2015 Notre Dame Football Pre-Season Defensive Unit Rankings

Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire
Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

This rating is easier to make than the offensive ratings, as the unit overflows with both veterans and experienced backups. Except for Jerry Tillery, frosh will play small roles.

We will update the ratings after the year’s fourth game, against UMASS.

Final Four Level


KeiVarae Russell was outstanding as a starter in 2013 and fully embraced the changes implemented by Brian Van Gorder in installing his new defense in the Spring of 2014.  Russell’s confidence and aggression were about to be unleashed.  Then the academic issue.

Russell returned in June 2015 fresh, fit, faster and stronger, albeit with some rust.  His declared intent is to win the Jim Thorpe Award.  The Irish will not face a significant passing attack until the visit to Clemson on October 3rd, and will not face a great passing combo until USC arrives in South Bend on October 17th.  Russell will be dialed in by then.   He should contend easily for all-America honors, possibly the Thorpe.  Russell is an eager tackler and will be an asset against the Georgia Tech and Navy option attacks.

Cole Luke would have been a solid lead cornerback, and will flourish evermore as second in command behind Russell.  Smooth in coverage, he is sound against the run, though short of Russell’s competence and effectiveness as a run stopper.

Russell and Luke are future NFL players.

After that it gets intriguing. Long Nick Watkins was the heir apparent to the third cornerback spot throughout the Spring with Matthias Farley slated to be the nickel.

Then came Todd Lyght, Summer, the frosh, Culver and Cartier.

Nick Coleman seemed to pass Watkins as the third cornerback but then suddenly arrived Devin Butler.

The current plan is for Russell to move into the nickel role with Butler, closing strong down the stretch as the cornerback choice on the downs when Russell plays nickel.

Van Gorder showed great skill and acuity with Farley at nickel last year. After a dreadful 2013, Farley was Lazarus in 2014, not merely rising from the dead, but snagging four interceptions, making 6.5 tackles for loss and garnering 3.5 sacks. Van Gorder, simply, weaponized the nickel position and it was much more than a slot cover corner. If Farley could garner 14 big plays imagine what Russell will harvest when he is turned loose simultaneously with Jaylon Smith being turned loose.

Coleman, having drawn rave reviews and consistent praise from Lyght, is still available as a dime or backup, Watkins is more than a gimme. Watkins is neither Josh Atkinson nor Jalen Brown. And while Farley seems to have been beaten out for the nickel, he is a nice man to have around the house.


Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate have put a tumultuous 2014 behind them and are eager pupils for Todd Lyght.  When focused and communicating, this is one of the better starting safety duos in the country, especially against the run. They combined for 34 tackles against USC and LSU.

Shumate is now a “rocked up” 224 pounds, and while renowned as a run stopper, he has some pass coverage skills as he demonstrated as the nickel when he was a callow freshman in 2012. Redfield needs to show more acumen against the pass.  But if Redfield has, indeed, “arrived,” then the Irish will have a “playmaker” at every level of the defense:

Sheldon Day DL

Jaylon Smith LB

KeiVarae Russell-CB

Max Redfield S

Playmakers make plays, the kind that disrupt long drives and force punts.

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While depth at safety is not as vital as at cornerback, this situation has improved.  Fresh in from Berkeley is Avery Sebastian. He has praised Notre Dame and both Kelly and Lyght have praised Sebastian. He has been making a late run at Shumate’s starting position.

Drue Tranquill, who showed flashes as a frosh has also made a remarkable Jarrett Gracian recovery from his injury. He is more comfortable close to the line of scrimmage than he is in space. Farley remains available for safety duty. Oft-injured Nicky Baratti was held out of contact in the Spring.

John Turner seems to be a squadman.

Mykelti Williams and Nicco Fertitta are both expected to redshirt.

The backups at safety and corner are not ready to start, but with Russell, Luke and Redfield as the stalwarts, there is a lot of depth for Todd Lyght to mix and match. Lost in the excitement over Lyght is the span of his NFL career. He came in as a blazer, an “Ath-uh-leet.” In his twilight Todd Lyght learned to extend his 12 year NFL career after the speed and athleticism had dwindled and he was surviving on craft, technique and guile.

Notre Dame will have the best secondary on the field in at least 11 regular season games. Let us wait and see until Michiana’s clocks strike midnight on October 17th to see if that number is 12, meaning that Notre Dame’s secondary just might concede nothing to USC’s.

Todd Lyght? Well, he is neither Kerry Cooks nor Bobby Elliott.

In 2012, Notre Dame went 12-0 with freshman KeiVarae Russell, senior Bennett Jackson, senior Zeke Motta and redshirt frosh Matthias Farley in the secondary, with Shumate as the nickel. Really! This 2015 bunch is leaps and bounds better than 2012.

Selection Committee Bowl Level

Defensive Line

This unit would have been rated as Final Four Caliber had Jarron Jones not suffered a season ending injury to his medial collateral ligament. When the dust settles after the Stanford game, Jones’ injury may turn out to wound Notre Dame more deeply than the departures of Everett Golson and Greg Bryant.

Keeping what was inherited on track and two outstanding recruiting harvests have given Brian Van Gorder and Keith Gilmore a lot to work with, a strong present and a bright future.

A lie has been exposed, a shameful, cowardly lie: Notre Dame can not recruit defensive linemen!

Sheldon Day returns for his senior year and will contend for All American honors.  Quick and disruptive, Sheldon creates havoc. His quickness is best deployed inside rather than having just another big massive defensive tackle in a sumo match with an offensive lineman. It has been observed that Day is playing better than he has ever before. Well, duh! Apparently player development really works. Day makes offensive line coaches yell at their players when they return to the sideline.

Jay Hayes, who drew first blood last year and is now up to 285, is the backup. He is a scrapper, a disrupter.

The other tackle got complicated when Jones went down. Jerry Tillery, Daniel Cage, and possibly Peter Mokwuah, Jake Matuska and Elijah Taylor will be called on to combine to replace Jones. Each of those five, even down to Taylor losing his redshirt, will be required to do more, sooner, than they would have if Jones could play, even if he eased into the season in September.

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Tillery was dazzling in the Spring, for a FRESHMAN.

He has been a challenge for the OL in the pre-Fall, for a FRESHMAN.

Later in the schedule, Clemson, USC and Stanford await. And it is hoped that two of American’s best teams await in the postseason. Even Tuitt and Lynch were not dominant as freshmen. The only two in the modern era to make that claim to freshman dominance were Steve Niehaus and Ross Browner.

Daniel Cage has size and quickness and showed flashes early, but wore down in the second half of the year.

Jake Matuska is somewhere north of being a squadman, and somewhere south of being a guy whose performance demands that he get into the rotation. In an ideal world, Mokwuah would be in the incubator for another year, and Taylor would keep the redshirt on.

Gilmore and Van Gorder have the whole four weeks to make the adjustments and coach the players up. Notre Dame will not face a great CONVENTIONAL, dual threat offense until October, and the linebackers and defensive backs may well be the key players against Georgia Tech.  This defensive tackle position is the Achilles Heel of the defense.
The ONLY one.

At defensive end, there is experience and depth.

Isaac Rochell has been designated as a “Beast.” He is bestial in setting the edge against the run, somewhat less threatening in the pass rush. He is ably backed by Bonner and the improved Grant Blankenship. Rochell is a solid 287, Bonner at 275, Blankenship at 273. Rochell needs to stay healthy but there is enough depth for Gilmore’s promised rotation.

On the other side, Romeo Okwara has a ton of experience and has bulked up to 270 lbs, 35 pounds more than when he arrived as a 17 year old frosh. Romeo will probably be the nominal starter, but Andrew Trumbetti is a virtual co-starter. With Doug Randolph showing some potential as designated pass-rusher, this is a solid three deep.

This defensive line, having been through the crucible of playing against Harry Hiestand’s Final Four Level two deep, will be solid against the run. While there is not a designated sackmaster of the front four, Gilmore’s ability to develop a pass rush is more proven than was Mike Elston’s.

On offense, all eyes are on Zaire. His performance is the fulcrum, the tipping point of the offense. On defense, it will be Jones’ vacated tackle spot that is the tipping point on the defense.

It is assumed that Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will redshirt.  They will have no impact in 2015 but this depth chart is building.  Here are the years the player’s eligibility expires:

2015 Sheldon Day, Romeo Okwara

2016 Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones

2017 Jake Matuska, Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, Doug Randolph, Daniel Cage, Grant Blankenship,

2018 Peter Mokwuah, Jerry Tillery, Jonathan Bonner, Elijah Taylor

2019 Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum,

2012 Julian Okwara, Jamir Jones, Adetokundo Okundeji

This DL is rock solid and deep at three of the four spots.


2014’s big question marks solidified and emerged throughout the offseason.

Jaylon Smith is an all American. He earned the honors in 2014 on his marvelous athleticism more than his on-field performance. But now he is now comfortable enough to be a team leader and all the light bulbs heaven allows have gone on. It is said that his grasp of the defense has emerged to the extent that it is nearly equivalent to Joe Schmidt’s.
You will not know the origin, method and direction of Jaylon Smith’s attack. That may be frustrating but is completely irrelevant. What is relevant is that the opposing quarterback will have grave difficulty in figuring out the origin, method and direction of Jaylon Smith’s attack. He is ready to wreak havoc in his second year in Van Gorder’s defense.

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At Will, he’s backed up by Tevon Coney, an early and successful entrant. Coney ought be an archetype for future defensive depth charts and player development. Ready to see the field, but kept on the bench because of the excellence of the player ahead of him.

Joe Schmidt is the starter at Mike. In 2014 that was mostly by default. He is backed up by Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace, he of the remarkable rehabilitation, a prowling “werewolf” once again. Two fifth year seniors and an experienced sophomore.

Schmidt now benchpresses 400 pounds, and his knowledge and guile generally overcome the lack of elite speed. This is not 2014. The three headed monster of Schmidt, Morgan and Grace may be the best three deep position on the entire defense. Morgan is similar to Coney in that the number of snaps he gets are not limited by his ability but by the excellence and depth at his position.

James Onwualu rallied late last year, with LSU his best game by a margin. Onwualu arrived at 6’1”, 205 lbs as a Wide Receiver in 2013. After a position switch, he was uncertain and shaky in 2014, but had a great Spring and put on slabs of muscle, now a toned 232 lbs.

The former safety/receiver is now a linebacker. Sort of reminiscent of the old Miami Hurricanes, moving defensive backs to linebacker, and linebackers to the defensive line (cue Doug Randolph). Onwualu and odds-on-favorite Max Redfield are the leading candidates for Most Improved Defensive Player in 2015.

Greer Martini is the nominal backup and had a fine Spring and quiet pre-Fall, but depth is least important at this position as it often gives way to the nickel. The base defense is a 4-3, but it will intriguing to await statisticians’ count of what percentage of plays the Irish deploy the 4-2-5.

This area received lots of preseason praise and rankings, but let’s wait until three questions are answered

  • Is Smith’s weaponization “hype” or “reality?”
  • Has Onuwualu really improved?
  • Are Schmidt and Grace fully healthy?

If all three are answered affirmatively in the first four games then this unit will quickly be advanced to Final Four status.

The Irish have enough depth so that Asmar Bilal, showing some promise, and Josh Barajas, showing that he is out of shape, will probably redshirt.

Look for extra linebackers, like Martini, Coney and Morgan, to be key pieces in Van Gorder’s chess matches with Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo.

This unit will benefit from the experience and depth in front of it and behind it.

These Units are rated much higher than the Offensive Units. It is experienced from a year ago when losses (Utopu, Riggs and the injured Collinsworth) were minimal. Depth, albeit unfortunately and prematurely was developed. Then the team added reinforcements in Russell and Sebastian.

Coaches don’t play, but don’t sleep on Lyght’s importance.

Enjoy the experience on this unit. Notre Dame will not have this much experienced depth for years to come.

Go Irish!

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  1. I hope the Irish have prepared for Texas with the same intensity that they had while getting ready for LSU!


  2. I believe the season depends on how well the defensive line plays this year. We HAVE to be able to get pressure with our front 4 without bltzing. Opposing teams last year burned us when we blitzed! Having Russell back helps a ton but losing Jones is a huge setback. Overall this is Brian Kelly’s most talented roster top to bottom and I can’t wait for the season to kick off!

    Notre Dame needs to recruit better at the defensive line position. It is the most important position in college football and if the person who wrote this thinks we are fine with the quality we have now you are sadly mistaken.

  3. Schmidt benches 400???….BFD, what D1 MLB doesn’t? He already has proven he is a great FB player. The guy is everywhere. He never was a question mark in my mind.

    I am super excited to see this team in action. The players and coaches are awesome.

    Go IRISH

  4. Not a bad bet for having never seen the guy play at the college level.

    But if you get the chance, take a look at Morgan in the game against Louisville
    last year and his hit on their QB.

    Yeah he was a hair late and got booted for targeting…. but it gives you a peek at his skill, athleticism, and pass rush mentality.

  5. @shazamrock: I wouldn’t be surprised if Tillery eventually moves to end and ends up the elite pass rusher in the bunch.

  6. The current consensus is that it will be a pass rush by committee which is reasonable considering
    that Van Gorder likes to bring pressure from all areas of the field and from all positions.
    This approach is good in that it keeps opposing offences guessing, while also making your defense less predictable, and keeps the guys on defense motivated and involved.

    But it’s hard to fathom that Van Gorder, entering his second year, and in the style he likes to play, along with his experience in the NFL, hasn’t identified and began developing at least one or two players as elite pass rushers.

    Question is, who would that be.

    My first guess would be guys with good Length, power, and quickness.
    Guys like Romeo Okwara and Isaac Rochell. ( 6’4” ish, and in the 270-280 range)

    Next would be someone with excellent quickness, explosiveness, combined with an aggressive “seek and destroy” mentality.

    Aside from the obvious choice of Jaylon Smith, I kind of get that vibe from Nyles Morgan.

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