Each of the team’s original trio of DL starters has missed significant time or been severely hampered this season: two should play today, with senior nose guard Sean Cwynar either starting or splitting snaps with redshirt-freshman Louis Nix. Cwynar started the opener, broke his hand, sat out vs. Michigan and struggled thereafter trying to compete with one hand in a club. He started two weeks ago vs. Navy and made our Top 10 players list for the contest. Nix started last week and has earned six such designations in his first season as a competitor.
Senior leader Ethan Johnson is expected to return from a near-five game hiatus (ankle). Look for Johnson to man the LDE spot on first and second down, and for freshman Aaron Lynch to come in during passing/nickel situations. Lynch started each of the last four games in Johnson’s stead but now battles an ankle injury as well, suffered last week in Wake Forest.
Fellow freshman Stephon Tuitt will start at RDE, his third starting nod since the Irish lost senior Kapron Lewis-Moore for the season due to ankle surgery. Tuitt has ranked among the team’s top defenders in each of the last three games. He’ll be backed by classmate Chase Hounshell and sophomore Kona Schwenke. Hounshell missed last week’s game due to a shoulder injury and Schwenke has appeared in just two contests (Purdue and Wake Forest) this season.
Senior Hafis Williams could also see time, he’s played in four of nine games to date, though the Irish will likely feature their fair share of 4-3 fronts with linebackers Darius Fleming, Prince Shembo, and possibly Ishaq Williams aligned in three-point stances on the edge.
Senior Steve Filer had filled that role of late but he was lost for the season this week due to an ACL injury during Wednesday’s practice.
Manti Te’o will play despite re-aggravating an ankle injury. Te’o rarely leaves the field when healthy but might need the occasional (short) series off this week. His technical backup is now Kendall Moore as senior Anthony McDonald has seen action in just three games and Moore replaced the former starting competitor (August 2010) on the official depth chart this week.
The other inside ‘backer spot will again be shared by Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. The junior classmates have combined for 61 tackles this season. Calabrese failed to record a stop last week for the first time in his 20-game career. Fox could rotate to the middle as well should Te’o prove ineffective due to his injury.
Darius Fleming (Cat) and Prince Shembo (Dog) will again start outside. Fleming rarely leaves the field and shifts to a defensive end spot in pass-rushing situations. Shembo often does the same but is replaced at times by safety Jamoris Slaughter (below) when the Irish face pass-reliant and/or option teams. The Terrapins would fall into the former category Saturday night. Technical backups are Ishaq Williams (Cat) and Danny Spond (Dog) though both play sparingly from scrimmage – Spond is a special teams starter on multiple units.
Look for the following front four defenders (from left to right) in the nickel package: Fleming, Lynch, Tuitt, Shembo (with Shembo moving inside to Lynch's spot and Ishaq Williams taking Shembo's place at RDE if Lynch cannot compete).
Five defensive backs play the bulk of the contest with team captain Harrison Smith rarely leaving the field at strong safety. Smith also serves as the back seven’s signal-caller, position players in run/pass-check situations. He’s joined by Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta at free safety – Slaughter has started four of the last five and seven of nine overall. Head coach Brian Kelly has lauded the senior for his efforts over the last five contests after an inconspicuous opening month.
Motta will play often, including nickel sets as Slaughter rotates to the “nickel corner” role. Motta has started four games this season including Air Force, USC, and Navy to run through October (the Irish began games in nickel sets in each instance).
The corners will again be manned by the tandem of Robert Blanton and Gary Gray. Blanton ranked as Irisheyes.com’s No. 3 overall player (behind Michael Floyd and Zack Martin) entering November. He’s been beaten for minimal plays of consequence this season and no touchdowns. Gray has responded well after a rough two games to start the season; the fifth-year senior ranks second on the team in passes defended (7) and is tied with Blanton for the team lead in interceptions (2). He ranks fourth on the team in tackles (43).
Blanton is third on the team in tackles (60), second with 8 tackles-for-loss, and third with five passes defended. He’s the only player on the team to recover a fumble, interception, and sack this season.
Also expected to return to the rotation is sophomore cornerback Lo Wood; Wood played in eight straight, though part of that was on the coverage units, before sitting out last week at Wake Forest. Fellow sophomore Bennett Jackson offers depth at cornerback; so too does senior safety Dan McCarthy, expected back after staying home with an undisclosed injury last week.
Sophomore safety Austin Collinsworth will likely see time as a linebacker/safety hybrid in the team’s dime coverage package. (six defensive backs).
Freshman cornerback Josh Atkinson is a key special teams contributor/starter that could see late-game scrimmage snaps if the margin is great.
Also expected to travel with the team: Inside linebackers Jarrett Grace, David Posluszny and possibly Anthony McDonald, and outside linebacker Troy Niklas. Niklas is a special teams (starter) regular as was Posluszny earlier this season. Grace will not play unless disaster strikes the unit as a freshman being withheld from action this season. Walk-on inside ‘backer Joe Schmidt has made the traveling squad as well – he could be an insurance player this week to maintain Grace’s redshirt status.