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Irish Defense Finds Its Will(s)

In February 2009, Notre Dame’s four-man linebacker haul was ranked among the top five in the nation, if not the best.

Senior Will linebacker Carlo Calabrese (44) has continued his tag-team role with classmate Dan Fox.

The primary reason was the presence of National Defensive Player of the Year Manti Te’o. The supporting cast was provided by outside linebackers Dan Fox and Zeke Motta, and inside backer Carlo Calabrese.

Four years later, the quartet has done its part to make Notre Dame No. 2 nationally in scoring defense, even though Motta was shifted to safety early in his career.

Te’o has developed into a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate, and his 80 tackles this year are as many as what No. 2 Motta (42) and No. 3 Fox (38, tied with freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell) have accumulated combined. At No. 5 is Calabrese with 32 while serving in a tag-team role for the second year in a row at Will linebacker with Fox.

The two split reps mainly because they complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Calabrese is a downhill, physical run-stopper whose presence in the dramatic goal-line stand versus Stanford aided the 20-13 overtime victory. Fox is the quicker, more fluid figure who is better versus the pass.

Bottom line is while they have the same roles this year as in 2011, they’re part of a stronger overall production. Last year Fox had 48 tackles in 13 games, but this year he’s already at 38 after eight. A year ago Calabrese totaled 37 stops in his 13 appearance, and now he’s already at 32.

“They're tackling better … they're better in space,” said head coach Brian Kelly of the duo.

Because they are perceived by opposing offense as an area that can be exploited opposite Te’o, more opportunities have been presented to them. For the most part, they’ve stood their ground with the rest of the defense that is the first at Notre Dame in 30 years not to give up more than 17 points in a game through the first eight contests.

“They're not going to go after Manti,” said Kelly of the opposition. “They're going to go after obviously Calabrese or Fox out there. And we've been better.

“Their fits are better. And then they're doing a much better job of denying that receiver inside. Now, we let one up against Oklahoma. We're lucky it got dropped (right before halftime with the Irish leading 10-3). We let one up against BYU, but by and large they played better in the passing game — because we know what they can do physically in the run game.”

“We’re not going to let anybody run on us,” Calabrese said. “Our coaches are doing a great job of putting us where we need to be, and we’re listening to the coaches.”

As for the pass, Calabrese is amazed the way Te’o has already recorded a Notre Dame linebacker record-tying five interceptions.

“I always bust his balls about the interceptions,” Calabrese said. “ I say, ‘They just pop into your hands. You do nothing. They’re just there.’ ”

A lot of the defense is designed to protect the young cornerbacks and to free up Te’o to clean up the run or comfortably drop back into pass coverage and train his eyes on the quarterback, knowing the defensive line has its area covered.

“it’s fun watching him play,” Calabrese admitted. “You’re there on the field and you’re trying to get off the tackle — and you see someone whiz by you and make the tackle right in front of you. That’s when I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s a good player.’ ”

According to Kelly, Calabrese has closed the gap a bit on Fox at covering the pass. The 245-pound Calabrese didn’t lose 15 pounds from his frame like Te’o, but he’s leaned out, losing more fat and gaining muscle with better dietary habits.

“You have to have a great diet,” Calabrese said. “When I watch tape, I look a lot better this year than last year.”

Meanwhile, Fox’s toughness has made him more of a potential every down player

“One has a little bit more restraint than the other, but we have great confidence in either one of them,” said Kelly, who could have both of them back next season as fifth-year seniors (neither played as a freshman in 2009).

“It is what it is,” said New Jersey native Calabrese, whose family lost power and some trees during Hurricane Sandy but avoided the worst while living an hour past the shore. “We make each other better. When he’s on the field I’m looking at the way he plays and I’m coaching him. And then when I’m on the field, he’s watching me and he’s coaching me. It’s like our own little personal coach.

“Each year you get wiser and wiser, and you get in better shape.”

Just like the Notre Dame defense has, with their help, the past three seasons.

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