Replacing Notre Dame’s ’14 NFL Bound Talent: Defense

Romeo Okwara - Notre Dame DE
Romeo Okwara in action during the 2013 Notre Dame Blue-Gold Game. Okwara will step into a starting role in 2014 for the Fighting Irish. (Photo: Robin Alam/Icon SMI)

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Notre Dame might not have that tough a time replacing the offensive talent it lost to the NFL this off-season even though Zack Martin will be remembered as one of the best offensive linemen in school history.  It’s a different story on the defensive side of the ball where the Irish will have a tougher time replacing some rare defensive talents this year.

Don’t get me wrong.  Notre Dame has a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball and the players ready to step in for the departed future hopeful NFL stars have the potential to fill in well, but at the same time Notre Dame has more questions on defense where they have to replace two defensive linemen who went in the first 83 picks in the Draft.

Complicating matters for Notre Dame on defense is a new scheme that has been brought in by new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.  While Brian Kelly and VanGorder himself has said that Notre Dame will still be playing with a lot of 3-man fronts as they had under Bob Diaco, it is widely believed that the 2014 Irish will be playing more of a traditional 4-3 defense most of the time.

Ishaq Williams - Notre Dame DE
Ishaq Williams in action against OKlahoma in 2013. Williams will be called on to help replace Stephon Tuitt. (Photo: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

Ishaq Williams and Sheldon Day will team up to replace Stephon Tuitt

Replacing Stephon Tuitt, a 2nd round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers, is going to be a team effort between Sheldon Day and Ishaq Williams.  When Notre Dame plays in 3-man fronts, Day figures to play in Tuitt’s old end position.  When the Irish are in 4-man fronts though, it will be Williams, a one time 5-star recruit looking to finally fulfill his lofty recruiting hype, who plays on the end of the Notre Dame defensive line.

Between Day and Williams, VanGorder has a lot of talent to work with in replacing Tuitt, but both Day and Williams have not quite found their stride.  Day came into the 2013 season with some high expectations but nagging injuries slowed the Indianapolis native all season and he was never quite 100%.  A full off-season removed from those injuries and a breakout spring later has raised expectations for Day once again.

Williams on the other hand enters his final collegiate season with one last chance to show that his 5-star ranking out of high school was legit.  Williams struggled trying to play as a true outside linebacker throughout his first three seasons but played well when he got to put his hand on the ground and rush the passer – something he will be doing a lot of in VanGorder’s defense.

Another combo effort will be needed to replace big Louis Nix

Just like with Stephon Tuitt, Notre Dame will likely not replace Louis Nix with just one player.  Nix surprisingly fell all the way down to the 3rd round in the Draft despite being considered a first round talent by many draft analysts.  Despite being selected lower than his fellow linemante Tuitt though, it might be even tougher for Notre Dame to replace Nix.

Louis Nix has something that you just can’t coach – massive size paired with athletic ability.  Notre Dame simply does not have another player with Nix’s size to just step right in.  Nix’s late season injuries did, however, give junior to be Jarron Jones an extensive audition for replacing the jovial big fella.

In Nix’s absence, Jones played better than anyone could have hoped and showed why he was considered a 4-star prospect himself coming out of high school.  Jones does not have the size of Nix but with Notre Dame playing more 4-man  fronts in 2014, that won’t be as much of an issue for the Irish.  Tony Springmann will also be in the mix with Jones after missing the entire 2013 with a torn ACL.  Springmann provided solid depth behind Nix in 2012 and if he is healthy will see plenty of action in 2014.

Cole Luke - Notre Dame CB
USC Trojans WR Nelson Agholor (15) loses the ball as he is hit by Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) and cornerback Cole Luke (36) in the fourth quarter of Notre Dame’s 14-10 victory in 2013. (Photo: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

Cole Luke will make for a smooth transition from Bennett Jackson at CB

One position where Notre Dame could potentially not skip a beat on the defensive side of the ball is at corner where Cole Luke will start opposite Keivarae Russell in 2014.  Jackson had a standout season in 2012 as the Irish defense carried Notre Dame to the title game.  Like the rest of the Notre Dame defense though, Jackson took a step backwards in 2013 as he battled through an undisclosed injury.

Luke played as a true freshman for Notre Dame and more than held his own while on the field.  Coming out of high school, Luke was one of the highest rated corners for Notre Dame in a few years and his play backed up his rankings.  He may have some growing pains along the way – especially since a lot of attention will be coming his way as opposing offense steer clear of Keivarae Russell – but he has the talent to give Notre Dame an outstanding pair of starting corners.

Prince Shembo’s former high school teammate, Romeo Okwara, will follow in his footsteps

Romeo Okwara followed Prince Shembo to Notre Dame from Ardrey Keil High School and after a couple of seasons playing behind him, Okwara will step into Shembo’s vacated role in the Irish defense.  While Okwara won’t technically play the CAT position as Shembo did since VanGorder’s defense doesn’t have a CAT – Okwara will be playing the same role Shembo played for the Irish.

Okwara had one of the best springs of any Notre Dame defender making huge strides towards learning his position in the Notre Dame defense, but still has a lot to learn before the season kicks off at the end of August.   If he can provide some more consistency than Shembo provided though Notre Dame will be in good shape here.  Shembo had some monster games in his Notre Dame career, but the problem always was that those monster games were usually followed with long stretches where Shembo wasn’t able to get to the opposing quarterback.

Jaylon Smith - Notre Dame LB
(Photo: Robin Alam / Icon SMI)

Notre Dame still looking for some answers at linebacker

The linebacking corps for Notre Dame are still a bit in flux as the Irish attempt to replace Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox.  Jaylon Smith played primarily inside during the spring and figures to play there a lot this season as Notre Dame plays with more 4-man fronts.  Smith might not be a prototypical middle linebacker, but he is the best player on the Notre Dame defense and Brian Kelly and Brian VanVorder clearly want to build their defense around him.

Joe Schmidt played the SAM position for much of spring and Kelly said after the Blue and Gold game that right now it will be tough to take him off the field at the position.  Schmidt is a great story but the argument can be made that Notre Dame is not going to close the gap with the Alabamas of the world by starting former walkons at key defensive positions.

Jarrett Grace’s injury status is still very much in the year and the closer we get to the season the more likely it is that Grace will be limited at best to start the season and at worst might not be a factor at all as he recovers from his gruesome injury in last year’s Shamrock Series game.   Ben Councell will be coming off an ACL injury in 2014 as well and how much the Irish can expect from him and where he fits into the new defense are both questions that do not have answers right now.  Kendall Moore is back for a 5th season after a strong close to the 2013 season, but he is one player who might benefit the least from the new defensive schemes.

Overall, Notre Dame has a lot of talent to work with on the defensive side of the ball in 2014, but the Irish have not had a pair of defensive line like Tuitt and Nix to have to replace in the same season for a long time.  Sheldon Day has star potential, but needs to stay healthy for an entire season to really make his presence felt.  The key on defense will be Williams.  If Williams can play anywhere close to his former 5-star rating in 2014 after merely showing sporadic flashes over his first three seasons, the Notre Dame defense could take a big step forward in 2o14.

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  1. Woody, I have had to restrain myself when talking about Jaylon Smith.

    His interception against USC was the best defensive play I’ve ever seen in
    Notre Dame Stadium, surpassing Browner’s cross field tackle of Tony Dorsett early in the ’76 Pitt game, which surpassed Browner’s blocked kicks on successive plays (the first was wiped out by a penalty against USC in ’75.

    He’s such an RKG too; he’s spent a lot of time working with Drue Tranquill even from a distance, helping acclimate to the rigors of the Same linebacker.

    I just want to enjoy watching Jaylon Smith as long as we have him.

  2. The key is the corners. If they can lock down coverage on both sides for an extra beat, the DL will have a better shot at the QBs, and it will take pressure off the middle of the field by allowing a safety to cheat toward the slot, and/or provide run-stop support. DBs and DLs supporting the green LBs in both directions.

  3. Jaylon Smith might be the best athlete we ever had….and that is saying something pretty outrageous.

    ND defense to be a nice surprise in 2014.


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