- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Bob Diaco wants to know if you are addicted to his culture. The reigning Broyles Award winner asks this after leading a mad-dash to the middle of Notre Dame's three practice fields once the team breaks for its first preseason session on campus. Over there, he will instruct a defense that returns a majority of its key pieces from a 2012 season that saw it finish second nationally in scoring.
He does all of this, mind you, while wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants in the second week of August.
"I like to get a sweat on out there," he says with a laugh, "and then when you're running around, if you slam into somebody or they slam into you, you've got a little extra cushion."
The 2013 season is now four days away, and Diaco and his players have been peppered with questions about turnover, expectations and encores.
Can Notre Dame function as well without Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o in the middle? Will another strong recruiting haul allow for more flexibility? And what, really, is the personality of this defense as it enters year No. 4 under this regime?
"I think it's going to be just a collective group of guys that enjoy each other, enjoy playing hard, enjoy doing and playing defense the way it should be and not necessarily that person that's going to be out in front, you know?" Diaco said. "I think it's just a group of guys that really love each other and love what they're preparing to do and collectively just want to be the best they can be."
The Irish were almost the best last year, running the table and leading the nation in scoring defense until Alabama ran and threw all over them en route to a six-touchdown display that most around here figured to forget rather quickly.
Diaco instead used that as a teaching moment this past spring. Diaco taught his players about Dan Gable, the Iowa State wrestling great whose only prep or collegiate loss came in the finals of his senior year. Gable, Diaco told his players, was able to turn his worst moment into his greatest, as the lone defeat propelled him to gold at the 1972 Olympics.
"Going back to the Alabama game, it wasn't how anyone wanted it to be and you've just got to remember those types of things," noseguard Louis Nix said. "You've got to remember, like, you don't want that to happen again; you want to be competitive, you want to go out and do great things -- 12-0 was all great, but we lost when it counted, and you think about that every day.
"Me? I watch the national championship at least three times a week, honestly, to remind myself I don't want that to happen again. Alabama's a great team, great O-line, great coaches, great quarterback -- you have to emulate a team like that. They work hard, they go out and compete very game. They leave no doubt that they should've been national champs; that's what we've got to do and I feel like if you compete and you go out and practice hard and you do all the things that are right -- because life is a circle, when you do good things you get good things out of it, when you do bad things it comes back to haunt you — so we've just got to keep working and hopefully maybe we'll make it back to the game and probably win."
Notre Dame seems to have the necessary pieces. Nix and fellow defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt could be high first-round draft picks with another year of output similar to that of 2012. The duo, along with sophomore Sheldon Day, form what figures to be among the best defensive lines in the country.
Eight starters were slated to return to the defense until dog linebacker Danny Spond announced his retirement during camp following a series of hemiplegic migraines. But there seems to be enough bodies from a 2013 recruiting haul that ranked No. 4 nationally to create more desirable alternatives than Notre Dame had in the past. (One of the newcomers, five-star linebacker Jaylon Smith, has joined the ever-improving Ben Councell in place of Spond.)
"So I think you have to look at it that we have some other pieces that might be a little bit stronger than they were last year, so I think you have to look at all 11,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “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."
Diaco avoids big-picture talk, instead focusing on individual aspects that can be improved upon.
Where most look back to last year and see a defense that exceeded expectations, he harps on "the myriad, bucketful, bushel basket-full of things we did wrong."
"We're not a flavor-of-the-month, flavor-of-the-year group in terms of tweaking, changing, creating energy propaganda to get the unit going," Diaco said. "We believe in our culture, we believe in our unit culture, we believe in our unit identity and those are based on core principles that we believe create a great defense. And what we're interested in is improving and raising the level -- even if it's .0001 percent, we're interested in raising that level, every player and every coach in that unit."
The man in the middle of it all last year recognizes that culture, and he sees no sign of it slowing down just because he is no longer there among it again.
"They have the potential to be good," Te'o, now with the Chargers, said. "Any year that they line up, they have the potential to be good, and they have a lot of weapons on defense. I'm confident that they'll carry on what they did last year and everything will be good."