Notre Dame has perhaps the nation's best linebacker, but is the Irish unit as a whole as talented as Alabama's?
Let's break it down.
JACK, Xzavier Dickson, Sophomore
6'3" 262 pounds
'12 stats: 33 tackles, 5.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries
Career: 36 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 4.0 sacks
JACK, Denzel Devall, Freshman
6'2" 243 pounds
'12 stats: 17 tackles, 3.0 for loss, 2.0 sacks, 3 QB hurries
Career: Same as above
WILL, Nico Johnson, Senior
6'3" 245 pounds
'12 stats: 54 tackles, 2.0 for loss, 1 QB hurry
Career: 161 tackles, 16.5 for loss, 2 sacks, 2 QB hurries
WILL, C.J. Mosley, Junior
6'2" 232 pounds
'12 stats: 99 tackles, 7.0 for loss, 4.0 sacks, 3 QB hurries
Career: 202 tackles, 13.0 for loss, 6.5 sacks, 5 QB hurries
MIKE, Trey DePriest, Sophomore
6'2" 245 pounds
'12 stats: 56 tackles, 4.0 for loss, 2 QB hurries
Career: 81 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 3 QB hurries
MIKE, Nico Johnson, Senior
(See measurables & stats above)
SAM, Adrian Hubbard, RS Sophomore
6'6" 248 pounds
'12 stats: 39 tackles, 10.0 for loss, 6.0 sacks, 4 QB hurries
Career: 48 tackles, 11.5 for loss, 6.0 sacks, 5 QB hurries
SAM, Jonathan Atchison, RS Junior
6'3" 236 pounds
'12 stats: 2 tackles
Career: 6 tackles
CAT, Prince Shembo, Junior
6'2" 250 pounds
'12 stats: 48 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 7.5 sacks, 12 QB hurries
Career: 94 tackles, 19.0 for loss, 14.0 sacks, 18 QB hurries
CAT, Ishaq Williams, Sophomore
6'5" 255 pounds
'12 stats: 21 tackles, 3.5 for loss, 1 QB hurry
Career: 27 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2 QB hurries
WILL, Dan Fox, RS Junior
6'3" 240 pounds
'12 stats: 57 tackles, 2.0 for loss, 1.0 sack, 2 QB hurries
Career: 125 tackles, 4.5 for loss, 2.0 sacks, 3 QB hurries
WILL Carlo Calabrese, RS Junior
6'1" 245 pounds
'12 stats: 46 tackles, 2.0 for loss
Career: 143 tackles, 8.0 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 1 QB hurry
MIKE, Manti Te'o, Senior
6'2" 255 pounds
'12 stats: 103 tackles, 5.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries
Career: 427 tackles, 34.0 for loss, 8.5 sacks, 12 QB hurries
MIKE, Jarrett Grace, RS Freshman
6'3" 240 pounds
'12 stats: 12 tackles
Career: Same as above
DOG, Danny Spond, Junior
6'2" 248 pounds
'12 stats: 38 tackles, 1.0 for loss
Career: 52 tackles, 1.5 for loss
DOG, Ben Councell, RS Freshman
6'5" 240 pounds
'12 stats: 9 tackles
Career: Same as above
DEPTH & EXPERIENCE
Notre Dame has really good experience in the middle of their defense with 4 players coming in to the title game with at least 90 career tackles, and 3 with at least 100 career tackles. It also helps to have Manti Te'o and his 427 career tackles patrolling the middle as well.
It's not only tackles that give the Irish a lot of experience but also every starter (including the co-starters at WILL) having been in the program and on the field for at least 3 years.
Alabama has a good deal of experience in the middle of their linebacker corps but they are a little young on the outside. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley returned this year as co-starers at WILL but the Tide have first year starters at the other linebacker positions.
Even considering that Manti Te'o is never coming off the field the Irish do utilize a little more depth. Both clubs have co-starters at WILL with one player seeing much more time (Fox & Mosley respectively), but Notre Dame really features Ishaq Williams more than any other backup on Alabama's roster.
In fact, Williams is the type of athlete who might not be a difference maker in his own right, but offers the Irish a ton of versatility as he can play off the edge, kick inside on the line, or stand up and drop back in coverage.
TALENT & PRODUCTION
Using the eye-ball test I think Alabama has more talented linebackers, but the production doesn't necessarily back that argument up. Then again, not all tackles are created equal.
With an extra game to play the Tide defense faced 782 plays from scrimmage versus 757 for the Irish. The top five Alabama linebackers totaled 281 tackles, 28 for loss, 13.5 sacks, and 14 QB hurries on the season compared to 11 more tackles, 7 fewer tackles for loss, 3.5 fewer sacks, and 4 more quarterback hurries from the top 5 Notre Dame 'backers.
Even the backups have similar stats (the next five tacklers for each team) with Alabama having 2 more tackles, 2 fewer tackles for loss, 2 more sacks, and 3 more QB hurries.
The biggest difference that is apparent in the stats (and clearly jumps out when watching each team) is that Alabama's linebackers are far more aggressive across the board. This is more obvious when you look at the weight Prince Shembo is carrying in terms of tackles for loss, sacks, etc. for the Irish.
As I pointed out in the previous installment of this series, both teams playing in the national title game run a 3-4 defense that relies on linebackers to clean up and make plays, but the Irish place more emphasis on their defensive line while Alabama very much revolves around the athleticism, speed, and tenacity of their linebackers.
It's a testament to Nick Saban's recruiting that the Tide can lose Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw in the first 35 picks of this past April's NFL Draft and still have a great linebacker corps.
It might be tough to think Alabama has a better unit when the Irish have a player with the most sacks (Shembo) and possibly the best player overall in the entire game in Manti Te'o, but the Tide may have just that.
Xzavier Dickson is young but wildly talented and improving. He's got tremendous size and adds a ton of speed on the edge. Ditto for Trey DePriest who is young but already playing at a high level.
We'd be here for a long time if I mentioned all the good things surrounding the play of C.J. Mosley. His stats are eye-popping given that he's playing in a low-volume defense and doesn't stay on the field for an entire game. As a 1st team All-American and likely 1st round pick had he decided to leave after this season Mosley is a terror on the field.
His forte is in pass defense where he has great instincts and lateral ability. Even though he's not considered a great down hill gap filler (hence why Johnson plays some snaps out of their base defense) Mosley plays really fast and is constantly around the ball. He plays with a physicality greater than his size and might be the best linebacker the Irish face all season.
Notre Dame's linebackers certainly played great this season---and outplayed expectations at nearly every position too---but Alabama's linebackers are more athletic and skilled.
It will be imperative that the Irish are able to get to the second level and block Alabama linebackers, that Riddick and Wood are winning some 1-on-1 battles near the line of scrimmage, and the Irish are turning away blitzes from Tide 'backers.
There will be gaps to run through for Notre Dame but they will close quickly. How well someone like Theo Riddick does in gaining 2 or 3 extra yards after contact will do a lot in determining the success of the Irish offense.
If the Irish defensive line can't keep the Alabama offensive line off the linebackers, it could be a long night for the blue and gold. The Notre Dame linebackers have been excellent tacklers this season and if they get to the ball carrier unblocked this could be the Swan Song for Te'o & the whole defense.