It's no secret: Notre Dame has struggled as a program for essentially the last two decades. Sure, they had some seasons here and there where they thought they had an elite team, but when it came time to go toe-to-toe with the nation's truly elite teams with high-end talent, the Irish just simply didn't have the type of athletes necessary to really compete, especially on the defensive side of the ball. There was probably no better example than 2006, when the Irish were ranked in the top 10 most of the season and received a Sugar Bowl invite thanks to winning ten games, but all of those wins came against teams that ended the season unranked, and they were blown out by more than 20 points each of the three times they played a team that did finish ranked, including a humiliating beatdown at the hands of SEC power LSU in the Sugar Bowl. They had a pretty high-powered offense and some legitimate NFL talent in spots, but they didn't have nearly enough athletes at the NFL level, particularly on defense, to even compete with the likes of an SEC power like LSU, even with one of their strongest teams of the last 20 years.
Now, the point here isn't to pile on to Notre Dame's shortcomings in recent decades. The point, rather, is to create a contrast. This year's Notre Dame team is built differently--and no unit on the team illustrates this contrast better than the Irish defensive line.
As with all things in college football, it all starts with recruiting. If you're an avid enough fan to be reading a sports blog such as this one, you've probably read elsewhere at some point that all three of Notre Dame's starters on the defensive line are from SEC states. Fifth-year senioris from Texas and came to South Bend despite offers from Texas and Texas A&M. Third-year sophomore Louis Nix is from Florida and went with the Irish over offers from both Florida and Florida State. Sophomore Stephon Tuitt is from Georgia and decided to don the golden helmet despite offers from virtually every SEC power (except Alabama, incidentally). Clearly all three of these guys are not just players from SEC states, but players from the region that were pursued by SEC schools and other regional powers like Texas and Florida State.
Not to take a cheap shot at the B1G conference, but there are B1G rosters all over the Midwest stocked full of players from SEC states who were not highly sought-after by the SEC powers. That's not the case with these guys. And without going into a long aside about Notre Dame recruiting tendencies over the years, let's just say that these are the kind of athletes that Notre Dame simply hasn't been getting, at least not consistently enough, until now. Whether or not this success, particularly in the South, is simply a fluke or something else is an open question that can be addressed in the months and years following the championship game, but at least for now, Notre Dame has a defensive front three made up of bona fide SEC talent, straight from the source itself.
The Irish Defensive Linemen
Editor's Note: In order to make objective comparisons of different players and units for this series, we're going to be leaning heavily on NFL draft projections compiled by the folks at CBS Sports. Of course NFL talent, or at least projected NFL talent, doesn't necessarily equate to effectiveness at the college level, but we find that it is highly correlated, and can often be the best objective measure readily available for the individual ability of college players. Further, the CBS projections are by no means the only ones out there, nor are they necessarily the best, but they are quite comprehensive and include projections not just for this year's draft entries, but also for underclassmen as well, which helps tremendously for this endeavor.
Notre Dame operates a defensive scheme very similar to Alabama's familiar 3-4. As such, the Irish feature three defensive linemen in their base formation, and typically list three players as "starters". We listed those three players in the bit about recruiting above, and here we'll take a look at each in a more detail, as well as the key backups who regularly see playing time.
The most experienced player on the Irish front is fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore (#89), who plays something of a hybrid defensive end/tackle role at 303 pounds. He's rated as the 25th-best defensive end prospect in this year's draft, making him a borderline proposition to be drafted and/or end up on an NFL roster. He has 6.0 sacks, 8.5 TFL, 9 QB hurries, and 2 forced fumbles on the year.
While Lewis-Moore is the veteran of the group, the stars are the two younger starters, both sophomores who wear non-traditional jersey numbers. Anchoring the line at nose tackle is third-year sophomore Louis Nix (#9), who weighs in at a monstrous 326 pounds. Although he is technically eligible as a third-year player, Nix does not plan to enter this year's draft, though he is considered to be an elite prospect as the second-highest rated sophomore defensive tackle in the country. His role as nose tackle doesn't allow much in the way of stats (remember Alabama'swas named a first-team All-American nose tackle in 2009 despite averaging fewer than one tackle per game) but he has still managed to generate 2.0 sacks, 5.5 TFL, 3 QB hurries, and a forced fumble. Much like Alabama's great nose tackles in recent years, however, his biggest impact will come from the blocks he occupies. , , and will have a major challenge dealing with him in the interior of the trenches.
The third starter is the team's most dangerous pass-rusher, sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt (#7). He is not eligible for this year's NFL Draft, but he is considered a very high-end prospect for next year's draft, as he is rated the second-best sophomore defensive end in the country. He leads the team with 12.0 sacks, 13.0 TFL, 9 QB hurries, has forced 3 fumbles, and returned one fumble for a touchdown. Clearly he will be a major challenge for, , and the Alabama offensive line in pass protection.
Like most teams, Notre Dame also rotates heavily on the defensive line, so the three starters won't be the only players the Bama offensive line will see on January 7th. The top two reserves are both freshmen: true freshman defensive end(#91) sees plenty of action and could be a star in the coming years, and redshirt freshman nose tackle (#69) contributes heavily as well.
Comparing Notre Dame's defensive line to Alabama's
At the nose tackle position, the teams are fairly comparable, as each has a high-end elite draft prospect to anchor the line. Yes, Alabama does have the only elite 2013 draft prospect for either team in senior nose tackle Jesse Williams (#54), who is projected as a first-round draft pick this year. However, Notre Dame's Nix is considered to be just as elite a prospect, only one year younger (counting his redshirt year). Both elite starting nose tackles are backed up by second-year players with no current draft grade: Alabama with sophomore(#62) and Notre Dame with the redshirt freshman Springmann.
At the defensive end spots, the comparison is a little more difficult to make. Notre Dame has one senior in Lewis-Moore, who is a borderline draft prospect ranked 25th nationally at the position. Alabama has three veterans who play frequently at end in fifth-year senior(#92), senior (#90) and fourth-year junior (#49). Like Lewis-Moore, none are elite draft prospects, but all are at least solid prospects. Dial is ranked 31st at the position, just behind Lewis-Moore, and Square is ranked 42nd, so both are borderline to be drafted and/or make an NFL team next year. Stinson, who is expected to return next season, may be the best prospect of the trio, ranked 14th among junior defensive ends nationally, and is expected to be drafted in the middle rounds next year.
Meanwhile Alabama has a young budding star who has taken on an increasing role at defensive end. Sophomore(#8) doesn't start but features heavily for the Tide. He's considered the fourth-best sophomore defensive end prospect in the country. Another second-year player, redshirt freshman (#57), plays situationally. In sum, Alabama has plenty of solid depth at defensive end, but no real dominate player (Pagan has tons of upside but isn't "star" level yet). Notre Dame does have such a star in Tuitt, but doesn't have quite the depth that Alabama does.
Mostly the two teams are on pretty even footing in terms of overall talent on the defensive line, though if one had to choose one team to give the advantage it would be tempting to take Notre Dame given that Alabama doesn't have any player on the outside who has produced like Tuitt has this season. Perhaps also working in Notre Dame's favor is the questionable health of Alabama's star nose tackle Williams, who suffered a nasty knee injury in the SEC Championship game, though he did return at less than 100%. Really, though, you'd be nitpicking to choose either one of these units; they're operating on more or less the same talent level.
That, however, is precisely the point. Notre Dame will be bringing in a defensive line that is on par with the SEC power they will be facing in Miami, and that alone will mark a big step forward from the last time Notre Dame met such a team in the postseason. Alabama's defensive line is probably one of the weaker units on this year's team, but they are certainly no slouch and neither is the Irish front.