The critics of Notre Dame's defense can throw all of the statistics at fourth-year Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly that they wish in regard to that unit underperforming through three games this season. Kelly isn't necessarily buying into the theory that his defense is playing as poorly as some have pointed out.
“The pieces are starting to come together,” Kelly said after his team's 31-24 win at Purdue on Saturday. “We're still evolving. It takes time. Even if you've got guys that are veterans, we have some key positions that have some new players in it. They're coming together.”
The 21st-ranked Irish (2-1) have four new starters this season (Sheldon Day, Carlo Calabrese, Jaylon Smith and Austin Collinsworth). Dan Fox and Calabrese are in much more significant positions of leadership in the heart of that defense at the inside linebacker spots.
Kelly is also relying on inexperienced players to provide depth at just about every defensive position. So when it is pointed out that the team is allowing nearly 24 points per game and has given up more first downs (66) than it has registered (64), there are reasons for those numbers. But not reason to panic, according to Kelly, especially after reviewing the film of the win in West Lafayette.
In the Boilermakers' final five offensive series, Purdue was forced into three punts and an interception by the Notre Dame defense.
“We played much more physical,” Kelly said. “I was very pleased with that. Obviously stopping the run, Purdue, with that offense, is built to run the football. That's what they wanted to do (the Boilermakers gained 38 yards on the ground). They weren't able to do that.”
Fox and Calabrese have combined to fill the middle of the defense that featured Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o a year ago, but the two fifth-year seniors are getting valuable support from sophomore Jarrett Grace, who led Notre Dame with 10 tackles.
“He's getting more (repetitions),” Kelly said. “He's playing better and better at that position. That's a three-man rotation, (so) you earn your playing time. (Grace) has gotten more play at that position based upon plays that he's making.”
Tuitt totals down
A Notre Dame defensive player who has not seen his statistics increase this year is preseason first-team All-America selection Stephon Tuitt.
The junior defensive end had another quiet night on the stat sheet against Purdue with one assisted tackle. In the past two games, that assist is the only tackle that Tuitt has registered. Kelly isn't concerned. In fact, he was pleased with Tuitt's performance against the Boilermakers.
“This was probably his best game of the year in terms of being on every play, just physically at the point of attack, two-gapping, doing the things that we want him to do, and effort level.” Kelly assessed. “I really liked his play up front.
“Purdue is an offense predicated on running the football (and) they can't run the ball. Your front four (defensively), those guys in particular, have to be doing something right.”