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Football: Manti Te’o, Irish defense build swagger

Douglas Farmer | Friday, August 19, 2011

Over the past eight months, the talk surrounding Notre Dame football has revolved around the offense. Meanwhile, the talk within Notre Dame football has focused on the Irish defense.

While senior receiver Michael Floyd served his suspension and sophomore Tommy Rees battled senior Dayne Crist for the starting quarterback position, the defense has built on its strong finish to last season, when it stifled opponents such as Utah and USC.

“They were able to play some very good teams and not just beat them, but dominate them,” Irish senior offensive guard Trevor Robinson said Tuesday at the annual Media Day. “I am confident that that’s what they’ll be able to do.”

Perhaps they could do even more. Irish coach Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class of his Notre Dame tenure included 12 defensive players signing on National Signing Day. Of those 12, five received four-star rankings from multiple recruiting experts, including defensive ends Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch and Ishaq Williams, who has been moved to outside linebacker to join classmates Anthony Rabasa and Ben Councell.

“Defensively at the linebacker and defensive line position, we feel like we’ve got enough depth there that we can roll out the next guy,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We had to come in immediately and address the defense. That was easy, we knew where we had to go immediately, and that was on the defensive side of the ball.”

But with those talented freshmen, come the usual worries with freshmen.

“The next-man-in on the defensive line is very developmental, as it fits into our structure,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “There is some tangible skill there, but they have so far to go as it relates to being in a game. There’s a lot of players that the whirlwind of a gameday weekend impacts very differently.”

Fortunately, the heralded freshmen can rely on a veteran defense to show them the ropes. The Irish return nine starters, only losing outside linebacker Brian Smith and defensive tackle Ian Williams — currently signed by the Cleveland Browns and the San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Sophomore linebacker Prince Shembo will likely split time with junior Dan Fox to fill Smith’s minutes, and senior Sean Cwynar will share time with 326-pound sophomore Louis Nix in the middle of the line. Cwynar saw extensive playing time last season when Williams went down with a knee injury, giving him the experience of a 10th starter, if not the title.

“This team has been through a complete season now,” Crist said. “We’ve seen the ups and downs of a season … It’s really that same core coming back, and it’s exciting to have guys out and see how hard guys are working every day is a positive.”

The leader of the defense, junior linebacker Manti Te’o, threw around phrases Tuesday like “the best in the nation” and “BCS bowl,” but his confidence is not simply due to 133 tackles last season. It is a common team theme.

“No team goes into the season thinking, ‘Oh, we’re going to win eight games,’” junior offensive tackle Zach Martin said. “But I think this year everyone believes that we can go out and win every game that we play. People are buying in, and I think we’re on the right track.”

Kelly and his staff have parlayed the rising stature of their defense into a challenge for its offense as well. Each day in practice, senior cornerback Gary Gray lines up opposite Floyd. Te’o stares down Crist and Rees. The offense has its work cut out.

“As strong as our defense is, there is a lot of times that I think [the offense is] doing exceptionally well against them, moving the ball,” Robinson said. “I think that’s kind of a confidence boost because we know how good our defense is. For us to be able to execute against them and show that we can do well against us really bodes well for us.”

Yet, the defense’s job remains the same. No matter what success the last four games of the 2010 season held, no matter what praise the media is throwing about, no matter how glowing Kelly’s praise is, the job remains simple.

“We just need to go out there and do our job,” Gray said. “Just handle our business.”