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POPE: Irish prepared for changes on defense

StephTuitt

Stephon Tuitt

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Updated: February 9, 2014 6:37AM



Oct. 18 just got a little more interesting.

That’s when Notre Dame travels to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on Florida State.

The game was already going to be one of the highlights of the Irish’s 2014 schedule.

Now, it’s a contest against the final BCS national champions.

A team that will include the Heisman Trophy winner, quarterback Jameis Winston.

It will be a test for Notre Dame’s defense. A defense that will have some major changes from the 2013 season.

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is now the head coach at Connecticut. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix III, linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese and cornerback Bennett Jackson are among the starters who have either decided to turn pro or have used up all their eligibility.

But this was a defense that had to start 19 players, in part because of injuries. And the experience some of those younger players received will pay off in the 2014 season.

Tuitt was the most recent departure. He told SI.com Sunday that he planned on entering the NFL draft instead of returning to Notre Dame for another season. The announcement wasn’t a shock. But it is a big loss.

Tuitt had a monster 2012 season, collecting 12 sacks while helping Notre Dame reach the BCS national title game. He finished with 7½ sacks in 2013.

Tuitt’s impact can’t be understated. Just look at the 2013 Pittsburgh game. The momentum of that contest shifted to the Panthers’ shortly after Tuitt got ejected for a questionable targeting penalty.

ESPN analyst Todd McShay was asked recently about the potential draft stock for Tuitt, Nix and offensive lineman Zack Martin. He said Tuitt had the highest grade of the three. Some draft experts predict Tuitt will be a first round pick.

Nix was a fixture in the middle of Notre Dame’s defensive line. He battled through various injuries in 2013 and was limited to eight games. His final game came against Pittsburgh on Nov. 9. That next week, he had surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Nix had the option of returning to Notre Dame for one more season. But some project him as a first-or-second round pick.

“If everything checks out medically,” McShay said, “I still think he has a chance to be a first-round pick.”

So that’s two-third of the starting defensive line that is gone.

Fox and Calabrese consistently contributed as inside linebackers. Fox took his game to another level in the final few weeks of the season and finished with a team-leading 95 tackles. Calabrese was right behind him with 91 tackles.

Jackson served as one of the team captains and ranked fourth on the team with 64 tackles.

That’s a lot to replace. But coach Brian Kelly anticipates others will step in to fill those voids.

“We’ve got a lot of young players coming back. So I think it’s important for us this offseason to really develop that continuity and depth on our defense,” Kelly said after the Pinstripe Bowl. “We’re going to have a lot of really good players coming back. I feel really confident in that.”

On the line, Sheldon Day is one of those returning players. Day was the third member of that starting defensive line. He was slowed some by an ankle injury, but still finished with 33 tackles and 5½ tackles for loss. Kona Schwenke and Jarron Jones were among those with larger roles when injuries became an issue for the Irish. Schwenke appeared in 12 games and made seven starts. He finished with 23 tackles. Jones made a big impact down the stretch, with some key plays in the win against BYU in the home finale. Jones collected 20 tackles in 2013.

Jones had a sack in the Pinstripe Bowl victory against Rutgers. Cornerback KeiVarae Russell had his best game of the season against the Scarlet Knights, breaking up three passes and intercepting another.

As far as linebackers, Jarrett Grace was rounding into one of the better players on the defense before he suffered a season-ending leg injury against Arizona State.

And there’s always the potential for an impact freshman for the 2014 recruiting class. Outside linebacker Jaylon Smith played that role in 2013. He finished third on the team with 67 tackles.

There will be a new person putting all those puzzle pieces together. According to various media reports, that will be Jets linebackers coach Brian VanGorder.

He’ll have plenty to work with to prepare for Winston. And the rest of a tough 2014 schedule.



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