It was not a memorable October for Notre Dame’s three senior starters along the defensive line. Ethan Johnson suffered an ankle injury in the opening minutes of the Oct. 1 win at Purdue, nose guard Sean Cwynar was unable to function effectively most of the time with a club tied to his injured hand, and Kapron Lewis-Moore suffered a season ending knee injury in the loss to USC on Oct. 22.
The flip side is freshmen ends Stephon Tuitt and Aaron Lynch received extensive action, with Tuitt even playing 60 plays in one game, according to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. The original plan for him and Lynch were about 15 to 30 snaps. For 340-pound sophomore nose guard Louis Nix III, his threshold for a game was expected to be 20 to 40 snaps, depending on the game, speed and tempo. He too has eclipsed that number.
“Those guys are not ready to play the amount of plays they’re having to play,” Diaco said. “It’s unfortunate. They’re doing an admirable job and we’re working hard to manage preparation, production and performance in the game, and it’s a real challenge. I feel bad for them, almost. They may be excited about it at times — and then play seven
comes around and they’re like, ‘Wait a minute now.’
“With more availability of functional players, those guys can get back into the roles that they’re prepared to play this year.”
One of the unsung bright spots in last weekend’s 56-14 romp against Navy was the return of Cwynar without the cumbersome cast, or club, on his healed hand. Head coach Brian Kelly cited the combination and rotation of Cwynar and Nix as crucial to the line’s fortunes for a strong November push — especially now that the defense will be facing more conventional offenses.
“He’s got two hands now to fight on those guys,” said Diaco of Cwynar, who graduated in three years and is now in an accelerated master’s business program. “His brain power is off the charts. He’s probably in 10 years going to be weigh 75 pounds less than he does. He’s just a regular Joe …. He’s just fighting with every fiber that he has to eat and consume probably 8,000 calories a day, weight training — and then to put one hand behind his back, it becomes a major issue.”
Johnson’s status remains day to day. He’s able to dress for games, but he’s not going to be thrust into a situation that will endanger his rehab.
What has aided the unit is the flexibility of the base 3-4 defense. Last year, Kelly indicated that 52 percent of the defensive plays were run in the 3-4 alignment, and 48 percent with an “even” or four-man front. Last weekend against Navy the Irish played exclusively a four-man front to help combat the gaps in the triple option. Thus, outside linebackers Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo put their hand on the ground as the ends, while Cwynar, Nix, Tuitt and Lynch were effective in a four-man rotation as the two inside tackles.
For the second week in a row, Tuitt garnered seven tackles, while Nix added six. However, their job description is not necessarily just about tackle totals, but also holding the fort to help free up linebacker Manti Te’o, who racked up 13 tackles against the Midshipmen in perhaps his most dominant performance of the season.
Also, on one particular option play, end Fleming kept the containment on the perimeter that allowed cornerback Robert Blanton to make a tackle for loss. Those are the “team plays” that don’t show up on stat sheets, noted Diaco.
“Each guy has particular traits that they’re good at … it needs to be managed,” said Diaco of the shifting 3-4 or 4-3 looks. “When one guy goes in there, you have to think about who’s in there and what they can do well.”
As for his star pupil, Te’o, Diaco said he’s “arguably the very best defensive player in the country in all positions. I have an expectation that’s how he’s going to play in games.
“He’s attacked his preparation with a higher level of professionalism and in doing that, he’s got a greater understanding of play tendencies and patterns. We focus on film study each week and what he should specifically look at. He studies that hard and it kind of gives him a feeling of knowing the play before the ball is snapped.”
According to senior running back Jonas Gray and junior slot receiver Theo Riddick, Te’o was functioning at another level last week after simmering for a week about a sub-par performance against USC. Perhaps the well documented end-of-the week controversy regarding some internal turmoil that was addressed in a Friday team meeting added even more fuel to his smoldering persona.
“He was dialed in, just a different type of focus that I’ve never seen from him — even before the game,” Gray said. “I think you’re going to see a guy who the rest of the season is going to play like that.”
What Riddick particularly admired was the way Te’o led by example during the week of practice rather than manufacture false intensity.
“[It was] no time for hooting and hollering. You can save you breath on that part — it’s all about your actions,” said Riddick of his classmate. “The way he held himself together and went about things, a lot of people followed him.”
That in and of itself is a huge assist for the newly reloading defensive line.
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