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A More Talented Defense?

Notre Dame’s defense had three players selected in the NFL Draft in May. Replacing their leadership will be a much discussed process as it unfolds during the month of August. Replacing what they did on the field, according to senior cornerback Bennett Jackson at least, won’t be an issue.

Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson ranked third on the team with 65 tackles during the 2012 season.

“I feel like we’re a more talented team than we were last year,” Jackson said Sunday on the eve of fall camp’s first day. “I think we have the potential to be a better defense. We had great leadership last year and that pushed each person further. This year we have more talent.”

The Irish lost All-American linebacker Manti Te’o, winner of an unprecedented six national awards and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. Safety Zeke Motta and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore are also gone.

Motta finished second behind Te’o on the Notre Dame defense with 77 tackles last year (Jackson was third) and held together a secondary where he was the only player with previous starting experience. Lewis-Moore finished third on the team with six sacks, added nine quarterback hurries and solidified the team’s stout run defense.

Jackson said that trio will obviously be missed, but this year’s version of the defense has more experience and more speed as an overall group.

“I’m not taking anything away from those guys. I think they’re extremely talented,” he said. “We’ve got more veterans and less younger guys. We don’t have any true freshmen starting this year. … I feel like we’re just a faster unit.”

Most of that speed, especially in the secondary, will come from comfort with the scheme more than actually getting physically faster. Both Jackson and safety Matthias Farley said they thought they would be able to do less thinking and more playing in 2013 after starting last season. Jackson said sophomore cornerback KeiVarae Russell played like a veteran during summer seven-on-seven drills.

Whether Notre Dame’s defense does turn out to be more talented than last year’s group or not, Jackson will likely be near the top of the list of its biggest contributors. The senior weighed in 12 pounds heavier than a season ago after a summer of full health in the gym.

Jackson had shoulder surgery in January to mend a torn labrum that became an increasingly larger nuisance throughout the 2012 season. He still managed to make 65 tackles and lead the defensive backfield with four interceptions. He said he was back to full health in late May and noticed the difference during the three weeks he spent working out at home in Hazlet, N.J.

The Irish coaches asked Jackson to come back weighing more than 190 pounds this season, and he checked in at 192 to start the year.

“I just started eating a little healthier and started eating breakfast,” he said. “I started to gain weight during the weeks that I was home. During the summer I thought I would lose a couple pounds running. I just happened to drop body fat and build more muscle. It’s been really beneficial.”

Jackson and head coach Brian Kelly both made it clear this week that they hope the offseason work leads the Irish back to the BCS National Championship Game in January. The senior said it was “the only goal that’s really acceptable” for his last season of college football. He sees himself playing an important role in getting them there.

“I think in my head I think I’m the best player on the field at all times,” he said. “I think I’m better than the receiver across from me. You go out every day and you train to be the greatest in general. I believe I have the potential to be one of the best cornerbacks in the nation.”

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