In its last four games a season ago, Notre Dame defeated Utah, Army, USC and Miami, allowing an average of just 9.8 points. For a program typically defined by its offense—coach Brian Kelly's version of the spread and the pro-style sets of his predecessor, Charlie Weis—this was no small development. "For as long as I've been here, people have wondered if the defense can be just good enough," says fifth-year senior safety Harrison Smith. "I think we finally started to become a team that people could say, 'If they just get a little bit of offense, that's all they'll need.'"
This is an article from the Aug. 22, 2011 issue
Much of the optimism in South Bend—the Irish are a trendy pick to play in a BCS bowl for the first time since the '06 season—centers on that defense. It is expected to be so stout that the team's unsettled quarterback situation heading into camp (senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees were vying for the job) was a minor concern. "We came in and tried to be consistent with our scheme and our message, and by the end of the season that began to pay off," says Kelly. "Also, the focus has been on recruiting and developing players who can play national-champion-caliber defense."
Smith, 6'2" and 214 pounds, is one player inherited by Kelly who blossomed last season. He was mainly a linebacker under Weis, but in 2010 he spent most of his time in the defensive backfield. Looking at the current linebackers—the best is 6'2", 255-pound Manti Te'o, a junior All-America candidate—Smith can't believe he played there. "Let's just say I'm where I belong," he says.
Smith, who had five interceptions during that season-ending winning streak, is one of eight seniors who could start on defense, but a few newcomers could make the unit elite. The freshman class includes defensive ends Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt and Ishaq Williams, all ranked among the best prospects in the country. "None of our seniors have to worry about losing their spots," says Kelly, "but we finally have talented players behind them."
You'd have to go back to the 1990s to find so much defensive depth in South Bend. "Some of the young players are a different breed of athlete," Smith says. "People will be talking about Notre Dame's defense beyond this year."
3 South Florida
10 at Michigan
17 Michigan State
24 at Pittsburgh
1 at Purdue
8 Air Force
5 at Wake Forest
19 Boston College
26 at Stanford
Will either line up opposite Michael Floyd or in the backfield—and get lots of touches either way.
LOUIS NIX III
The 6'3", 340-pound run-stopper will instantly improve the defense on first and second down.
Led the team in tackles in 2010 and should be even more of a playmaker on an upgraded D.
Coach Brian Kelly (2nd year)
2010 Record 8--5
Final AP Rank NR
Returning Starters 17
Offense 9, Defense 8