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Notre Dame looks to defensive makeover in season opener

is pretty much old news. At least that's how Kerry Neal sees it.

There's a new coach, of course, in Brian Kelly, who brought defensive coordinator Bob Diaco along with him from Cincinnati. A different scheme, the 3-4, is taking over for the 4-3.

And for Neal, there's a move from defensive end — where he started five times a year ago — to outside linebacker, where he won a role as a starter with his play this preseason.

With Purdue coming to town for Saturday's season opener, it's time to see how much improvement the Irish have made — if they've plugged up the holes with their new system, if the changes make a difference.

"We just don't even look back at last year," says Neal, who beat out fellow senior Brian Smith to be a starter at outside linebacker along with Darius Fleming. "Out with the old, in with the new."

If he did care to recall last season, he'd see the 6-6 finish and a porous defense that allowed 397.8 yards per game, including 170.2 rushing. In that final month, Navy, Pitt, Connecticut and Stanford all had great success running against the Irish.

"I know you can't win championships without playing good run defense. I can tell you that right now," Kelly said. "And we'll get tested right out of the gates. Purdue is going to run the football."

The Boilermakers' running game features Al-Terek McBurse after last year's leading rusher Ralph Bolden injured his knee.

Up front for the Irish will be junior defensive ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore and senior Ian Williams at nose guard. Inside linebacker Manti Te'o started 10 games as freshman and will be calling signals and be joined on the inside for the first game by Carlo Calabrese, with projected starter Anthony McDonald slowed by a hyperextended knee.

"Our defense is pretty much the same guys who were there last year," Te'o says. "We've been through that, been through what we had to go through last year. We've seen the mistakes we've made and we know the corrections to those mistakes."

Safety Harrison Smith had a strong preseason camp and seniors Darrin Walls and Gary Gray will be on the corners.

But the linebackers could be a focal point. Neal could be rushing the passer or could be in coverage.

"I'll be out in space more," said Neal, who has 21 career starts. "I feel like I'm a pretty versatile guy. I can go out and cover and I can rush the passer. So it's the best of both worlds."

Don't expect Brian Smith, second on the team in tackles last season, to get sore from sitting on the bench, either, even if he didn't beat out Neal to start. Diaco says many of his players are interchangeable and he'll be using more than just the starters as the season progresses.

"Coaches expect everybody they put out there to be able to go out and get the job done," Harrison Smith said, adding that the new coaching staff has stressed keeping defensive calls simple and tried to make so many returning players comfortable.

"Just the way they came in and didn't try to make it like them versus us, which is what I've heard happens a lot of times when there is a coaching change," Harrison Smith added. "It was kind of, 'We all need to unite as fast as we can.' ... It made a lot of sense to me."

Diaco, a former star linebacker at Iowa, has stressed versatility and variety.

"You got to ask the players to do the things they can do well," he said. "Don't become too one-sided. I think we can move that way. It seems there are a lot of players who can do a lot of different jobs."

And Diaco's defense might not rest too much this season.

With Kelly's fast-paced offense, where the challenge is to score as quickly as possible, time of possession is not a big deal. Get off and let the defense play.

Diaco says working against such a potent spread offense every day in practice should be beneficial to his defense.

"That's a help," he said. "Just like it's a hindrance when you are going against a team that runs an offense that doesn't even remotely resemble anything your offense does. So there will be weeks that it will be an asset, there will be weeks it will be a liability."