What To Watch For On Defense: Notre Dame Football Spring ’17

Photo: © Matt Cashore // USA TODAY Sports

I lectured on about how much I love spring practice in part 1 of this series, so check that out if you’re like me and you can’t get enough of whatever kind of football is being played.

This is a special time for the Notre Dame defense as it marks the first full spring since it ridded itself of the various sub-packages and blitz schemes that didn’t work under Brian VanGorder. I think we’ve all gotten our shots in, it was cathartic, it got us through the last few years. Now it’s time to judge Mike Elko on his own merits and what he can do for the defense that has been at times abysmal the last couple of seasons.

As with the offense, these are the things I’ll be watching for while following spring practice this year, not necessarily a value judgement on what it is most important at each position. Different strokes for different folks. The offense will garner lots of attention because of the new quarterback, but if there is a side that needs really good vibes coming out of it, it’s the defense.

Defensive Line

Are we sure that Jerry Tillery is good?

So the running narrative regarding Jerry Tillery and his play is he’s an uber talented player who has underachieved because his heart isn’t always in the game. If you go back and look, the reason his hype level is so high is because of the things Brian Kelly said about him in the spring of 2015 when he was an early enrollee freshman from Louisiana. He said Tillery had some of the best hands and quickness of any young player he’s ever coached and he expected him to be a key player for the Irish in 2015. This is something Kelly has done on more than one occasion, remember that he called Alex Bars the best young lineman he’s seen in 25 years as a coach. Whether this was to motivate these two guys or to push another player through comments in the media, Kelly hasn’t done either player any favors.

It’s hard to decide what to make of Tillery and what we should expect from him as he enters his junior season as a presumptive starter on the defensive line. In two years on the defensive line he’s tallied 49 tackles, five tackles for loss, and one sack. That’s not great production, especially from a disruption stand point. It should be noted Tillery came in as an offensive line prospect so it may be a case of a young player learning a new position under a somewhat complicated scheme, which has effected his effectiveness as a playmaker. Maybe he wasn’t ready for more than just being a guy playing a role on a defense.

I think it’s safe to assume Notre Dame thinks Tillery is capable of much more, I don’t think Kelly made anything up, so we should expect more from him. Just how much more remains to be seen and it isn’t immediately clear what his ceiling is as a player. Hopefully spring practice wills shed some light on that.

Questions I want answered: Is he consistent with his effort on a day to day basis? Is he consistently winning against Quenton Nelson? What is his fitness level?


Can Nyles Morgan be a star?

In 2016, the Mike linebacker for Wake Forest tallied 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss (yes, you read that right), 7.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. If Nyles Morgan repeats those numbers, Notre Dame will be successful on defense, it’s that simple. Granted, a lot of those numbers has to do with factors outside of Morgans control, like how the defensive line performs in front of him, but Morgan will be put in a  position to make a ton of plays. The star of the Mike Elko defense comes from the Mike linebacker spot, and it’s Morgans time to shine.

Morgan was just pretty good last year as the full time starter in the middle. He led the team in tackles and sacks, but neither of those numbers were particularly impressive. Yet, he was steady and far from the problems that plagued the defense for much of the year. But, this year, he has to be the reason Notre Dame is really good on defense and not simply passable. And really, it’s his time. He’s a true senior playing in his last season, in the most important spot. A unit can only be as good as their best player, so it’d be nice if Morgan turned into a star.

Questions I want answered: Is Morgan being a playmaker? How much time does he spend in the backfield? Is he also a force in the passing game? Is he consistent?


Who is playing these spots?

Behind whatever is going on with the defensive line, one of the more intriguing parts of the spring is who will be filling these three spots, and not just who is starting. The Rover is a completely new position within the defense; just finding out who will be taking reps at this spot is an interesting development. You’d think Dru Tranquill would be perfect for it; he’s at his best closer to the line, isn’t totally comfortable playing large areas in coverage, and has a great build for the spot. Spencer Perry would also make a ton of sense, as he possesses the same qualities Tranquill does, although he has looked even less comfortable in coverage, but probably brings  a little more pop to the run game. Could Perry over take Tranquill for this role? Could they split time? Will they even play Tranquill somewhere else?

We know Studstill is moving to strong safety and Jalen Elliott has moved to free safety. We also know, per todays press conference, that Nick Coleman has moved to Free and Ashton White has moved to Strong. I don’t think either Studstill or Elliott played well enough to the point Coleman or White have major hurdles to overcome on their way to the field and those dismissing Coleman’s role because of his struggles at corner last year are misguided. He won’t be asked to play press coverage from his safety spot and he likely has better range than Elliott at free safety. The question for him will be in run support, much different role as a safety than a corner.

Added into all of that is the 6-1, 195 pound 18 year old Isaiah Robertson who will participate as an early enrollee freshman this spring. Odds are against any freshman in this spot, but it’s not like he’s got a bunch of seniors in front of him and remember, he has the same number of reps in this defense as everyone else. In fact, he might be at an advantage because he hasn’t learned any bad habits. So, all in all, a lot going on at these three spots.

Questions I want answered: Who is playing where? What are the rep distributions? Is anyone standing out? Are any players interchangeable?


Who is most comfortable playing off coverage?

There isn’t a corner on this roster who was brought in because the staff thought they’d be good playing off coverage the majority of the time. In fact, the opposite is true. VanGorder recruited guys he felt would be good playing press man. Mike Elko doesn’t play a ton of press man. You see where I’m going with this. Think of all the best moments for each of these guys on the field, it all happened playing up on the wide receivers. Nick Watkins struggled in the Fiesta Bowl playing off of the Ohio State receivers and excelled when he was asked to bump and run with them at the line of scrimmage. It’s hard to say who will do best in this style of coverage because we haven’t seen anyone do it at the college level.

If I gad to guess I’d say Julian Love would adapt just fine, mostly because he played a lot of safety in high school and is used to playing off the line with players coming at him. I’d also give a bit of an edge to Watkins, mostly because he’s likely further along from a technique stand point than someone like Vaughn or Pride, and struggle as he did, he’ll likely receive better coaching on the technique from Mike Elko than he got from Brian VanGorder.

Questions I want answered: Who is Watkins competing with? How is Vaughn from a footwork standpoint? Is Pride viable as an off corner?

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One Comment

  1. Defense gets you into the CFP, unless you get to play Washington Huskies schedule.

    We have heard that BVG was not an inspired recruiter, and the DL is the most obvious spot that has suffered. It just seems that the questions on offense will resolve because of good talent, but the defense will need to hide some neglect.

    Elko will have no time to ease in, he will need to step it up 3 notches right away against Georgia and potential 1st rounder QB and RB.

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