Irish look to build on defensive turnaround

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly's No. 1 task when taking the Notre Dame job was pretty simple. Even during the hiring process, Kelly said he was asked repeatedly, "How are you going to fix the defense?"

"Like a business, Notre Dame wasn't balancing the books," he said. "They were strong on offense but couldn't play defense."

So the most encouraging aspect of last year's 4-0 finish was how well the defense played down the stretch. Opposing teams couldn't run the ball on the Irish, and the defense yielded just one touchdown in the final three regular-season games -- and that only came after the Notre Dame offense turned the ball over at its own 2-yard line at USC.

Those questions about fixing the defense no longer hover over the program this spring. While the repair job is far from complete, the Irish have high optimism for that side of the ball and plenty of returning talent to mix with some promising newcomers.

"We're just looking to build off of what we did last year," defensive lineman Ethan Johnson said. "We're shooting for the stars. I think that coming back with the same coaches and the same defense is really going to help us get to the next level."

Johnson is one of seven defensive starters from the Sun Bowl win over Miami who are back this season, and several others saw major playing time in 2010. The defensive line, long a sore spot for the Irish, has developed into a strength. Louis Nix, who didn't play as a freshman, should provide a formidable presence at noseguard, and early enrollee Aaron Lynch will add depth at defensive end.

If there's a position that gets Kelly excited, though, it is the two outside linebacker spots in his 3-4 alignment. Kelly didn't begin to favor that formation until his final year at Cincinnati in 2009, when he had freshman Walter Stewart try to take on tackles at barely 200 pounds. Last year, he tried several players at the two outside spots, and it took Darius Fleming a while to play up to his potential.

This year, Kelly says Fleming is looking great at 245 pounds. Prince Shembo and Danny Spond are "230-, 240-pound guys with quick-twitch movements who can play out in space." Steve Filer is another athletic specimen backing up Fleming, and early enrollee Ishaq Williams is too talented and physically gifted not to help.

"We have a lot of depth," Kelly said. "Last year, there was a difference between the [players at] the boundary and the field positions. Offenses knew which way to fan protection. Now, it's pick your poison. Do you want to block Fleming with the back or block Shembo with the back?"

Notre Dame is thin at the cornerback spot, but Kelly believes starters Gary Gray and Robert Blanton are as good a pair as any in the country. Safety Harrison Smith has developed into a real leader after grabbing seven interceptions last year, fourth most in the nation.

"At first, I thought he worked hard but didn't have anything that stood out. He was just there," Kelly said. "But when you have success, everything changes. Your entire psyche changes. Now his presence is felt. He truly is a leader in the locker room and on the field."

The building job is not over. Kelly needs to continue adding depth and will focus on the defensive backfield in recruiting this year. But he is no longer being asked how he plans to fix the defense.

"I personally felt like we always have had a tough group here," Johnson. "I think we were just able to pull it all together with everybody working toward a common goal. For whatever reason, we're jelling really well now."