Defensive Line – Base, Nickel/Dime
The base 3-4 defense will likely include freshman Aaron Lynch, making his second start in place of injured senior LDE Ethan Johnson. Johnson is expected to play, but not at full strength while still recovering from an ankle injury suffered on October 1 in West Lafayette.
Nose guard Louis Nix should make his sixth straight start, backed up by still-recovering senior Sean Cwynar, who broke his hand vs. South Florida in the season opener. Rounding out the starting DL is senior RDE Kapron Lewis-Moore, who leads the unit in tackles (27) and tackles-for-loss (4).
The rotation includes several candidates, especially in the ever-evolving nickel and dime packages, both generally featuring a four-man front.
Freshman Stephon Tuitt has emerged as a key backup to Lewis-Moore, but also as a starter on the nickel defensive line, lining up inside often at the nose.
Outside linebacker Darius Fleming joins the group as a down lineman in all four-man fronts (base, nickel, dime), with his bookend Prince Shembo appearing as both an edge rusher and interior pass rusher to date. Lynch joins the fray as well though he may need the occasional breather if forced to start, a development that would give Shembo more playing time in pass-rushing situations.
Senior outside linebacker Steve Filer is also an option to provide pass rush help as is freshman competitor Ishaq Williams.
Seven have played to date, and the outside pairing of Shembo and Fleming was key in a second-half comeback win at Pittsburgh. Shembo plays to the field (wide) side as the Drop ‘backer; Fleming on the boundary (near sideline) as the Cat.
Manti Te’o mans the MIKE (middle) with classmates Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese splitting time next to him at the WILL. Te’o leads the Irish with 59 tackles including 8.5 for loss, the latter ranks 11th nationally among linebackers. The junior’s four sacks rank seventh at the position. Fox (23) and Calabrese (24) have combined for 47 stops with two sacks, three tackles-for-loss, and two pass breakups.
Freshman Drop linebacker Troy Niklas should again see backup duty; the Filer/Williams combination is available to spell Fleming at the Cat, though the pair’s usual playing time is in nickel/dime pass rushing situations. Sophomore Danny Spond is now three weeks removed from practice clearance following a Week Two hamstring injury. Spond played briefly in mop-up time vs. Air Force.
The Irish consider five veterans their backline starters: cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, and safeties Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, and Zeke Motta
Motta and Slaughter technically split time next to team captain Harrison Smith, who rarely leaves the field; both Motta and Slaughter remain on the field in nickel and dime packages with Slaughter serving in a slot coverage role (a third cornerback).
Gray aligns to the boundary side (short); Blanton to the field (wide). It’s unlikely the Irish will use Blanton – their best defensive back this season – to shadow dangerous Trojans sophomore Robert Woods. Sophomore cornerback Lo Wood could play sparingly at cornerback, offering a quick respite for Blanton or Gray. Sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth has twice played linebacker next to Manti Te’o in the dime package, a role in which he debuted vs. Michigan State.
The unit has amassed 20 passes defended and six interceptions through six games.