An Early Look at Notre Dame’s 2016 Defensive Depth

In 2016 Notre Dame will have to replace two of the most dominant players in college football – Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, but they are not the only stars the Irish will be tasked with replacing in 2016. On top of these two tremendous players, the Fighting Irish will have to replace captains Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley in addition to Romeo Okwara, Keivarae Russell, and Elijah Shumate.

Jaylon Smith, the Indiana native, and Butkus Award winner last season was considered to be a top ten pick in this year’s NFL Draft, until his injury in the Fiesta Bowl. Sheldon Day, another resident of the Hoosier State, was at times unstoppable for the Irish. Day will likely be selected in one of the early rounds of this year’s upcoming NFL Draft. Players such as Schmidt and Farley meanwhile will be leaving behind a lot of experience and leadership, something a young Notre Dame team will be looking for throughout the 2016 season.

With all of that in mind, here is a look at how the Irish defensive depth currently looks as the Irish enter the off-season.

Secondary

Taking a look at the secondary, the Irish will likely be starting Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian (assuming a 6th year is granted by the NCAA) at the safety positions. It is still unsure how big of an impact safety Max Redfield will play for the Irish in 2016. He was one of the best players in the country coming out of high school, but Redfield has had his share of ups and downs at the University. Incoming freshmen Devin Studstill and Spencer Perry will also be competing for playing time at the safety positions. Both Tranquill and Sebastian have seen their fair share of injuries. Tranquill was having the best game of his career at Notre Dame, helping stop the run game against Georgia Tech when he made a terrific play on the ball and jumped up in celebration. When he landed his leg crumbled underneath him and he injured his knee, a microcosm of Notre Dame’s injury filled season. Sebastian, a graduate transfer from California Berkeley never saw any playing time for the Irish in 2015 because of his injury. Hopefully his knowledge and age can help him become a key leader for next year’s defense and become the player the scouts had so highly ranked out of high school.

The cornerback position was a position of weakness for Notre Dame last season. KeiVarae Russell started off the season very slow, having missed the entire 2014 season. Towards the end of the season it appeared he started to find his rhythm, but he will unfortunately not be back for the Irish this season as he prepared for a NFL future.

Although the Irish are losing Russell, I was very impressed with Nick Watkins in the Fiesta Bowl. Notre Dame will need him to step up in order to have the defense that all Irish fans are looking for in 2016. On the opposite side of the field Cole Luke has been a consistent cornerback for the Irish. Although he hasn’t yet become a lockdown conrer, he also hasn’t been a liability for the Irish. I believe he definitely has the potential and his development will be a key factor for the Irish.

In addition to these cornerbacks Notre Dame will add Devin Butler, Shaun Crawford and possibly Torri Hunter Jr., and Shaun Crawford who was hurt before the season even started, and would’ve potentially been a starter for the Irish according to reports from Notre Dame Spring practices. I will be interested to see if Tori Hunter Jr. plays on the defensive side of the ball next season. He is a tremendous athlete, even playing on the baseball team, he will likely not receive much playing time because he will most likely be a starter this year at receiver. Butler meanwhile was set to start the Fiesta Bowl over Watkins before breaking his foot in practice.

Linebacker

While the losses in the secondary are substantial, the most important positions to replace on the defensive side of the ball will be in the linebacker corps. James Onwualu will come back at SAM with a lot of experience for the Irish. I can’t wait to see what Nyles Morgan can do for the Irish at MIKE after he had a tremendous freshman season where he racked up the tackles. Morgan could be a more athletic upgrade from Joe Schmidt last season if he has learned the ins and outs of the Notre Dame defensive required to captain the defense at the MIKE.

Te’Von Coney will likely take over Jaylon Smith’s spot at outside linebacker. He suffered a shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl which was the cherry on top to a horrible injury season for the Irish. When healthy, Coney will likely be battling for his position against Daelin Hayes, one of the top linebacker recruits in the country out of Michigan. He has a lot of athleticism and potential to be another great linebacker.

Some other linebackers who be pushing for playing time include Josh Barajas, Greer Martini, and Asmar Bilal. All of these linebackers will be competing for playing time this upcoming fall. One thing is for sure Brian Kelly will play who he thinks is best equipped at the linebacker position, regardless of how many stars they had coming out of high school.

Defensive Line

The defensive line can be a real strong spot for the Irish in 2016.  The return of Jarron Jones will be a huge boost for the Irish DL.  Jones showed in limited action in the Fiesta Bowl that he could be a disruptive force in the middle of the defense – even after not playing a meaningful down in over year.

Jerry Tillery had a really good season for the Irish in only his freshman year and could slid over to Sheldon Day’s vacated starting position. College football experts have already said that Tillery has the potential to be one of the best linemen in the country in the upcoming seasons if he lives up to his potential. He will be joined by Daniel Cage, Isaac Rochell, Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Grant Blankenship and most likely incoming stud freshman, Khalid Kareem.

I’m hoping that this line can put pressure on the quarterback next season. It seemed as though the only way to put pressure on the quarterback the last few seasons was to blitz – and even those blitzes were rarely effective. Hopefully the Irish can find success with only rushing four, and have a dominant defensive line similar to the 2012 Notre Dame team.

This depth chart is still to be determined as Notre Dame will look to add a few more names to the roster on National Signing Day in just a few weeks – especially 5-star LB’s Ben Davis and Caleb Kelly.  Still the two most important things to be aware of on the defensive side of the ball in 2016 are injuries and Brian VanGorder’s scheme. I can’t think of almost any sports team in the last year that had as many injuries as the Irish.

By the end of the Fiesta Bowl, the Irish were playing with backups at almost every position. Notre Dame’s best player, Jaylon Smith, got hurt and then their backup true freshman came in to the game to get hurt the very next drive sending in Jarret Grace, a senior who almost suffered a career ending injury just a short time ago. All of this on top of a third string cornerback, Tillery and Redfield’s suspension, and the season ending injuries to Crawford, Tranquil, and Sebastian.

On top of all these injuries the Irish have struggled under Brian VanGorder’s system. His aggressive style of defense has not turned out the way Irish fans had hoped. Countless mistakes on defense led to long touchdowns to wide open receivers and trick plays. The Irish definitely need to make some adjustments on the defensive side of the ball heading in to 2016 in addition to hoping for some better luck on the injury front. Brian Kelly has finally got his spread offense where it needs to be, now it’s time for the defense to return the Irish to glory.

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16 Comments

  1. I keep reading how impressive Nick Watkins was in the bowl. I must have watched a different game because what I saw was him giving a big cushion and giving up 9 yards on first down. Then he got beat deep and the receiver dropped a sure touchdown. We need to be better at DB

  2. As Captain Obvious said, “If you score more points than your D’ gives up, you’ll win every game.”!
    Most remember the Clemson loss as the failed two, forgetting the ND TO-fest that was the first half. The D’ was outstanding after the first two drives, holding Clemson to only 10 points. Team 127 gave up many big yardage plays, but made more big plays.
    Team 128’s O’ looks potentially as good as it’s been since . . . as long as most of the senior posters on this site have been watching ND play football. Scoring early and, at least, often gets you among the elite quicker than opting to rely on D’. And that’s not just ND if you haven’t noticed. Winning 10 despite more walking (and not playing) wounded than ever; but also too few forced TOs, and too little pressure on QBs (often the two go together) are two areas BVG’s schemes and personnel gotta improve on if ND128 is to win more than 10.

  3. Notre Dame can and will make the playoffs next year even with an average defense provided they dont have another injury riddled season. On paper it appears to be a soft schedule. The three toughest opponents Michigan State, Stanford, and USC will be breaking in new QBs with little to no experience. We get Mich St. and Stanford at home. ND no longer has to face Keenan Reynolds of Navy as he has finally exhausted his eligibility. ND has only two difficult road games against Texas and Usc. The remaining schedule is weak. Nevada, Army, Syracuse, NC St., Duke , Virginia Tech, and Miami. Very favorable home schedule.

  4. It’s not the personnel, it’s the coach. He’s had these guys for 2 full years and hasn’t taught them anything. He sux. He’s gotta go. VanNo must go.

  5. The loss of those key players on defense will be difficult if not impossible to replace. The defense at times
    was simply bad! Without Smith next season I cringe at what might happen. Van Gorder initially looked like he had things fully under control but then later, on numerous occasions, the wheels come off and he was unable to repair it. Inconsistent probably is the best way to describe it. The offense should have more than enough fire power to get the job done, maybe scoring 28+ per game, but will the “D” be able to stop anyone? Time will tell. Go IRISH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  6. @ Brad- 1) you ought to be nervous about our corners, this year, last year, and next- they’re competing against great receivers and excellent QBs who pass to them in practice A LOT! Advantage- THEM!
    and 2) there is no sacred ground at uhnd, . . . but I disagree. Too often, the completion took place last year and most plays because the QB had the time, and then some, to complete the pass.
    With BVG’s scheme, much is expected of the CBs and, like OL, we notice them most when they fail. Like the OL, who opened the hole, or gave KIzer the time to complete the game-winning bomb to Fuller,
    we take for granted each coverage that caused their incompletion, , or the CB who made the INT that cinched the SC win, or the tipped pass that led to another critical INT (see: K Russell).Then we enjoy and celebrate, until the next play is made against them. Not many of us would still be married if the wife put her attention on each of our missed opportunities. So it is in the fortune and fleeting fame of CBs.

  7. I agree with Peter. NFL draft notwithstanding, I was always nervous about our corners – and I may be treading on sacred ground here – especially Keverae Russell. I have the same hope about the new recruits.

    Of course no matter what they do… Go Irish!!!

  8. Returning Db’s still VERY worrisome-incoming frosh not withstanding. The holdover talent is not only thin, but in many cases, proven to be inconsistent and unreliable at best. I am very hopeful the new class of recruits is a true upgrade, and can contribute significantly to 128.

  9. I dont see Tori Hunter playing defense unless ND gets another dose of the injury blues. I certainly don’t see him playing both ways. I think he will have a breakout season taking over for Carlisle.

  10. If Hunter, the likely starter to replace Carlisle, is again playing as a DB, nothing could be more clear than the numerous DBs recruited the last few years must all be considered busts by BVG and BK. With that number and that depth, what else could a fan conclude?
    BTW! Why wouldn’t Max Redfield, the starting safety.remain as a starter?
    If you miss a meeting, don’t you get to play the next season?
    I wouldn’t be surprised if ND adopted that idea- adding to the absurdities of a long sordid history of overreacting to players’ mistakes. That would make several of our posters proud how ‘tough’ ND is on their student-athletes! Let’s all sing-along . . .
    ” . . .While they’re loyal sons go marching onward to suspension”

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