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Defensive line depth contributes to success

Andrew Owens | Saturday, January 5, 2013

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – “Next man in.”

It’s been Irish coach Brian Kelly’s mantra since Notre Dame hired him three years ago. Whether it’s an injury or a designed substitution pattern, he knows an elite program requires contributions from more than its 22 starters.

In Kelly’s third year, with Notre Dame on the doorstep of its first national championship in 24 years, the plan, formulated by the coaches and embraced by the players, has come to fruition.

Nowhere is that more evident than on the Irish defensive line, highlighted by graduate student Kapron Lewis-Moore, junior Louis Nix and sophomore Stephon Tuitt and cemented by sophomore Tony Springmann, junior Kona Schwenke and freshman Sheldon Day.

“One of the things we pride ourselves in is having enough guys to cycle through and have good depth,” Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said.

Even after Aaron Lynch’s spring transfer, the Irish have maintained and developed the deepest group of defensive linemen in the nation, due largely to their recruiting mentality.

“We as a program analyze the position … to make it better and attack those players in the country to move the position along,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “We’re not chasing talent and stars and what people say. We inspect the position, what it needs to be better and attack the available talent pool to address those issues.”

The players are informed on the Thursday of each game week how much they will play so each lineman knows what to expect on Saturdays and can “cut it loose because they know the beginning and the end is,” Diaco said.

Notre Dame’s stamina on the defensive line has helped the Irish claim many close finishes, and staying fresh has never been more important than it will be Monday after a 45-day layoff and against Alabama’s vaunted offensive line.

“[Staying fresh] is going to play a huge role because Alabama is very good and has a very effective offensive line, so having fresh legs is huge,” Springmann said. “We all provide energy for each other and skills all round.”

For Alabama, it causes a headache when attempting to create a game plan.

“They present a lot of challenges,” Alabama senior center Barrett Jones said. “They’re very fundamentally sound, they have great hands, very talented players and they play well in the scheme. Anytime you have that it’s going to be a dangerous combination.

“I think they probably compare more to an SEC defensive line than any defensive line out of the SEC I’ve seen. They have a lot of big guys and a lot of depth that enables them to remain fresh and rotate in.”

When Elston was asked at Saturday’s media day which offensive line gave the Irish the most trouble during the regular season, he initially said Stanford before pausing for 15 seconds and saying he didn’t think even the Cardinal matched his unit’s play. He added that Alabama’s offensive line is the most talented of Notre Dame’s 2012 opponents.

“[Staying fresh] is going to be a critical component,” Elston said. “We obviously want our starters to play as much as they can but at the end of the day when the next man goes in you don’t want a drop-off. They’ll all play a role in this game and keep those guys fresh and that’s been our key all season is to keep those guys fresh.”

Diaco said he had no doubt, even early in his time at Notre Dame, that the philosophy and recruiting would pay dividends by year three. Elston added that the players that are drawn to Notre Dame are so driven that little arm-wringing has been necessary during the players’ development.

“They want to be great,” he said. “The thing you need to be able to do is show them they can have success.”

And success they have had.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu