Returning Regulars: Senior Louis Nix (NG), senior Kona Schwenke (NG), junior Stephon Tuitt (DE), junior Tony Springmann (DE/DT), sophomore Sheldon Day (DE/DT)
Rookies -- Relative and Otherwise: 5th-year senior Tyler Stockton (DE), senior Justin Utupo (DE), sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Jarron Jones (DE), freshmen defensive ends Jacob Matuska and Isaac Rochell. Junior defensive end Chase Hounshell is out for the season following shoulder surgery.
Position Coach -- Mike Elston: Enters his fourth season with the program and as the defensive line's leader. Elston took over a front that allowed more than 170 rushing yards per game (and 18 rushing touchdowns) in 2009 and three seasons later produced the nation's No. 11 ranked rush defense (105 yards per game) and just four touchdowns. Should an Irish non-coordinator receive head coaching interest following the season, it will likely be the well-versed Elston, who also has served as a special teams coordinator at Notre Dame (unsuccessfully) and Cincinnati (successful by any measure).
Established Stars: Nix and Tuitt both rank among the top two players at their positions nationally.
Camp Buzz: Mostly centers around who's not in an Irish uniform, five-star former pledge Eddie Vanderdoes who instead will enroll at home-state UCLA. Vanderdoes was penciled in (at least here) as a sure-fire No. 2 defensive end, one that would give the Irish a formidable second unit behind the nation's best starting trio of Nix, Tuitt, and Day.
Attention will likely shift early to the physical condition of Nix (too heavy at 347 in the spring) and Tuitt, (ditto at 322 though due to off-season hernia surgery). Both are likely reshaped and ready for the 2013 season.
The Pressure is on… Jarron Jones. Jones was light years from the collegiate gridiron last season despite a consistent presence on the Irish traveling squad. Elston deemed the 2012 freshman "a high school" player last fall but noted he graduated to "college freshman" last spring -- the issue of course is that Jones is entering his second year.
Jones admitted 2012 was about assimilation and learning to compete at the BCS level.
"Just to watch behind someone like Kap (Lewis-Moore), Tuitt, Lou, Sheldon, because Sheldon was here in the spring, so I consider him a mentor too, because he kind of pretty much helped me around here in the summer. So, it's just pretty much helping me to get better every day. It's a grind. Now, I'm more used to it, so now I'm ready for it."
He has to be, if not by September 2013, at least as the season progresses and certainly for 2014 when the Irish will take a graduation -- and potential early NFL entry hit -- on the defensive front.
The Battle is Between… Jones, Stockton, Utupo, and Rochell. Its a near-certainty that Matuska will receive a year of seasoning on the scout team, and it would be ideal for Rochell to receive the same, but the latter's quickness could help him win a backup role. Ideally it will be the aforementioned Jones or one of the upperclassmen, with Stockton a former four-star who made his first Kelly-era dent this spring with improved focus, shape, attention to detail, and production. Utupo is a three-year contributor on special teams that previously showed a practice penchant for getting to the passer, though that was as a dime outside linebacker rather than two-gap defensive end.
Utupo ended spring ball on the two-deep but our early projection pits Stockton vs. Jones for No. 2 defensive end duty, though in this case that's the sixth defensive lineman and third off the bench with Springmann and Schwenke certain members of the rotation.
Wither? Chase Hounshell. Three shoulder surgeries, one shoulder, less than two calendar years. That's the recipe for a medical scholarship alleviation for most. The Irish were counting on Hounshell as a two-deep rotation member entering spring ball. Midway through, his college career is in jeopardy. Hounshell will likely be given a chance to prove he can hold up next spring before an evaluation is made entering August camp, 2014. He hasn't played since the conclusion of his freshman season (2011), first earning competitive playing time vs. Air Force's triple-option attack.
BCS Dreams Because... Tuitt and Nix are among the nation's best and Day among its most promising true sophomore linemen. The 2012 defensive line was the program's best since 2002 (and it was better than that group) and was reminiscent of the glory days of 1992-93. They can approach that level again in good health.
Cause for Pause: The unit's lone loss, 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, was a grizzled veteran man up front, he's being replaced by a 19-year-old in Day. More important, Day is being replaced as a key backup by…? Therein lies the rub.
Take it to the bank: Notre Dame's season -- its final record and potential BCS berth -- resides on two factors far more important than the play of its quarterbacks: the health of the starting defensive trio of Nix, Tuitt and Day, and the improvement of 2012 backups Springmann and Schwenke.
The Irish can beat 11 of 12 teams on their schedule by playing great defense and scoring two touchdowns. They'll lose four games if the defensive front takes a full step back from its performance last fall.