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True freshman Day, Russell boost defense

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, September 20, 2012

In just two plays, freshman defensive end Sheldon Day made himself known – even if one did end in him stomping up and down in frustration.

On back-to-back plays during No. 11 Notre Dame’s 20-3 win at Michigan State, Day recorded a sack and a near-interception that will go down as just a pass breakup. Day, in frustration, began jumping up and down before ultimately causing a bone spur. He will, however, play Saturday against No. 18 Michigan.

Day is just one, along with cornerback KeiVarae Russell and safeties Elijah Shumate and Nicky Baratti, of four true freshmen contributing to the Irish defense.

“We are much more committed to getting all those players valuable time because of the length and the depth of the schedule that we play and we know we are going to need them at some time during the year,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

Kelly, typically known for his high-flying and fast-paced offense, has looked to his defense to turn around the Notre Dame program.

“Well, I think I said it in my opening press conference when I took the job here, was that it was important that if we wanted to compete nationally, we had to have a defense that could control the different teams that we play on a week to week basis,” Kelly said. “So getting our defense up to that level through recruiting, through player development, through scheme, has been job one. It’s getting better and better each and every year.”

Notre Dame (3-0) has allowed just 30 points through its first three games, the fewest in nearly 25 years. The freshmen have provided not only depth but also production, totaling 19 tackles, five pass breakups and 1.5 sacks.

“[They need to] keep doing what they’re doing,” graduate student defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. “They’re working hard in practice every day and we’re kind of learning from each other and we have a good positive attitude with each other. I think that’s a big help as well.”

Day enrolled early this spring and forced his way into a deep rotation on the defensive line. The Irish consistently use six different players along the defensive front. Kelly said defensive line coach Mike Elston has done a great job with the younger players.

“His focus is strictly on that defensive line room. He was a special teams coordinator as well last year,” Kelly said. “And just getting him focused on that room, the personalities that are within that room, and getting them all to understand they have a role requires a great relationship with the players.”

Lewis-Moore said the senior leadership along the defensive line has helped Day and the defensive backs flourish in their first year.

“It’s a big thing. You just have to keep on them. You can’t let them get lost in the moment,” Lewis-Moore said. “You have to be there for them whenever they need anything.”
In the season-opening 50-10 win over Navy, Russell became
the first freshman in program history to start the season at cornerback. Russell earned the starting nod after junior cornerback Lo Wood injured his Achilles. Wood is out for the season.

Despite a shaky game against Navy, the converted running back and the rest of the secondary have yet to allow an opponent to throw for more than 200 yards.

Shumate, who will see more playing time after graduate student Jamoris Slaughter’s season-ending Achilles injury, has added an instant spark to the Irish defense. Against Michigan State, he broke up two passes on third down that forced the Spartans to punt.

“I like Elijah. He’s an aggressive player and he’s got pretty good ability,” senior safety Zeke Motta said. “He’s really improving a lot. Getting him lined up and on the same page as everyone else is coming along.”

Day, Russell, Shumate and Baratti will try to slow down the Wolverines and senior quarterback Denard Robinson on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at [email protected]