Having a pair of Athlon Sports preseason All-Americans and projected first-round NFL draft picks along the defensive line is something not many coaches outside of SEC country have the luxury of enjoying.
But Mike Elston, who coaches the Notre Dame defensive line, isn't about to crown junior end Stephon Tuitt and senior tackle Louis Nix III as future pro stars just yet.
“We don't talk about that as a focal point,” said Elston, the featured speaker Tuesday of the Notre Dame Club of Fort Wayne at its annual golf outing at Cherry Hill Golf Club. “We talk about what they need to work on.”
While the BCS Championship Game rout at the hands of Alabama left a sour taste in the mouth of the Fighting Irish -particularly the defense that entered the game with the second-lowest points allowed average in the country - there was a coming of age of sorts for the Notre Dame defensive front in 2012.
Tuitt and Nix III were the cornerstones of the movement. Tuitt led the Fighting Irish with 12 sacks, including two each against Navy, Purdue and Brigham Young. He was named a Second Team All-American.
Meanwhile, Nix III was a force in the trenches by consistently bottling up the middle of the line of scrimmage. He finished with 45 tackles and a pair of sacks, but was a huge asset in tying up opposing linemen, allowing the Notre Dame linebackers to penetrate to the football.
Both were named Preseason All-Americans by Athlon Sports magazine, an annual publication recently released that had the Fighting Irish defensive line unit ranked second in the country and the team ranked No. 8 overall entering the summer.
Nix III and Tuitt will have one season of eligibility remaining after next season, but may forego that to enter the NFL Draft.
“We are very honest (with Tuitt and Nix) and there are certainly things that they know that they need to work on to improve our defense,” Elston said. “We don't talk to them about improving their status as an NFL prospect, although if they improve our defense by playing better then they are going to improve that naturally.”
While Tuitt and Nix III may prove to be one of the best inside-out D-line tandems in college football in 2013, the depth along the defensive front will be crucial to success but is already showing cracks.
Irish junior end Chase Hounshell will miss the season after suffering the same shoulder injury that sidelined him last season.
Meanwhile, 5-star recruit Eddie Vanderdoes, who chose Notre Dame on national signing day and was expected to see some playing time as a backup this season, is said to be wavering on his choice of the Fighting Irish. The 6-foot-3, 310 pounder is still locked in to his signed letter of intent and may have to sit out a season if he decides to head elsewhere.
Senior Kona Schwenke adds some depth in the middle, but the future of the position may be a pair of sophomores in Sheldon Day out of Warren Central High School and Jarron Jones as well as Bishop Dwenger product Tony Springmann.
Day saw significant playing time as a backup a year ago, producing 20 tackles and a pair of sacks while Springmann showed his versatility by being able to move around to various positions along the line.
“Tony exemplifies everything we are looking for on the field and off the field,” Elston said. “He is going to be a fantastic football player if he continues to develop the way he has.”
Despite two stars and a wealth of young talent, Elston isn't resting on last year's accomplishments.
“I don't care where we are ranked, I just want our defensive line to the best it can be and one of the best in the country,” Elston said. “We are making strides and have done a great job of improving, but we are certainly not anywhere near the top, so we are going to continue to work on that.”