After losing leaders Manti Te'o, Zeke Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore, it's only natural to be concerned about a possible drop-off on the defensive side of the ball for Notre Dame in 2013-14.
But, while there is no replacing Te'o, there is plenty of talent on defense for the Fighting Irish, as well as a system led by coach Brian Kelly that will make the most of the players' strengths.
And it will lead to a better defense for the Fighting Irish.
First of all, eight starters return for Notre Dame this year, including defensive end Stephon Tuitt, nose guard Louis Nix III and cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.
Tuitt racked up 11 sacks, one forced fumble and nine quarterback hurries last season, per CFBStats.com. Nix was a beast in the middle, registering 50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and two sacks. Day posted 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in his freshman campaign and will only get better.
Jackson and Russell combined for six interceptions and six pass deflections last season. Jackson could be the No. 1 cornerback selected in the 2014 NFL draft. The Fighting Irish also have Lo Wood coming back from a season-ending Achilles injury. That cannot be overstated, considering Wood was expected to start last season before the injury. As a sophomore in 2011, Wood managed to take an interception 57 yards for a touchdown, despite not getting much playing time.
And while the loss of Motta hurts, sophomore safeties Nicky Baratti and Elijah Shumate offer plenty of potential, while junior Matthias Farley also returns. And don't forget about Austin Collinsworth, who missed last season due to a shoulder injury. Collinsworth was expected to be a prominent player in the secondary before the injury.
Oh, and the Fighting Irish picked up 5-star recruit Max Redfield during the offseason, ranked as the No. 3 safety in the 2013 class by 247Sports.com.
Last but not least, look for junior Jarrett Grace to make waves taking over for Te'o inside. Grace has looked mighty impressive during the spring and the coaching staff loves him. He registered eight tackles in Notre Dame's spring game. Grace should have no problem situating himself among the likes of Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo.
Joe Schad of ESPN tweeted about Grace in April:
Joe Schad @schadjoe
ND MLB Jarrett Grace said Manti Te'o helped build his confidence and told him to "attack the field with a purpose."4/21/2013, 6:10:37 PM
Joe Schad @schadjoe
ND MLB Jarrett Grace (Cincy native) has studied Luke Keuchly (also Cincy) and said he also aims to be "tackling machine."4/21/2013, 6:12:06 PM
Alarm bells always seem to go off when a program loses major talent, but Notre Dame possesses the talent, depth and added experience to make up for its losses. Don't be surprised if the defense is even better than the unit that allowed just 12.8 points per game last season.
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