SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) _ His teammates are long gone by the time Notre Dame defensive end Melvin Dansby can take the ice packs off his swollen right knee and go home.

He watches most practices from the sidelines, his right leg heavily wrapped. The way coach Bob Davie talks, Dansby should be hobbling around, grimacing in pain.

But the fifth-year senior just smiles, straps on his pads and goes after opponents with a vengeance. Despite a knee that's so bad it makes his coach wince, he's having his best season ever.

``I haven't really been having any problems with it,'' said Dansby, downplaying the pain. ``The thing is, I'm still able to go pretty much full speed. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it feels good. But you've got to march on.''

He's done more than that, being one of the few bright spots on a weak and inexperienced Irish defense. He's the second-leading tackler with a career-best 83, 46 of which were unassisted. He leads the team in tackles for loss with nine for 28 yards.

In Notre Dame's last game alone, a 21-17 victory over Navy, he had 18 tackles.

``You look at a guy like Melvin Dansby who's playing on one knee _ maybe not even one knee _ and plays his best football game of the year,'' Davie said, shaking his head.

``Yeah, that's funny,'' Dansby said. ``You just put it out of your mind. You try to focus, you pray a lot. I just have to put faith in God and know that everything's going to be alright.''

If he seems calm, it's because he's endured worse. The Birmingham, Ala., native sat out the entire 1995 season after suffering a herniated disk in his neck during spring practice.

Surgery corrected the condition, but he couldn't even lift weights for about six months. He returned last season only to need surgery in the spring to repair torn cartilage in his right knee.

``It's kind of like the story of Job, `Why me, Lord?''' he said. ``But who am I to question? I'm just trying to go out here, do the best I can and help this team.''

Even with a 4-5 record, he still believes the Irish can go to a bowl game. They have to win their last three games to have even an outside chance at a bid, starting with Saturday's trip to No. 11 LSU (7-2), but Dansby thinks it can be done.

And he'll play that way until the last game is over.

``You can take it from the perspective, yeah, we're already done,'' he said. ``It's easy to make excuses when things aren't going well, but that just gives you extra motivation to try harder and harder as each week goes by.''

Besides, Dansby can't give up, he's got an example to set. His younger brother, Kevin, is a freshman linebacker for the Irish this year. The two have always been close, but with four years between them, this is the first time they've played together.

When Kevin Dansby delivers a bone-crunching hit during scrimmages, his brother is the first on the field to pound him on the helmet and congratulate him.

``It's just great having him around,'' Melvin Dansby said. ``I'm pretty much of a Momma's boy, so having him here is good enough.''

Though the knee might scare some pro teams off, Dansby said he still hopes to play in the NFL. He'll go to the combine, work out for a team, whatever it takes.

``Hopefully somebody will look at me and see that I can perform. The knee is not that big of a problem, I've been playing on it all year,'' he said. ``I can still give a lot to a franchise. I can still produce big plays. Hopefully they'll see that.''