Before Manti Te'o's fall from grace -- and the first round -- he totaled 113 tackles en route to a second-place Heisman Trophy finish.
Most of that was the product of Te'o's on-field smarts, athletic ability and hard work reading offenses. But without Louis Nix skillfully clogging up the middle, Te'o's stats may not have been as eye-popping last year.
Te'o's gone, but Nix is back. So is Stephon Tuitt, who may be the best defensive end not named Jadeveon Clowney in the college ranks. Opposite him in Sheldon Day, a highly-touted recruit who showed flashes of promise in his freshman campaign.
Notre Dame returns four linebackers with starting experience and adds Jarrett Grace to the mix -- but more on those guys later. The focus here is on a supremely talented defensive line, a group that looks like the engine of another excellent defense in South Bend.
Nix and Tuitt are projected to be first-round picks in the 2014 NFL Draft. They both struggled in the BCS Championship against Alabama, after which Nix insisted Notre Dame didn't get dominated but later referred to the game as an "ass whooping." Both players, though, were banged up -- Nix during the game, and Tuitt long before it.
Tuitt's production slowed in the final third of the regular season, to the point where coach Brian Kelly said: "there were some areas where we had to get him through week eight or nine or 10" (Tuitt dealt with a sports hernia issue during that time). He and Nix have now been through a full regular season as starters. In Tuitt's case, he had a shot at breaking Justin Tuck's single-season sack record before slowing in November.
While the top four guys on Notre Dame's defensive line -- that includes Tony Springmann, who can play both inside and outside -- are an encouraging bunch, the rest of the depth chart is relatively thin. Kelly was asked about that, using the SEC's stacked d-line depth charts as a reference, before spring practice.
"We're getting there. I think there's still work every year on the defensive line," he said. "I don't think there's any coach that's going to stand behind this microphone and say, we are so loaded in depth at the defensive line. Everybody feels like there's a hole somewhere.
"... When I look at our list with Tuitt, Nix, Springmann, I feel pretty good," he added, listing off Jarron Jones, Kona Schwenke and Justin Utupo as well.
Losing Eddie Vanderdoes -- the five-star defensive tackle who decided to attend UCLA instead of Notre Dame in early June -- was a blow not just to 2013's depth chart, but those in 2014 and beyond. Notre Dame signed only one other defensive lineman, four-star Georgia native Isaac Rochell, in its class of 2013 although it views 6-foot-5, 240 pound incoming freshman Jacob Matuska as an option as well.
2012 set the bar for Notre Dame's defense, not just in terms of success but in terms of where it needs to be (there's a reason SEC teams have won seven straight championships). Nix and Tuitt help comprise an in-the-trenches unit as good as you'll find in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi or South Carolina. The depth isn't there yet, but as long as Nix and Tuitt stay on the field it may not be a significant detriment to Notre Dame's chances this fall.