For all of the attention Brian Kelly receives for his offensive wizardry, it has been his commitment to building a powerhouse defensive line that has keyed Notre Dame's return to prominence.
Of course, we have always heard coaches wax poetic about defensive football keying championship runs, but the Fighting Irish's run to the BCS National Championship game was unquestionably keyed by the dominant performance of a defensive line chock full of NFL-caliber talent, particularly Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt.
The talented tandem combined for 97 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, while wreaking havoc at the point of attack with their collective size, strength and athleticism. In fact, the duo's effectiveness at the line of scrimmage played a major role in Manti Te'o's success as a disruptive playmaker in the box. With Nix and Tuitt commanding double-team attention, Te'o frequently shot through gaps unimpeded to deliver explosive hits on running backs and quarterbacks in the hole. While most productive linebackers benefit from standout play at the point of attack, the presence of a pair of difference makers certainly helped Te'o thrive as the designated playmaker in the middle.
Nix, who measures 6-foot-2, 357 pounds, is an athletic nose guard with underrated quickness and movement skills. He shows exceptional lateral agility within the box, which is remarkable for a player of his size. As a run defender, he is an explosive power player capable of creating disruption at the point of attack with his ability to overwhelm opponents with his sheer strength. Additionally, he is a devastating defender against double teams, routinely splitting the crack to make plays on runners in the backfield.
Studying Nix's game tape, I was surprised by his savvy and skills as a pass rusher. Unlike most nose tackles of his stature, Nix is more than a pocket pusher. He effectively uses a "snatch and shed" maneuver to work past interior blockers on pressure attempts. Although his sack numbers are minimal, he reminds me of Vince Wilfork as an interior pass rusher.
Tuitt, who stands 6-foot-6, 322 pounds, is an ultra-talented five technique (defensive lineman who plays on the outside shoulder of the offensive tackle) with a tremendous combination of size, speed and athleticism. He flashes extraordinary snap-count anticipation and first-step quickness, which makes him difficult to block on the interior on single blocks. Tuitt complements his superior movement skills with terrific hand skills and upper-body strength. His ability to play with strength, power and leverage not only makes him an effective run defender, but it also makes him a problematic pass rusher as a defensive end in a three- or four-man front.
When I watched Tuitt's sack reel, I was impressed with his ability to win with finesse or power on the interior. He uses a variety of moves and techniques to defeat blockers at the point of attack, which is uncommon for a young defender. The fact that he has already started to sequence his moves indicates his game could improve dramatically this season as he enters his third season at Notre Dame.
Kelly has quickly put Notre Dame back on the national radar by relying on a suffocating defense fueled by a pair of NFL-caliber defensive linemen. While the stellar play of Nix and Tuitt might not be enough to key another run at the BCS title game, it will certainly encourage a host of NFL scouts to trek to South Bend to get a first-hand look at one of the dominant defensive duos in college football.
Word on the street
Longhorn receiver could have special season: The sight of Mike Davis near the top of Gil Brandt's list of top prospects might have surprised some observers, but it certainly doesn't rank as a startling development in the scouting community.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound speedster was considered a potential first-round selection a season ago when he flirted with the idea of entering the draft following a spectacular junior campaign during which he averaged 16.5 yards per catch with seven touchdowns. In fact, I recently spoke to an NFC college scouting director who rated Davis above DeAndre Hopkins, Justin Hunter and Robert Woods in the 2013 class. When asked about Davis' most impressive traits, the long-time evaluator cited his "explosiveness" and big-play ability. He finished by telling me that Davis has "all of the tools to be special."
Breaking down the All-22 coaches' tape of Davis from his junior season, I came away impressed with his ball skills, route-running ability and homerun potential as a No.1 receiver. Although I don't believe Davis is a speedster, he has a knack for getting behind defenders on vertical routes, which is a testament to remarkable skills as a deceptive route runner. Additionally, Davis displays exceptional ball skills and hands by routinely snatching 50-50 balls from defenders on deep throws. He complements his spectacular skills as a deep-threat artist by showing fantastic running skills in the open field. He routinely turns short passes into big gains, which makes him a valuable weapon in an offense that places a premium on yards after the catch.
Davis is not a household name at this stage of his career, but scouts are certainly familiar with his game. However, a strong performance as a senior will not only put him on the national radar, but it could help him catapult ahead of some of the notable underclassmen receivers poised to make the 2014 draft one of most talented classes in recent memory.
Good reason to watch Buffalo games this fall: Casual college football observers likely didn't recognize the name Khalil Mack when checking out the college football all-star team piece penned by Daniel Jeremiah and I earlier this week, but the University of Buffalo standout linebacker is undoubtedly one of the best defenders in college football.
Measuring 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Mack has been the buzz of the NFL scouting community for more than a year based on his extraordinary combination of athleticism, toughness and instincts. He is a natural playmaker adept at creating disruption as a pass rusher, while also showing solid skills in coverage. Although most evaluators covet Mack primarily because of his rush skills (18 career sacks, 56 tackles for loss and 11 forced fumbles), the fact that he can capably drop into intermediate zone or handle some man-to-man assignments makes him a valuable commodity as a potential hybrid player at the next level.
When I asked an AFC scout about Mack a season ago when the buzz started circulating about a possible jump to the NFL, he told me that the Buffalo star could be an immediate impact player at the next level based on his size, speed and motor. At the time, he had him rated as a second-round talent, but thought that it was quite possible that he would emerge as a first-round pick by the end of the process.
Although one opinion certainly doesn't guarantee Mack's status as arguably the top prospect in the MAC, the fact that he has been roundly discussed in NFL circles as a potential difference maker will have plenty of scouts trekking to Western New York to check out the small-school standout.