes, Fr.