A funny thing has been happening over the last couple of weeks around the 2017 Fighting Irish. Camp report after camp report has spoken very positively of the Notre Dame defense to the point where optimism is now building around the Irish defense. That’s right, the unit that has been butt of jokes ever since Bob Diaco’s departure following the 2013 season is getting glowing reviews in camp after the most recent open practice – Sunday’s New & Gold game.
I know, I know. I can hear the groans and see the eye rolls already. We’re not even out of camp yet and already the defense is back right? I get it and honestly, after the last three years of Notre Dame defense that is a very fair response. Some won’t want to hear about the defense improving, they will want to see it.
Brian Kelly raised some eyebrows a couple weeks ago when he said that the Notre Dame defense was ahead of the offense early in camp for the first time in a few years. That should be the case most years because offenses rely so much on timing and they need a few weeks of practice to get that down, but that hasn’t been the case at Notre Dame the last few years. Shocking, I know right?
In the practices that have been viewable to the media and/or the public, however, the proof has kind of been in the pudding. The Notre Dame defense has actually looked pretty good including Sunday when the defense showed some more promising results.
Does the Notre Dame Defense Have an Edge?
The reports out of the “New & Gold” game on Sunday paint the picture of a much more sound defense with more edge rushers than expected are hard to ignore.
One of the biggest questions heading into the off-season was on the edge of the Irish defense. Where would Notre Dame get a pass rush? The hope was that sophomore Daelin Hayes would take a big step forward and that Notre Dame would be able to find a couple other ends ready to play.
It sounds like that has happened. Hayes put on a show back in April in the Blue & Gold game and the hype around him has been building. Every report out of fall camp has pointed to a breakout sophomore season for Hayes. But we all knew – or at least hoped – Hayes would take that step forward.
It’s the development of Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji and the arrival of Kofi Wardlow that has some buzzing at the DROP position. I am still a bit skeptical about Wardlow potentially seeing the field – not because I don’t think he will be a great player but because he is just so raw. Playing him as a freshman to me could very much be just like playing Romeo Okwara as a frosh before he was really ready. And boy could Notre Dame have used Okwara last fall if only he had preserved that 5th year.
As for Julian Okwara, the younger brother of the New York Giant DE, I doubt we will see him on the field much on obvious running downs, but I think we will see him flash some real pass rush ability at times and end up with a sneaky 4.0-5.0 sacks season.
Ade Ogundeji might be a year away before he is really ready to make an impact but he will see some situational work and returns out of camp are very positive for his long term future. Not that I am comparing Ogundeji to a young Justin Tuck, but we could see a Tuck like redshirt freshman season from him. Tuck redshirted in 2001 before playing all 13 games as a pass rush specialist in 2002 picking up 5.0 sacks along the way. Ogundeji might not see that level of production but use as a pass rush specialist looks in order as one of the camp surprises.
On the strong side, Jay Hayes looks like he could finally be the player everyone thought Notre Dame was getting three years ago and Andrew Trumbetti has experienced a renaissance this summer. Add in sophomore Khalid Kareem and Notre Dame could be three deep at both defensive end positions. Who saw that coming?
Notre Dame Could Have Elite Linebackers
Notre Dame’s starting linebackers are taking to their new alignment in Mike Elko’s defense very well. Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, and Drue Tranquill give Notre Dame a really strong set of starters. Tevon Coney off the bench is like having another starter because he would start at a lof of schools and has has a good camp and Asmar Bilal isn’t that far behind Tranquil.
Outside of the top 5 there are a few depth concerns since Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones are both still developing. Coney’s been playing both the MIKE and BUCK and most likely would be the first man in at either position if needed.
Questions Still Remain
While there have been a lot of positives from the Notre Dame defense so far in camp, there are still some concerns that Notre Dame has to address – if they can. Safety and defensive tackle were the two biggest questions coming into camp and they remain the biggest with just about a week and a half until the season opener.
Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery should hold up OK but after those two Notre Dame could be in trouble if they need to rely on anyone else for major reps. Notre Dame has gotten some more productivity out of Micah Dew Treadway and Brandon Tiassum as they have in the past but it looks like the Irish will have to rely on a pair of freshmen for some reps too. Both Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are “off the bubble” and will be playing this fall because Notre Dame needs them to.
At safety, Notre Dame has been experimenting with Julian Love at safety because of the depth they have at corner and because of the depth they don’t have at safety. So far it doesn’t appear as any safety has really grabbed hold of the starting position. Jalen Elliot has had his moments and Devin Studstill has reportedly been improving at strong safety.
Nick Coleman who converted from corner appears to be the closest thing to a lock of a starter at free safety – especially with Alohi Gilman’s eligibility still not settled by the NCAA. Love wouldn’t be moonlighting at safety if the staff felt totally comfortable with Coleman though.
Notre Dame has a pair of impressive frosh at safety who have been playing well in camp – Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath – but both are better suited for strong safety. Genmark-Heath was one of the six freshmen Kelly said was off the bubbly over the weekend so look for him to play in some capacity.
Will This Translate When it Counts?
Now we have heard this all before – maybe not really under Brian Vangorder – but it’s commonplace to hear just how much better a unit is playing under a new coordinator. That said, the defense would be very hard pressed to be any worse. What is encouraging right now is that Notre Dame is showing that it might just be able to rush the passer.
Remember, Notre Dame has a pretty damn good offensive line – two of its five members were just named AP All-Americans. So if the defensive line is having any success against the Irish offensive line, that is at the very least encouraging.
Inevitability, the success or failure of this defense, however, will come down to those tackles and the safeties. Can Notre Dame’s patchwork interior line hold together enough to prevent the power rushing teams from running right at them? Notre Dame had trouble mustering much of a running attack on Sunday in the New & Gold game but that needs to be taken with a HUGE grain of salt given the circumstances.
Can the Notre Dame safeties this year just keep the catastrophic plays from happening and be in position at all times? Last year if the Notre Dame defense did just that, we are not talking about a 4-8 football team.
What’s encouraging so far in camp is that the defensive ends sounds like they are legitimately improved and deeper than we’ve seen in years, the linebackers could be an elite unit, and Notre Dame has as many as five corners who can play at a high level. For August that is about all you can ask for. A month from now we should know if the optimism was warranted.