- Associated Press - Thursday, September 2, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IND. (AP) - Notre Dame’s leaky defense, the one that gave up yards in bunches a year ago _ especially during a four-game losing streak to end the season _ 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.

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