In 2010, the Notre Dame defense improved dramatically over its 2009 output, making big leaps in scoring defense (63rd nationally to 23rd), interceptions (50th to 19th) and sacks (89th to 54th). Those numbers come mostly from the final four games, when they seem to just "get it," a stark contrast from the first nine games where they showed potential but were also very inconsistent. In the final four, including the Sun Bowl win over Miami, the d held opponents to less than 10 ppg. Limiting Army and Utah to just 3 apiece.
The Fighting Irish D return eight players who started at least eight games last season, including junior linebacker and All-America candidate Manti Te'o, who led the team with 133 tackles. He's a Butkus Award front-runner and a likely first round pick in the next NFL draft.
Also coming on board are freshman pass-rushers Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch -- the 6-foot-6, 260-pound beast from Cape Coral, Fla., whose seven tackles, 1.5 TFL performance was the talk of the spring game. It'll be interesting to see how ND gets all their talented DEs from this highly rated recruiting class out on the field. The Irish have two stud senior starters at the position in Kapron Lewis-Moore and Ethan Johnson. Williams, and perhaps others, might see some time at outside linebacker. It's quite common for defensive ends to move to OLB when they make the jump from college football to the NFL. Why not do it at this transition level too?
The hope for Notre Dame fans is that Kelly's high-pressure defense will resemble his Bearcats squads that consistently ranked among the nation's elite in sacks, interceptions and TFLs. Darius Fleming stands out as the leader of the linebacking corps that will be instrumental to this high-risk, high-reward mentality.
Fifth-year senior safety Harrison Smith (93 tackles, seven interceptions) leads a veteran secondary that helped the Irish post a defensive passing efficiency rating of 115.75, good for 25th in the country and a significant improvement over the 2009 pass D (134.76, 82nd).
And they did finish the season 25th in defensive FEI, Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency metric. The Irish ranked 69th in 2009.
“I really didn’t know Notre Dame because I was busy building other programs. But I heard all about what we couldn’t do. What I found out after being here is that that those aren’t hurdles, those are distinctions. We don't apologize for those. It’s not about saying Notre Dame is better – it's about shopping down a different aisle. Now I know Notre Dame – you don’t have to explain it to me,” ND Head Coach Brian Kelly said at a recent event in Chicago.
“We don't play any outmanned opponents. We don't get a preseason. We open with a USF team that beat Clemson in a bowl game, so we've got to be ready right out of the gate,” he continued.
Notre Dame has not won five straight games since it prevailed in eight straight from Week Four 2006 through Week 11. The Irish enter 2011 with a four-game winning streak. Also they have not allowed two or fewer offensive touchdowns in six straight games since the first seven contests of 2002. The Irish enter 2011 with a streak of five from 2010: Tulsa (1), Utah (0), Army (0), USC (1), and Miami (2 in garbage time) to conclude the season.
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