Unranked to Undefeated? Defensive Line Q&A
It was a noted team strength by anyone close to the program and head coach Brian Kelly in his August media address. In retrospect, and in relative terms, its been the program's best unit since at least November 2010 when the Irish began a four-game winning streak to conclude Kelly's first season.
Camp Questions: Where would the pass rush come from with the transfer of Aaron Lynch? How would 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore respond after ACL surgery the previous October? Were rookies Sheldon Day and (redshirt-freshman) Tony Springmann, plus untested junior Kona Schwenke, on par with 2011 backups Lynch, Sean Cwynar, and Stephon Tuitt? Could Tuitt take a major step forward as a first time starter, and would Prince Shembo's move back to a Cat/DE position vacated by Darius Fleming re-start what appeared to be a promising career stunted by a 2011 season spent in space?
The season's answers Notre Dame's 34 sacks were the most at the program since 2003 (led by single-season record holder, Justin Tuck), and of the 34, 31 came from Elston's defensive linemen (as opposed to 24 in 2003). Relevance? Notre Dame didn't have to blitz to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
The team's three backups listed above, plus Cat Ishaq Williams ranked as the best second unit since future pros Brian Hamilton, Junior Bryant, and Renaldo Wynn ably backed up another quartet of NFLers in 1992.
Led By Day's 3.5 tackles for loss and Springmann's three pressures, the trio plus Williams added 57 stops, 10 for loss, with five more QB hurries. More important, they provided quality relief for the team's starters in each of the 12 games, starring as backups in road upsets vs. Michigan State and Oklahoma.
Regarding Tuitt and Shembo: the latter not only took a major step forward, he ascended to rank among the nation's best, earning All-America honors due largely to 12 sacks and nine hurries. More important, he was improved in gap responsibility, the key to the Irish rush defense.
Shembo was arguably the 11th or 12th-best defensive player on the team last season -- a fish out of water at the Dog 'backer position. He was among the nation's best edge players in 2012, holding stout vs. the run, registering 7.5 sacks (and 10.5 tackles-for-loss), and leading the nation's best front four with 12 QB pressures.
Not yet mentioned is the indomitable Louis Nix. Few observers close to the program expected anything but top-notch play from the 6'4" 330-pound anchor. His 2012 season offers a microcosm of the unit as a whole: not only better than expected, but dominant, and chief among myriad reasons the Irish are playing in the national championship game next month.
Season Takeaway: Defensive line coach Mike Elston's group exceeded expectations, performing at a level equal to that of any defensive line in program history, including the storied unit of 1966 led by the great Alan Page.
BCS Championship Question: Alabama's front is expected to be the best the Irish have faced (though not all close to Notre Dame believe it is superior overall to Stanford's). If the Irish defense is on the field too long, can this unit hold up and keep the Crimson Tide out of the end zone in the fourth quarter?