The four descriptions above are the final four game efforts produced by the Notre Dame defense – the vast majority of which returns intact from 2010, including its entire staff, nine of the 12 main front seven competitors, and five of six key members from the 2010 secondary.
During spring practice 2011, the unit's coordinator and play-caller, Bob Diaco, noted that, "You don't pick up where you left off, and you don't mentally pick up where you left off. I'm sure you can cite times in Notre Dame history where they had a great season or a great finish and thought, ‘Okay, we're going to have any even better season next year,' and it turns out to be a flop."
(2003 comes to mind…but I digress).
Diaco's unit finished 50th in total defense last fall – one year after the disastrous #86 swan dive of 2009. But the unit's ultimate measuring stick – scoring defense – ranked at #23, the best mark of the last eight seasons by a whopping 22 slots in the national rankings.
Noting Diaco's concerns, I'm nonetheless confident the unit is poised to take another leap forward in 2011, which leads us to the next installment of our summer prediction series:
Prediction #8 – The Irish will boast a Top 20 scoring defenseDiehard Irish fans likely remember the last Notre Dame defense on which it could hang its weekly autumn hat: the one-deep playmakers of 2002 that ultimately wore down in a mismatch at surging USC to conclude the season.
The 2011 Irish are built differently than that '02 group, but they'll join that squad and a handful of others over the program's previous three decades when they finish the season among the nation's Top 20 scoring defenses.
The 2011 group boasts two-deep depth at both defensive end spots, with a possible shot-in-the-arm fifth competitor ready to join the fray in August. It appears solid with five capable outside linebackers, a pair of quality inside starters including an All-America candidate, and a trio of players fighting to back up two spots inside.
It contains five experienced defensive backs, three of whom ranked among Irish Eyes 10 best players from 2010 (the defensive unit as a whole placed seven members among our top 10).
The 2011 season will be the best overall defense at the program since 2002, and if it finishes strong, has a chance to better the efforts of that playmaking group (one hamstrung by an awful offense).
Diaco, along with a top-tier defensive staff under head coach Brian Kelly, will allow the Irish to take the next step in 2011 – finishing among the nation's top 20 teams in scoring defense for the first time since 2002, for the fifth time over the last two decades, and for the 18th time in the program's modern-era (1964-present).
Look for the Irish to allow fewer than 19 points per game over the 12-game regular season slate.
Roadblocks to the top 20Why might this prediction be off-base?
- An injury to one of the following three players would greatly impact the unit's performance: Manti Te'o – not only is he among the nation's best, but the drop-off from Te'o to his potential backup is staggering, and Gary Gray or Robert Blanton – a great defense needs three good cornerbacks; at present, Notre Dame has just two, with an unproven pair behind them…it can ill-afford to lose either starter.
- The Irish face 11 returning starters at quarterback. And the only non-starter is an experienced senior with three career starts under his belt (Navy's Kriss Proctor). At least a handful of the offenses Notre Dame will face next fall will be solid-to-top tier units.
- The Miami factor: Notre Dame's defense allowed three points over the first 50 minutes in the Sun Bowl victory vs. Miami last December. It then yielded 14 over the ‘Canes next two possessions, due largely to the presence of backups and an element of natural letdown that occurs when a team leads by 30 in a middle-tier bowl game as the seconds tick down. But garbage points count, too. If the Irish carry 20-plus-point advantages into more than three games in 2011, it could serve as a detriment to their final defensive ranking. Conversely…
- Maybe the defense isn't as strong as I've forecast, and November 2010 – not the debacle at Navy – was the "aberration" last fall. Can a month's worth of work be labeled an "aberration"? I suppose we'll find out in September.