Notre Dame Report Card, Championship Edition (from UHND.com)

Dec 17, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head football coach Brian Kelly addresses the media at the Notre Dame BCS national championship media day at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

Dec 17, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Fighting Irish head football coach addresses the media at the BCS national championship media day at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

TideFans Publisher’s Note: We are exchanging a few game previews with – a top site for Notre Dame football.  This article is is their evaluation of ND impact players.  -- Brett

by Bob Kollars, UHND.com
December 11, 2012

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In just a little under a month’s time the Fighting Irish will take the field for the last time as the collective group that Notre Dame fans have come to know over the 2012 season.  By now the whole world knows that Notre Dame and Alabama will square off in the BCS National Title Game in South Florida on January 7th. If you have paid attention to any of the media outlets and Vegas, then you also know that the Irish are almost a 7 point underdog. While this is nothing new to the Irish team and their fans, we wanted to take a deeper look at the Irish and see what we are missing that has caused them to be depicted in the role of “David” and why most of the “experts” have decided that Alabama has all but already sealed their 3rd national title in four years. We will focus on the players who might have the biggest impact in the game for the Irish.

QUARTERBACK

Everett Golson – Obviously Irish fans have witnessed the metamorphosis of Everett Golson over the year and watched a teenager turn into a young man and leader over the course of 4 months. That’s not to say that he has hit the apex of his ability or knowledge of the game, but he has made massive strides over the course of the season. The young Irish quarterback has grown into a leader with the ability to control his emotions and make better decisions. He ended the season throwing for over 2100 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just 5 interceptions. He completed almost 60% of his passes and also rushed for over 300 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. As the year progressed Golson has learned how to read defenses better and run through his progressions in a much quicker pace. He still will make the errant throw occasionally, and tends to have happy feet a little too often.

Golson will cause problems for the Alabama defense in a couple of ways. He can throw deep against an average Tide secondary and he has the ability to create space in the pocket and allow his receivers the luxury of getting open. He can also pull the ball down and get that first down when needed, which can be extremely frustrating for a defense. If the Irish QB maintains his composure and limits his turnovers, he can slowly wear the Bama defensive front seven down over the course of 4 quarters, and allow the Irish running attack to become a true weapon late in the game. His main focus through the air will be Eifert and Riddick, but he also needs to utilize the rest of his weapons on the field.

GRADE B
Could also have an impact – Tommy Rees

RUNNINGBACKS

Theo Riddick – As much as Irish fans have enjoyed watching their quarterback transform, they have equally enjoyed watching their star running back do the exact same thing.  Theo has turned into a punishing bruiser and a back who will fight for the extra yard while making sure the ball is secure. Not only has he turned into a pure force behind the line of scrimmage for the Irish, he has become a true weapon through the air. He rushed for almost 900 yards on the season and had 35 receptions for 350 yards and a total of 6 touchdowns. He is extremely versatile and Kelly and staff will rely on him greatly throughout the game.  He is going to face a front seven in Alabama that he has not faced this year and it will be interesting to see how effective he can be. How Theo goes will have a big role in how the Irish go, and either way we are excited to see what he can do against what most consider one of the top defensive front seven in the nation.

Cierre Wood – Wood has seen the coaching staff use his talent less in the 2nd half of the season, but that doesn’t mean that he is a forgotten man on the sidelines. He shares time in the backfield with the afore-mentioned Riddick and Atkinson. His best game of the year came against a weaker Wake Forest team when he rushed for 150 yards on just 11 carries. He saw the ball only 8 times in the Irish season finale at USC, but he will be called upon to switch paces against Bama as he tends to be more of speed and finesse back.  He is not nearly the receiver out of the backfield that Riddick is, but Irish fans know that he is one of the reasons they finished undefeated. The season didn’t start well for Wood as he was suspended for the first 2 games of the year, but it will be the last game of the year in which he could make his biggest impact.

GRADE A-
Could also have an impact –George Atkinson III

WIDEOUTS

Tyler Eifert – What’s left to be said about one of the best receivers’ in the country and one of the best tight ends to ever put an Irish uniform on. The winner of the 2012 Mackey Award should give Alabama fits if the Irish coaching staff use him properly, and will be faster and quicker than any linebacker Saban will attempt to cover him with. Chances are Eifert will be double teamed most of the evening, but with his size and hands he should still have a major impact in the game. If the Alabama defense does make it a point to smother him all evening, that will still allow one-on-one routes for the other Irish receivers. That folks is what we consider a win-win situation for the Notre Dame offense as long as everyone comes to play that night. We cannot overstate how important the All American tight end is to the Irish hopes of winning another national championship, and we are sure he understands this completely.

TJ Jones – The young man from Roswell, GA and son of former Irish great Andre Jones has emerged this season as a very capable receiver and a go-to player in crunch time.  Jones ended the season with 43 catches and just over 550 yards. While his stats may not seem overly impressive, any Irish fan will tell you that he was on the receiving end of some of the biggest completions all year long. Jones is slowly showing signs of being a number one target, and should be a lot of fun to watch in 2013. The Junior wide-out will have all the opportunity in the world to make his mark on this game for the Irish and as mentioned before, with Eifert most likely being tag-teamed and someone having to cover Riddick out of the back, it should leave TJ in man coverage all night. If TJ plays like he is capable of on the night of January 7 th, Irish fans just might have a reason to smile all night long

Grade B+
Could also have an impact – Chris Brown

OFFENSIVE LINE

Not considered a strength in the beginning of the season, the Notre Dame offensive line has galvanized as the season progressed and now truly act as a unit on the field, rather than individuals playing a game. Harry Hiestand has done a good job of overcoming some injuries with this group and continued to coach them up all year. It all starts with Cave, who has had a nice year and trickles out to Watt, Golic Jr. Martin, and Lombard. There have been some protection problems throughout the year, and some false start issues(yes – we are looking at you Golic) but overall the group has done a good job of adapting from a pocket passer in Tommy Rees, to the dual threat of Everett Golson. When you have a QB who is nimble and can move all over the pocket in a blink of an eye, it can make a linemen’s job that much more difficult and this unit has finally started to understand that. They will have the uneasy task of trying to keep Jesse Williams, CJ Mosley, Damien Square and Nico Johnson out of the Irish backfield all night. What the Irish have going for them is the same thing Texas A&M had going for them in their win over the Crimson Tide – mobility.  If the Irish offensive line can give Golson time to read his routes, and create, it could make for a tough night for the Crimson Tide front seven.

Grade B+

DEFENSE

While the media has been reluctant to give credit to the Irish squad as whole over the 2012 campaign, the same media has rightfully given respect to the Irish defense all year long. The defensive squad is widely considered one of the best defenses in the nation, if not the best. If we would have told you that this Irish defense would have faced goal-line stances 24 times and gave up -28 yards before the season, you would have assumed we were talking about the digital Irish in EA’s NCAA football video game. If we would have told you the Irish defense would only allow 2 rushing TD’s on the year(Oklahoma-Pittsburgh) you would have advised to leave the basement and take off the homer glasses. In fact this same defensive squad has only given up only 9 touchdowns on the whole year, and allowed only 10.1 points per game. Needless to say this group deserves every accolade that has been thrown at them, and probably more. Let’s now take a deeper look at this defensive squad not as a whole, but as individual groups.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Louis Nix III
You have to start any conversation of the Irish defensive line with their star nose-tackle Louis Nix. Nix is a disruptive force in the middle and one the leaders of this vaunted defense. Nix provided 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 5 passes defended in the 2012 campaign. Beyond the numbers though, Nix causes headaches for opponents offensive lines, requiring double-teams which is extremely important in the 3-4 style defense the Irish play. He consistently opens holes for the linebackers to find their way into the backfield in stopping the run and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. We cannot overstate the importance of Nix in the BCS title game as he will have to have a major impact in slowing the down the rushing game of Lacy and Yeldon to allow the Irish a shot at winning the game. If Alabama’s center Barrett Jones can find a way to neutralize Nix’s effectiveness on his own, it could cause major problems for the Irish defensive effort.

Stephon Tuitt
Not far behind Nix you will find Stephon Tuitt. The sophomore recorded 42 tackles, which 13 were for losses and also recorded 12 sacks in the 2012 campaign. For a 300 pound big man, Tuitt moves pretty well and is only going to get better. The only small weakness in his game right now is in the run category and at times his path can be dictated and controlled by a physical offensive linemen. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact Tuitt will have against a very strong offensive line in Alabama, but we would not bet against the young sophomore. While the line of the Crimson Tide is used to facing physical big men up front, we are not sure if they have faced a better trio of Nix, Lewis-Moore and Tuitt this year. If this group can create havoc up front it will allow the linebacking corp of Shembo, Te’o Fox, and Spond to do what they do best.

Kapron Lewis-Moore
The quiet leader of this pack would have to be Lewis-Moore and while his numbers are not quite as impressive as the before-mentioned Nix and Tuitt, that doesn’t mean he is any less important. He will be facing one of the emerging stars in of college football, Bama’s sophomore left tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio.  Kouandjio is finally starting to live up to his billing as a blue-chip recruit and is as physical as they come. It will be a tough task for Louis Nix III to pull a double-team of Jones and Warmack, but if he can accomplish that consistently than that will allow a one-on-one battle between Lewis-Moore and Kouandjio.

While Lewis-Moore does struggle a bit with his pass rushing abilities, he can shed a block with the best of them and is great at the point of attack. This will be one of the more intriguing match-ups, and also one of the more important ones.

GRADE A

Could also have an impact: Sheldon Day, Ishaq Williams

LINEBACKERS

Manti Te’o

The Heisman runner-up and All-American linebacker for the Irish has proven game in and game out that he is one of the best to ever run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. By shedding 15 pounds over the summer, the senior leader of this Irish defense has added the ability to play side-line to side-line and a become a dominant factor in not only the running game, but also pass defense. As one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions this year with 7, Te’o has proven that he really has no weakness in his on-field repertoire. If the defensive line can execute up front this will really help Te’o in stuffing the run, keeping an eye on Yeldon out of the backfield, and limiting A.J. McCarrons success on quick dump off passes.  Alabama loves to throw to the outside, utilize their runningbacks on screen plays and wheel routes and Te’o will be a major factor in all of that. He will be a busy man on January 7th, but he hasn’t let Irish fans down yet in 2012, and we would assume that the BCS title game will be no different.

Prince Shembo

While his name doesn’t quite attract the publicity that his teammate does in Te’o, the junior linebacker can be quite a force to be reckoned with. Quietly Shembo put together a 2012 campaign that included 48 tackles with 10.5 for losses, and 7.5 sacks. While his numbers are very good, they do not tell the whole story. The young man out of Charlotte, NC has speed to burn, and can be a factor in the opponents backfield, in pass defense and cover both sides of the field. With his size, speed, and athleticism he can create match-up nightmares at times for opposing offenses. Now we hope it doesn’t sound like we are trying to oversell his abilities, but if Alabama is smart, they will not underestimate the type of factor that #55 can be on January 7th.

GRADE A+

Could also have an impact: Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese

 

SECONDARY

Before the season even started, the Irish secondary was considered a work in progress, and that was before injuries to Austin Collinsworth, and Lo Wood. The picture only got murkier a couple of weeks into the season as the loss of Jamoris Slaughter was another setback to a very young group. While fans and media decided that this group would eventually be the downfall of the 2012 season, the players left that were healthy, were having none of that. Enter KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, a former wide receiver and soccer player respectively. Long story short, when the Irish needed this group to step up, they did just that. While no one is ready to label the Irish secondary a group of All Americans quite yet, you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t been impressed with their progression over the course of the year. If you talk to any one individual of the secondary on what the key component was that held them together, they will give you two reasons consistently. Those reasons would be a defensive coordinator who believed in them as a group and as individuals and a strong front seven that allowed them grow and mature and make mistakes.

Zeke Motta

The Senior safety from Vero Beach, FL has proven to be one of the best run defenders in the nation. His hard hitting, aggressive style has permeated the rest of this young secondary and when things looked bleak early on, his Senior leadership helped keep this group together. While Motta will not penetrate the backfield much or be confused for a shutdown corner in pass defense, he does draw a lot of comparisons to young man playing in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings right now, Harrison Smith. Motta is physical at the point of attack and is always involved in the play. He is a smart, athletic safety who has his head on a swivel, and body that is always under control. As most fan’s know Alabama loves to run the ball first, and pass when needed as evidenced in the SEC championship game. Motta will be called upon to help stop the run game of Lacy and Yeldon, and it will be imperative he helps slow the Crimson Tide’s running attack down. While Motta doesn’t have burning speed, he is smart player and always has his head in the game. We have a feeling that his named could be called often that night, and he will respond accordingly.

Bennett Jackson

The converted wide-out from Jersey had his concerns about switching to corner for the Irish, but that move has proven to be a great decision. Jackson has great instincts, and very good recovery speed and skills. Jackson was tied for 2nd on team in tackles with 61, had 4 interceptions, and impressively had 8 passes defended on the year. Chances are the Irish will lineup Jackson across from the Tides best receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper saves his best games for the spotlight, as he excelled against the likes of Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee, and in the SEC championship game against Georgia, where he grabbed 8 balls for 128 yards and touchdown. We like this match up for the Irish though, as Jackson has the size and speed to match Cooper in man coverage and while he may not stop Cooper all night, we have a feeling he can slow down his effectiveness and force Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron to look for different options. No matter what matchup Jackson has on January 7th, he should be fun to watch, just as he has been all year long. A true emotional leader that wears those same emotions on his sleeve for the world to see.

Grade – B

Others that could have an impact – Matthias Farley, KeiVarae Russell

SPECIAL TEAMS

Irish fans have been blessed with one of the nation’s top defenses, and an offense that has shown flashes of brilliance, as has gotten stronger as the season progressed. The one area that has been a major concern and wildly inconsistent all year long has been the special teams play. From lack of coverage on kick-
offs, to an inconsistent kicking game, to a virtually non-existent return game, the special teams group has struggled all year. Our fear is that in a close battle this group could be a factor in which may cause the Irish to lose the game.

Kyle Brindza

A season that saw the Irish place-kicker go a very average 23-31 and even more concerning is the fact that he was only 3-7 from lengths of 40-49 yards. What’s even more perplexing is the fact that Brindza made some very important kicks for the Irish late in the year(Oklahoma,USC) but struggled in games where a made field goal would have helped put teams away. Not all is bad as he did hit 26-27 extra points and he had 5 field goals against USC and nailed a 52 yarder to close out the half. We still have some faith in the sophomore kicker from Canton, Mi, but he is going to need to be more consistent before he is considered a strength. Our worst fear is Kyle leaving 3-9 points on the field by missed field goals, which just cannot happen if the Irish expect to win in .

George Atkinson III

With the speed and athleticism that Atkinson possesses, Irish fans expected more than the pedestrian numbers he put up over the 2012 season. While we will not put all the blame on him, as his blocking up front can leave a lot to be desired at times, he still needs to share some of the blame. GA III has shown flashes of what he is capable of, but at times he looks too timid and reacts late. He has good instincts and maybe it’s just a matter of the maturation process kicking in, before he will stop thinking and start doing.  The book is still out on Atkinson as he possesses the necessary tools to be great return man, but he is not their yet – by a long shot. We are not sure what he will bring to the table in the title game, but if the past is a true indicator, fan’s can hope he just secures the ball and gives the Irish decent field position.

Davonte’ Neal

While the freshman possesses exciting ability, if one looks at his stats for 2012 those skills obviously didn’t translate well to the field in the form of punt returning. He had 15 returns for an amazingly bad 3.3 yard avg. Once again, we can’t throw all the blame on him as he didn’t exactly have the field open up in front of him, but still a 3.3 avg. is just unacceptable at this level of play and with the talents he possesses.  As with Atkinson, all Irish fans can hope for is for Neal to secure the ball, and not put the Irish defense in a “backs against the wall” type scenario with a turn-over or two.

Grade C-

Others that could have impact – Cam McDaniel, Ben Turk

Our goal of this three part series was simply to dig deeper into why the Irish have a legitimate shot at winning this game outright. They have as many skill players as the Crimson Tide, and a coach who is just as competitive as the one that will be standing across the sideline on January 7 th. One very important factor that Alabama has on their side is experience in title games, and a lot of it. That doesn’t mean that a Bama win is a foregone conclusion, but it is a plus for them. This game will be won in the trenches and we feel like the Irish match up pretty darn well against the Tide on both sides of the ball. Bottom line is that it will come down to execution, smart football, minimizing mistakes. Whichever team can grab control and excel at the three phases of this game will walk away with another trophy for their display case.

 

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In just a little under a month’s time the Fighting Irish will take the field for the last time as the collective group that Notre Dame fans have come to know over the 2012 season.  By now the whole world knows that Notre Dame and Alabama will square off in the BCS National Title Game in South Florida on January 7th. If you have paid attention to any of the media outlets and Vegas, then you also know that the Irish are almost a 7 point underdog. While this is nothing new to the Irish team and their fans, we wanted to take a deeper look at the Irish and see what we are missing that has caused them to be depicted in the role of “David” and why most of the “experts” have decided that Alabama has all but already sealed their 3rd national title in four years. We will focus on the players who might have the biggest impact in the game for the Irish.

QUARTERBACK

Everett Golson – Obviously Irish fans have witnessed the metamorphosis of Everett Golson over the year and watched a teenager turn into a young man and leader over the course of 4 months. That’s not to say that he has hit the apex of his ability or knowledge of the game, but he has made massive strides over the course of the season. The young Irish quarterback has grown into a leader with the ability to control his emotions and make better decisions. He ended the season throwing for over 2100 yards, 11 touchdowns, and just 5 interceptions. He completed almost 60% of his passes and also rushed for over 300 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. As the year progressed Golson has learned how to read defenses better and run through his progressions in a much quicker pace. He still will make the errant throw occasionally, and tends to have happy feet a little too often.

Golson will cause problems for the Alabama defense in a couple of ways. He can throw deep against an average Tide secondary and he has the ability to create space in the pocket and allow his receivers the luxury of getting open. He can also pull the ball down and get that first down when needed, which can be extremely frustrating for a defense. If the Irish QB maintains his composure and limits his turnovers, he can slowly wear the Bama defensive front seven down over the course of 4 quarters, and allow the Irish running attack to become a true weapon late in the game. His main focus through the air will be Eifert and Riddick, but he also needs to utilize the rest of his weapons on the field.

GRADE B
Could also have an impact – Tommy Rees

RUNNINGBACKS

Theo Riddick – As much as Irish fans have enjoyed watching their quarterback transform, they have equally enjoyed watching their star running back do the exact same thing.  Theo has turned into a punishing bruiser and a back who will fight for the extra yard while making sure the ball is secure. Not only has he turned into a pure force behind the line of scrimmage for the Irish, he has become a true weapon through the air. He rushed for almost 900 yards on the season and had 35 receptions for 350 yards and a total of 6 touchdowns. He is extremely versatile and Kelly and staff will rely on him greatly throughout the game.  He is going to face a front seven in Alabama that he has not faced this year and it will be interesting to see how effective he can be. How Theo goes will have a big role in how the Irish go, and either way we are excited to see what he can do against what most consider one of the top defensive front seven in the nation.

Cierre Wood – Wood has seen the coaching staff use his talent less in the 2nd half of the season, but that doesn’t mean that he is a forgotten man on the sidelines. He shares time in the backfield with the afore-mentioned Riddick and Atkinson. His best game of the year came against a weaker Wake Forest team when he rushed for 150 yards on just 11 carries. He saw the ball only 8 times in the Irish season finale at USC, but he will be called upon to switch paces against Bama as he tends to be more of speed and finesse back.  He is not nearly the receiver out of the backfield that Riddick is, but Irish fans know that he is one of the reasons they finished undefeated. The season didn’t start well for Wood as he was suspended for the first 2 games of the year, but it will be the last game of the year in which he could make his biggest impact.

GRADE A-
Could also have an impact –George Atkinson III

WIDEOUTS

Tyler Eifert – What’s left to be said about one of the best receivers’ in the country and one of the best tight ends to ever put an Irish uniform on. The winner of the 2012 Mackey Award should give Alabama fits if the Irish coaching staff use him properly, and will be faster and quicker than any linebacker Saban will attempt to cover him with. Chances are Eifert will be double teamed most of the evening, but with his size and hands he should still have a major impact in the game. If the Alabama defense does make it a point to smother him all evening, that will still allow one-on-one routes for the other Irish receivers. That folks is what we consider a win-win situation for the Notre Dame offense as long as everyone comes to play that night. We cannot overstate how important the All American tight end is to the Irish hopes of winning another national championship, and we are sure he understands this completely.

TJ Jones – The young man from Roswell, GA and son of former Irish great Andre Jones has emerged this season as a very capable receiver and a go-to player in crunch time.  Jones ended the season with 43 catches and just over 550 yards. While his stats may not seem overly impressive, any Irish fan will tell you that he was on the receiving end of some of the biggest completions all year long. Jones is slowly showing signs of being a number one target, and should be a lot of fun to watch in 2013. The Junior wide-out will have all the opportunity in the world to make his mark on this game for the Irish and as mentioned before, with Eifert most likely being tag-teamed and someone having to cover Riddick out of the back, it should leave TJ in man coverage all night. If TJ plays like he is capable of on the night of January 7 th, Irish fans just might have a reason to smile all night long

Grade B+
Could also have an impact – Chris Brown

OFFENSIVE LINE

Not considered a strength in the beginning of the season, the Notre Dame offensive line has galvanized as the season progressed and now truly act as a unit on the field, rather than individuals playing a game. Harry Hiestand has done a good job of overcoming some injuries with this group and continued to coach them up all year. It all starts with Cave, who has had a nice year and trickles out to Watt, Golic Jr. Martin, and Lombard. There have been some protection problems throughout the year, and some false start issues(yes – we are looking at you Golic) but overall the group has done a good job of adapting from a pocket passer in Tommy Rees, to the dual threat of Everett Golson. When you have a QB who is nimble and can move all over the pocket in a blink of an eye, it can make a linemen’s job that much more difficult and this unit has finally started to understand that. They will have the uneasy task of trying to keep Jesse Williams, CJ Mosley, Damien Square and Nico Johnson out of the Irish backfield all night. What the Irish have going for them is the same thing Texas A&M had going for them in their win over the Crimson Tide – mobility.  If the Irish offensive line can give Golson time to read his routes, and create, it could make for a tough night for the Crimson Tide front seven.

Grade B+

DEFENSE

While the media has been reluctant to give credit to the Irish squad as whole over the 2012 campaign, the same media has rightfully given respect to the Irish defense all year long. The defensive squad is widely considered one of the best defenses in the nation, if not the best. If we would have told you that this Irish defense would have faced goal-line stances 24 times and gave up -28 yards before the season, you would have assumed we were talking about the digital Irish in EA’s NCAA football video game. If we would have told you the Irish defense would only allow 2 rushing TD’s on the year(Oklahoma-Pittsburgh) you would have advised to leave the basement and take off the homer glasses. In fact this same defensive squad has only given up only 9 touchdowns on the whole year, and allowed only 10.1 points per game. Needless to say this group deserves every accolade that has been thrown at them, and probably more. Let’s now take a deeper look at this defensive squad not as a whole, but as individual groups.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Louis Nix III
You have to start any conversation of the Irish defensive line with their star nose-tackle Louis Nix. Nix is a disruptive force in the middle and one the leaders of this vaunted defense. Nix provided 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 5 passes defended in the 2012 campaign. Beyond the numbers though, Nix causes headaches for opponents offensive lines, requiring double-teams which is extremely important in the 3-4 style defense the Irish play. He consistently opens holes for the linebackers to find their way into the backfield in stopping the run and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. We cannot overstate the importance of Nix in the BCS title game as he will have to have a major impact in slowing the down the rushing game of Lacy and Yeldon to allow the Irish a shot at winning the game. If Alabama’s center Barrett Jones can find a way to neutralize Nix’s effectiveness on his own, it could cause major problems for the Irish defensive effort.

Stephon Tuitt
Not far behind Nix you will find Stephon Tuitt. The sophomore recorded 42 tackles, which 13 were for losses and also recorded 12 sacks in the 2012 campaign. For a 300 pound big man, Tuitt moves pretty well and is only going to get better. The only small weakness in his game right now is in the run category and at times his path can be dictated and controlled by a physical offensive linemen. It will be interesting to see how much of an impact Tuitt will have against a very strong offensive line in Alabama, but we would not bet against the young sophomore. While the line of the Crimson Tide is used to facing physical big men up front, we are not sure if they have faced a better trio of Nix, Lewis-Moore and Tuitt this year. If this group can create havoc up front it will allow the linebacking corp of Shembo, Te’o Fox, and Spond to do what they do best.

Kapron Lewis-Moore
The quiet leader of this pack would have to be Lewis-Moore and while his numbers are not quite as impressive as the before-mentioned Nix and Tuitt, that doesn’t mean he is any less important. He will be facing one of the emerging stars in of college football, Bama’s sophomore left tackle, Cyrus Kouandjio.  Kouandjio is finally starting to live up to his billing as a blue-chip recruit and is as physical as they come. It will be a tough task for Louis Nix III to pull a double-team of Jones and Warmack, but if he can accomplish that consistently than that will allow a one-on-one battle between Lewis-Moore and Kouandjio.

While Lewis-Moore does struggle a bit with his pass rushing abilities, he can shed a block with the best of them and is great at the point of attack. This will be one of the more intriguing match-ups, and also one of the more important ones.

GRADE A

Could also have an impact: Sheldon Day, Ishaq Williams

LINEBACKERS

Manti Te’o

The Heisman runner-up and All-American linebacker for the Irish has proven game in and game out that he is one of the best to ever run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium. By shedding 15 pounds over the summer, the senior leader of this Irish defense has added the ability to play side-line to side-line and a become a dominant factor in not only the running game, but also pass defense. As one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions this year with 7, Te’o has proven that he really has no weakness in his on-field repertoire. If the defensive line can execute up front this will really help Te’o in stuffing the run, keeping an eye on Yeldon out of the backfield, and limiting A.J. McCarrons success on quick dump off passes.  Alabama loves to throw to the outside, utilize their runningbacks on screen plays and wheel routes and Te’o will be a major factor in all of that. He will be a busy man on January 7th, but he hasn’t let Irish fans down yet in 2012, and we would assume that the BCS title game will be no different.

Prince Shembo

While his name doesn’t quite attract the publicity that his teammate does in Te’o, the junior linebacker can be quite a force to be reckoned with. Quietly Shembo put together a 2012 campaign that included 48 tackles with 10.5 for losses, and 7.5 sacks. While his numbers are very good, they do not tell the whole story. The young man out of Charlotte, NC has speed to burn, and can be a factor in the opponents backfield, in pass defense and cover both sides of the field. With his size, speed, and athleticism he can create match-up nightmares at times for opposing offenses. Now we hope it doesn’t sound like we are trying to oversell his abilities, but if Alabama is smart, they will not underestimate the type of factor that #55 can be on January 7th.

GRADE A+

Could also have an impact: Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese

SECONDARY

Before the season even started, the Irish secondary was considered a work in progress, and that was before injuries to Austin Collinsworth, and Lo Wood. The picture only got murkier a couple of weeks into the season as the loss of Jamoris Slaughter was another setback to a very young group. While fans and media decided that this group would eventually be the downfall of the 2012 season, the players left that were healthy, were having none of that. Enter KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, a former wide receiver and soccer player respectively. Long story short, when the Irish needed this group to step up, they did just that. While no one is ready to label the Irish secondary a group of All Americans quite yet, you would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t been impressed with their progression over the course of the year. If you talk to any one individual of the secondary on what the key component was that held them together, they will give you two reasons consistently. Those reasons would be a defensive coordinator who believed in them as a group and as individuals and a strong front seven that allowed them grow and mature and make mistakes.

Zeke Motta

The Senior safety from Vero Beach, FL has proven to be one of the best run defenders in the nation. His hard hitting, aggressive style has permeated the rest of this young secondary and when things looked bleak early on, his Senior leadership helped keep this group together. While Motta will not penetrate the backfield much or be confused for a shutdown corner in pass defense, he does draw a lot of comparisons to young man playing in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings right now, Harrison Smith. Motta is physical at the point of attack and is always involved in the play. He is a smart, athletic safety who has his head on a swivel, and body that is always under control. As most fan’s know Alabama loves to run the ball first, and pass when needed as evidenced in the SEC championship game. Motta will be called upon to help stop the run game of Lacy and Yeldon, and it will be imperative he helps slow the Crimson Tide’s running attack down. While Motta doesn’t have burning speed, he is smart player and always has his head in the game. We have a feeling that his named could be called often that night, and he will respond accordingly.

Bennett Jackson

The converted wide-out from Jersey had his concerns about switching to corner for the Irish, but that move has proven to be a great decision. Jackson has great instincts, and very good recovery speed and skills. Jackson was tied for 2nd on team in tackles with 61, had 4 interceptions, and impressively had 8 passes defended on the year. Chances are the Irish will lineup Jackson across from the Tides best receiver Amari Cooper. Cooper saves his best games for the spotlight, as he excelled against the likes of Texas A&M, Auburn, Tennessee, and in the SEC championship game against Georgia, where he grabbed 8 balls for 128 yards and touchdown. We like this match up for the Irish though, as Jackson has the size and speed to match Cooper in man coverage and while he may not stop Cooper all night, we have a feeling he can slow down his effectiveness and force Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron to look for different options. No matter what matchup Jackson has on January 7th, he should be fun to watch, just as he has been all year long. A true emotional leader that wears those same emotions on his sleeve for the world to see.

Grade – B

Others that could have an impact – Matthias Farley, KeiVarae Russell

SPECIAL TEAMS

Irish fans have been blessed with one of the nation’s top defenses, and an offense that has shown flashes of brilliance, as has gotten stronger as the season progressed. The one area that has been a major concern and wildly inconsistent all year long has been the special teams play. From lack of coverage on kick-
offs, to an inconsistent kicking game, to a virtually non-existent return game, the special teams group has struggled all year. Our fear is that in a close battle this group could be a factor in which may cause the Irish to lose the game.

Kyle Brindza

A season that saw the Irish place-kicker go a very average 23-31 and even more concerning is the fact that he was only 3-7 from lengths of 40-49 yards. What’s even more perplexing is the fact that Brindza made some very important kicks for the Irish late in the year(Oklahoma,USC) but struggled in games where a made field goal would have helped put teams away. Not all is bad as he did hit 26-27 extra points and he had 5 field goals against USC and nailed a 52 yarder to close out the half. We still have some faith in the sophomore kicker from Canton, Mi, but he is going to need to be more consistent before he is considered a strength. Our worst fear is Kyle leaving 3-9 points on the field by missed field goals, which just cannot happen if the Irish expect to win in Miami.

George Atkinson III

With the speed and athleticism that Atkinson possesses, Irish fans expected more than the pedestrian numbers he put up over the 2012 season. While we will not put all the blame on him, as his blocking up front can leave a lot to be desired at times, he still needs to share some of the blame. GA III has shown flashes of what he is capable of, but at times he looks too timid and reacts late. He has good instincts and maybe it’s just a matter of the maturation process kicking in, before he will stop thinking and start doing.  The book is still out on Atkinson as he possesses the necessary tools to be great return man, but he is not their yet – by a long shot. We are not sure what he will bring to the table in the title game, but if the past is a true indicator, fan’s can hope he just secures the ball and gives the Irish decent field position.

Davonte’ Neal

While the freshman possesses exciting ability, if one looks at his stats for 2012 those skills obviously didn’t translate well to the field in the form of punt returning. He had 15 returns for an amazingly bad 3.3 yard avg. Once again, we can’t throw all the blame on him as he didn’t exactly have the field open up in front of him, but still a 3.3 avg. is just unacceptable at this level of play and with the talents he possesses.  As with Atkinson, all Irish fans can hope for is for Neal to secure the ball, and not put the Irish defense in a “backs against the wall” type scenario with a turn-over or two.

Grade C-

Others that could have impact – Cam McDaniel, Ben Turk

Our goal of this three part series was simply to dig deeper into why the Irish have a legitimate shot at winning this game outright. They have as many skill players as the Crimson Tide, and a coach who is just as competitive as the one that will be standing across the sideline on January 7 th. One very important factor that Alabama has on their side is experience in title games, and a lot of it. That doesn’t mean that a Bama win is a foregone conclusion, but it is a plus for them. This game will be won in the trenches and we feel like the Irish match up pretty darn well against the Tide on both sides of the ball. Bottom line is that it will come down to execution, smart football, minimizing mistakes. Whichever team can grab control and excel at the three phases of this game will walk away with another trophy for their display case.

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