TOM SMART, DESERET MORNING NEWS
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tim O'Malley covers Notre Dame football for Irisheyes.com and knows the team as well as anyone. We submitted five questions to O'Malley to gain a better perspective on BYU's next opponent.
1. Notre Dame is obviously off to a fantastic start on the season. What has led to this early success and what has coach Brian Kelly done to turn the program around?
Kelly's arrival in December 2009 came shortly after the most self-serving, ridiculous official press conference in program history. Already-fired coach Charlie Weis flanked by the team's top two players, Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate formally announced they would forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL Draft.
Since then, Kelly has reinforced that the players are in South Bend to serve Notre Dame first, not use the school as a springboard to the NFL. The subsequent decisions of Michael Floyd (2011) and Tyler Eifert and Manti Te'o (2012) to remain in school for their senior seasons illustrated this commitment to the team and program. For his part, Kelly has focused recruiting efforts on the defensive side of scrimmage, noting teams can outscore people and win games, but to win a title at Notre Dame, the Irish must have a championship defense.
Further, the team's strength and conditioning program, headed by long-time Kelly assistant Paul Longo, appears light years ahead of that of the program's predecessors. (Charlie) Weis' Irish lost eight of their last nine November games over a two-season span, reportedly losing nearly 18 pounds per man on the defensive front during the '09 season.
2. Manti Te'o is obviously a high-profile player that BYU recruited heavily out of high school. How good is he relative to other great Irish defensive players, and how has his strong LDS faith been accepted by the Notre Dame community?
Entering the season I'd have ranked Te'o on the outside looking in compared to the truly great Irish defenders of the past. He's since joined those legends with the best season by a Notre Dame defender since at least Justin Tuck, who toiled for two bad teams in 2003 and 2004.
Te'o is the team's emotional and physical leader, one of the most respected student-athletes in the history of the school, and a fan and media favorite that transcends the field. Kelly noted in his Sunday press conference that Te'o, along with fellow LDS practitioners Kona Schwenke and Chris Badger have been embraced by the local LDS community: "All of them have felt very comfortable in the community. I don't know what the dynamic is, but it just seems that there's a reaching out that has taken place in their time here, and it's made it a great transition for those kids."
Tony Rice (1987-89), Chris Zorich (1988-90), Brady Quinn (2003-06) and now Manti Te'o — the unofficial short list of the most poplar student-athletes in South Bend over the last 25 years.
3. Notre Dame has been very good defensively this season. What has keyed this defensive success and what type of defense does Notre Dame run?
The Irish employ what defensive coordinator Bob Diaco refers to as a "no crease" defense, one that utilizes a nearly 50/50 split between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts on base downs. The strength of the defense is undoubtedly its front seven, notably a defensive line that has all season applied pressure on opposing quarterbacks without the aid of blitzing linebackers.
Te'o is the best player, but redshirt-sophomore nose guard Louis Nix and true sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt have been a dominant pair up front. Teamed with junior OLB/DE Prince Shembo and 5th-year graybeard DE/DT Kapron Lewis-Moore, the Irish front line has proven to be the best at the program since the 1993 squad buoyed the team to a 10-0 start.
Because the Irish can apply pressure with four pass rushers, a young secondary (true freshman cornerback, redshirt-freshman safety, first-year starting junior cornerback, and grizzled veteran safety Zeke Motta) has yet to endure a major test.
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