With star linebacker Manti Te'o returning for his senior season, and stud defensive linemen like Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt a season older, Notre Dame's defense could be the strong point of the 2012 season. That is, if they can also shore up a secondary that lost some seasoned veterans.
With 2011 captain Harrison Smith out of the equation along with Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish secondary is already without much of the experience it enjoyed a season ago.
"We've got a lot to replace,” said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “We've had a lot of great players leave the program. Not only the great players that you would see as tangible, skilled, great players, like a Harrison (Smith) and guys like that, and (linebacker) Darius (Flemming), but also some great players that were great, great unit members."
To compound the issue, Tee Shepard, a 2012 cornerback recruit who was expected to immediately compete for a starting job, left Notre Dame earlier this month.
While much has been said of their perceived youth, the defensive backs competing for starting positions are eager to step up.
"We welcome it. We're making sure we just focus on getting better as a unit, as a secondary because we all know that the pressure is on us,” said cornerback candidate Josh Atkinson. “We all just want to be great. We're all just committing ourselves to getting better each and every day."
The Irish retain starting experience at safety with Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter returning. Whether the Irish can easily transition their defensive backfield seemingly rests on their leadership abilities.
“We've got great leadership from the seniors coming down,” said cornerback Bennett Jackson.
Some speculate the answer for the Irish secondary could have nothing to do with the secondary at all and everything to do with the defensive line. If the likes of Te’o, Lynch, and Tuitt can create enough havoc up front, it could mask weaknesses that may develop behind them.
“There's always a clock going on,” said Atkinson of the defense’s ability to force a quick decision by the quarterback.
While the extent of Notre Dame’s pass-rush prowess has yet to be seen, one thing is already certain: Smith, Blanton, and Gray will not be coming back and the success of the Irish defense will rely heavily on their ability to pick up where they left off.