- Erin Kirkland/Daily
By Zach Helfand, Daily Sports Editor
Published September 3, 2013
No one would ever accuse Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III of being petite, so Devin Funchess had to catch himself after practice Tuesday. The Fighting Irish defense suffocated Michigan last year, Funchess said, because of their overpowering front seven.
Funchess, a sophomore tight end, said Notre Dame’s defensive line in particular was especially fearsome, and this year it returns two of three starters.
“The D-line, all three of those little guys right there — ” Funchess said, then stopped. He raised his eyebrows. “Not little,” he said. “They’re kinda big.”
Even that underplays the size of the three Irish linemen. Defensive end Sheldon Day, the smallest of the bunch, is 290, and he is dwarfed by his teammates. The other end, Stephon Tuitt is 6-foot-6, 312 pounds. He is an All-American.
In the middle, though, Nix’s size is unparalleled. He goes by the name Irish Chocolate. He is listed at 342 pounds. That is exactly two Channing Striblings. It’s more than two Dennis Norfleets.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges said the defensive line will be the toughest Michigan will face this year. And as the Wolverines prepare for it this week, they must first solve one question: how do they replicate Nix?
One reporter asked Borges if Michigan would use one scout-team player to simulate Nix or two. He was only half joking. Borges laughed.
“Boy, he is a load,” Borges said. “He’s not easy to move.”
Still, as Borges talked Tuesday, inspiration struck.
“We’ll find somebody,” Borges said. “Matter of fact, I have somebody in mind as you speak. Not going to say who.”
Whomever Michigan picks, he’ll still be considerably lighter than Nix. Borges said the coaching staff prefers to keep scout-team players at their natural positions. The Wolverines have some hefty offensive linemen, but less on the other side of the ball. Michigan’s bulkiest defensive lineman is sophomore Ondre Pipkins, at 315 pounds, but he plays significant minutes. Redshirt junior Richard Ash is 314 pounds, 28 less than Nix.
Borges said scout-team players take a certain pride in weeks like this. Tuitt’s double, for example, must create some resemblance to the All-American.
Fifth-year senior Quinton Washington, Michigan’s own, smaller version of Nix, remembers playing on the scout team during Notre Dame week. Back then, Washington was an offensive lineman. He had to block Brandon Graham.
“You could just tell the difference between that week and different weeks,” Washington said. “It was a different feeling. You got hit a lot differently being on the scout team.”
Last year, Notre Dame rode its dominant defense to the national championship game. Pressure from the front seven stifled Denard Robinson and held him in check earlier in the season. Michigan threw five interceptions in the loss in South Bend. Borges said Tuesday that the pressure caused the mistakes.
Both Borges and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly mentioned on Tuesday that Michigan has a much different offense than in past years. The new offense emphasizes the downhill running game. But Kelly has constructed his defense to defend that.
“Well, we’re built that way,” Kelly said at his press conference Tuesday. “We’re a bigger, physical football team. We prefer that kind of match up.”
Kelly said Tuitt could play “quite a bit” against Michigan’s own All-American, fifth-year senior left tackle Taylor Lewan. But he’ll also play on the other side of the line. Kelly added that Temple had triple-teamed Nix at times last week.
That’s what happens when you’re 342 pounds. More frightening, Nix has played more consistently than last year, when Notre Dame gave him frequent breathers. Even so, Manti Te’o, who finished second in the Heisman voting last year, said he would have voted for Nix, according to the New York Times.
Washington weighs 41 pounds less than Nix, but he can relate. He came to Michigan at 330 pounds. The size works for Nix, but it’s not for everyone.
“I’ll never get back to it,” Washington said. “It was horrible.”