By GREG KEIM
THE GOSHEN NEWS
SOUTH BEND —
As hard as it might be for some to believe, the Notre Dame football team feels the Irish defense can be better this season despite graduating Heisman Trophy candidate Manti T’eo.
“I think you’ll have to look at it in its scope of 11 players,” fourth-year Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “So I think you have to look at it that we have some other pieces that might be a little bit stronger than they were last year. You have to look at all 11. We lose a great player in Manti, but we gain some other pieces that, I think, are stronger across the board, and we still have a consistent, strong front seven.”
Among the veterans in the front seven is 6-0 (250) fifth-year senior inside linebacker Carlo Calabrese.
“It’s more of a team defense,” Calabrese said. “We don’t have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and can lead, which is going to make us successful.”
This year’s defense will have it’s work cut out for it to improve upon last year as the Irish allowed 12.77 points per game in 2012, which ranked the Irish second in the country. The team allowed just four rushing touchdowns all season, which was the best in the country. The first one didn’t come until the eighth game against Oklahoma.
“We have a lot of experience on defense,” Calabrese said.
No player on the team has more than his 146 career tackles. He had 60 tackles in 2010, 37 in 2011 and 49 a year ago.
Calabrese is on the Butkus Award Watch List and he feels his own game has been elevated.
“My pass coverage has improved,” he said. “That was my focus in the off-season since it was the weakest part of my game.”
Calabrese and 6-2 (245) fifth-year senior Dan Fox shared playing time a year ago, but are both slated to start this season.
“It’s great playing next to Dan,” Calabrese said. “We know each other well. Dan is a lot of fun to be around off the field, but once he steps between the lines he is all business.”
The Irish went undefeated during the 2012 regular season before a 42-14 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS National Championship game.
“We left last year in the past,” Calabrese said. “The team is focusing on this year and focusing on today. It was not hard for me to flush out last year. I left it in the past and I am focusing on this year and this team.”
His personal highlight in 2012 may have been helping to stop Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor on back-to-back runs from the 1-yard line to preserve Notre Dame’s 20-13 overtime victory on Oct. 13 in South Bend. He also had a season-high seven tackles against Purdue.
He has career-highs of 10 tackles against Boston College in 2010, 1 1/2 sacks against Michigan State in 2010 and 3 1/2 tackles for loss in the 2010 Boston College contest.
Calabrese has to step into more of a leadership role this season.
“It’s great being a leader, and having the younger players come up and ask a question about a play,” he said. “I take a lot of pride in bringing the younger players along. Once you graduate you have to show the younger players what our team is about and what the expectations are.
“We have a bunch of leaders on the defense instead of one. I’m talking more and am having fun being a leader.”
One youngster that has impressed Calabrese is 6-2 (230) freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith from Fort Wayne Bishop Luers High School.
“He is a physical player and a tough individual,” the veteran said. “I expect to see him on the field. He is a smart player and is really taking to the defense.”
Smith has impressed the coaching staff as well with the youngster who started at outside linebacker in the Temple game. He is the first freshman to start at the position since Kory Minor in 1995.
Calabrese graduated last May with a degree in design.
He was in the starting lineup Saturday. The veteran who made 14th career start knows the team has to elevate its level of play this season.
“We have got to tamp it up,” Calabrese said. “We know what has to be done. We have to pay attention to the little things. There are a bunch of things we can do better.”