Despite the loss of Te'o, Kelly thinks Notre Dame defense will be just as good
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Linebacker Dan Fox might embody the difference in Notre Dame's defense this season.
Fox is taking the linebacker spot left vacant by Manti Te'o.
Fox, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound graduate student from Rocky River, Ohio, isn't as flashy as Te'o and doesn't jump around like last year's Heisman Trophy runner-up. But the No. 14 Irish are counting on Fox and his teammates to provide the same type of dominance that led the Fighting Irish to the national title game last season.
"I just think it's a different attitude," Fox said, who this summer got his hair cut for the first time in four years. "It's a workmanlike attitude."
Fox is one of seven returning starters from a squad that last season ranked seventh in the nation in total defense, giving up 305 yards a game. The last time the Irish put together back-to-back top-10 finishes in total defense was in 1973, when it was No. 2 in total defense and won a national championship, and a season later, when it led the nation in total defense and finished 10-2. Those were Ara Parseghian's final two years as head coach of the Irish.
Head coach Brian Kelly conceded during media day Thursday that neither Fox nor Jarrett Grace, who also is expected to see playing time at the spot vacated by Te'o, will be as dominant. But Kelly believes the other starters are better, which could allow the Irish to be more aggressive.
"I think you have to look at it that we had some other pieces that might be a little bit stronger than they were last year," Kelly said. "So I think you have to look at all 11, we lose a great player in Manti Te'o, but we gain some other pieces that I think are stronger this year across the board."
Kelly said the Irish defense may not need to be as dominant because he's expecting better play from the offense, which ranked 54th in the nation in total offense and 78th in scoring offense.
"A bigger piece falls on the offense than it does on the defense," he said. "If the defense can stay within the same area code as last year defensively and we really up our offensive output, then we can have the kind of year we're all looking forward to."
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco isn't interested in comparisons with last season's team, saying coaches and players are focused on this season.
"I just don't think it's part of the way our brains work and our hearts operate," he said.
The strength of the Irish defense is expected to be on the line, where nose guard Louis Nix III and end Stephon Tuitt are mentioned as possible first-round draft picks. Irish defensive players say they believe they can be better because they are more experienced and have more depth.
"It's pretty much more of a team defense," linebacker Carlo Calabrese said. "We don't have just one guy standing out this year. We have a bunch of guys that can play and a bunch of guys that can lead. I think that will be great for our defense."