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Are We Better or Worse: The 2014 Notre Dame Defensive Front Seven

Is it possible to get better next year without Nix, Tuitt, and Shembo?

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the second installment of our Better or Worse series. Last week we looked at the back end of the defense:

Are We Better or Worse: The 2014 Secondary

Today, we look at the defensive front seven.

*Rankings are from 1 (poor) to 10 (great).

2013 Front Seven (prediction from 5/14/13)

Experience- 8.3

Depth- 8.4

Versatility- 7.9

Talent- 9.1

Productivity- 9.1

Reading content from this time last year on the defense is just straight up depressing. Look at me, handing out a 9.1 productivity prediction!

Nearly improved rankings across the board---just like the secondary---which means the 2013 Irish defense should be better than last year. As we know, the games are not played on paper though. Anyone willing to throw down a bet that this year's defense is even better?

I don't think anyone (except Wild Bill Rubin) was really comfortable predicting a better defense than 2012. Still, these front seven projections look pretty foolish in retrospect.

What went right for this group in 2013? Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, and Danny Spond were all lost due to injury before the season opener. Jarrett Grace ended up missing the final 7 games of the season. Louis Nix missed 5 out of the final 6 games. Ben Councell missed the last 4 games. Sheldon Day missed 2 full games and was banged up nearly the entire season, Kona Schwenke missed a game, and Tuitt came into the season 30 pounds overweight while never rounding into form except for the USC game.

Did I miss anything? Oh yeah, the coaching staff had a plug-and-play 5-star defensive tackle ripped away from them for mysterious reasons a few months before the season.

The sacks from 2012 to 2013 went from 33 down to 21, rush defense from 105 yards per game up to 168 yards per game, and the national-leading 4 touchdowns surrendered on the ground in 2012 went up to a still respectable but worse 13 scores.

I'd give the 2013 front seven a retroactive productivity of 7.9 and I think you could go lower if you wanted to factor in expectations that were not met, particularly by the defensive line.

2014 Front Seven

Experience- 4.7

Depth- 7.2

Versatility- 8.1

Talent- 8.0

Productivity- 8.0

There's no hiding from the lack of experience heading into this season. Right now, I'm not including Jarrett Grace in these projections. Overall, just one player is back (Jaylon Smith) who started every game last year and without Grace only a total of 23 career starts return from the entire front seven.

Elsewhere I think Notre Dame is in decent shape and Brian VanGorder's defense should help add a little more oomph to the front seven. If this we're still Diaco's defense someone like Matuksa might still be a year away from consistent playing time, a young freshman DE like Trumbetti might not see the field at 250 pounds, teams would be running away from Jaylon Smith, and we would be asking Sheldon Day to 5-tech more often rather than unleash his skills more as a 3-tech.

With less emphasis on size this year it opens the door to more depth helping out. We can debate the merit's of Bob Diaco's BBDB defense but VanGorder certainly should add a lot more versatility with his scheme.

I'm a lot more worried about the safety position than anything up front on this defense. I expect a lot of nickel packages and that decreases the need to find 3 every down linebackers, especially early in the season.

Will we give up more yards on the ground than last year? It's possible but I wouldn't count on it just from the virtue of losing Air Force and BYU from the schedule. Those two teams combined for 537 rushing yards (24.5% of the rush yardage surrendered in 2013) and I don't know if 2 or 3 additional teams (assuming Navy, Stanford, and FSU have strong rushing efforts) are going to be averaging 200 yards against the Irish.

Even if we assume the rushing defense takes a small step back will this front seven improve on being 83rd in sacks, 99th in tackles for loss, 117th in fumbles forced, and 120th in fumbles recovered? I'd be willing to throw down a bet that those numbers are a lot more positive for Notre Dame in 2013.

I really like the combination of Jones and Day on the interior and believe many are sleeping on the talent of this duo. We're not going to see a 2012 defense up front anytime soon, but 2013 fell way below expectations and I don't see any reason why this front seven can't be as solid as the 2011 defense if there is quality health for an entire season.