5 to watch: Irish defense

Manti Te'o

Irisheyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley offers Trojans fans five Irish defenders -- other than Manti Te'o -- to monitor for Saturday night's contest at the Coliseum.

CB #2 Bennett Jackson -- The junior has starred in his first season as a starter, ranking third on the squad in tackles (55) and second to Te'o in both interceptions (4), and passes defended (8) through 11 games.

Jackson, who began his Irish career as a wide receiver and kick coverage star, moved to cornerback in the spring of 2011 and now lines up on both the boundary (primarily) and field side cornerback spot pending both the defensive play call and opponent.

Jackson's strength is his ability to stuff receivers after the catch, especially after the oft-used "bubble screens" of the modern game. Its relevant to note, however, the 6'0" 185-pound long-armed athlete hasn't allowed a touchdown pass this season in man coverage and was at fault in just one in zone (vs. Purdue at the goal line).

Marqise Lee and Robert Woods rank 1-2 without a close #3 in the toughest players he's faced in his starting career.

S #17 Zeke Motta -- Some safeties are considered "throw-back" players because they're better vs. the run than the pass. Some because of their skin tone. And some, like the 6'2" 215-pound Motta, because they approach the sport as players did in eras past: using opponents as leverage to get off the turf; offering a shot at any receiver in his vicinity away from the ball; and in nearly every instance, unloading with everything he has on every tackle including extra action as he and the target hit and roll to the ground.

Motta has evolved from the team's 11th or 12th best defender (last year) to its indispensable back end player: an intimidator in coverage and run support star when called upon. He'll be challenged in space by the quickness of Woods and Lee. Both will know he's in the area one way or the other as well.

Foes facing Motta will do well to remember the old adage: "Catch the ball over the middle, because you're going to get hit anyway."

DE/LB #55 Prince Shembo and DE #7 Stephon Tuitt: -- Miscast as a drop linebacker last season, the junior has shined as a pass rusher and edge support player vs. the run, ascending to the ranks of the team's top five players to date. Shembo leads the defense with 12 QB pressures to go along with 7 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Undersized at 6'2 255 pounds, Shembo has proved stout vs. the run as well and his ascent from question mark to star is the unheralded story line of the Irish season.

At 6'6" 300 pounds, the imposing Tuitt has enjoyed a breakout true sophomore season, racking up 12 sacks (1.5 shy of the program record set by Justin Tuck), with 13.5 tackles for loss, nine QB pressures, three forced fumble, and the defensive season eye-opening highlight: a 77-yard scoop, sprint, and score in which he outran Navy to then end zone in Game One.

NG #9 Louis Nix -- Both Shembo and Tuitt above benefit from consistent double-team attention paid to the junior nose guard. At 6'3" 330 pounds, Nix provides not only an interior pocket push on each snap, but his short-space quickness and athleticism has yielded four pass breakups, 4.5 tackles for loss, and ample stops within two yards of scrimmage as he's rarely moved off-balance or out of place.

Manti Te'o is the team's MVP, but Nix is player 1A in terms of importance as the Irish face the raw talent of USC and a BCS bowl opponent thereafter.

DE #89 Kapron Lewis-Moore -- Historically, there aren't many underrated Notre Dame players, but the 5th-year senior captain is on that short list. Lewis-Moore entered spring ball as a potential backup to blossoming sophomore pass rusher Aaron Lynch, but since the latter transferred to South Florida, the veteran Lewis-Moore has produced the best season of his career with 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and nine passes defended -- all career bests for a player formerly known as a solid run defender.

In addition to his work at defensive end, Lewis-Moore's versatility and ability to play defensive tackle in 4-3 fronts and nose guard in 3-4 nickel packages has proven invaluable; he rarely needs to come off the field though all Irish defensive linemen rotate out with three reliable backups seeing ample playing time each week.

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