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Defense tries to avoid change

Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he didn’t make many changes to get his unit off to a dominating start in the first month of the season, and he definitely doesn’t plan to change much now that they have found success.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, right, said he hasn't made any big changes in how he coaches his group.

More than any statistic in the month of September — points allowed, wins, you name it — turnovers have been the most dramatic improvement during No. 10 Notre Dame’s 4-0 start. Last season the Irish ranked nearly dead last in college football after four games with a minus-eight turnover margin. Through four games in 2012, Notre Dame has flipped out of the red with a plus-nine margin.

One third of the way through the schedule, the defense is only one takeaway shy of matching last year’s total of 14. That’s not the product of extra drill work in the offseason or a constant focus on ripping the ball away from opponents, according to Diaco. Notre Dame’s numbers this year, he says, are just a byproduct of the process he and the staff have preached since arriving in South Bend three years ago.

“We can’t move too far away from really our core beliefs,” Diaco said in his first meeting with the media since the start of the 2012 season. “We’re interested in keeping the points down.”

That hasn’t been a problem so far either. The Irish rank fourth in the country in average points surrendered behind only TCU, Alabama and Cincinnati. The bend-don’t-break mentality the Irish staff brought with them in 2010 is much less elastic this season.

Diaco said the process of keeping teams off the scoreboard starts with eliminating internal breakdowns that lead to big plays. The next step is taking away what an opponent does best, such as Michigan State’s running game or Denard Robinson for Michigan. Then, and only then with a figurative gun held to his head, Diaco said the defense focuses on attacking the football and creating turnovers.

The sudden burst of turnovers this year isn’t completely an accident, though. Diaco’s explanation is a mixture of development a long time coming and just a bigger, faster and stronger group of players.

“Partnered with the emphasis and the focus of the players and their diligence in film study and practice, then also just the sheer physics of a pretty stout front creates some ball obstructions,” he said.

A top ten ranking and high statistical marks have built the preseason buzz about the defensive front into a World Cup vuvuzela-like drone heading into Notre Dame’s bye week. One that is only getting louder for the group that has an emerging Heisman Trophy candidate at its center in Manti Te’o, who Diaco called “the finest football player in America.”

The coach said his approach to shielding his players from that hoopla won’t change either. Teaching players to deal with the spotlight has always been a part of the plan for the Irish staff.

“We’re interested in building a player that understands that the minute he decelerates and takes a second to pat himself on the back somebody is going to pass him immediately by,” Diaco said. “We’re interested in creating players and developing players that just love hard work. They bring the same energy to every task. We talk about it all the time. If they’re sweeping the floor they’re attacking that job just as they would attack an opponent on 7:30 p.m. on national TV.”

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