Optimism Slowly Building Around Notre Dame Defense

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.

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  1. 11 bowl teams on the schedule for 2017 and Michigan St is the odd man out. Kelly was out coached in every loss. Anything less than 9 wins should be unacceptable. That said, I start every season a complete optimist and predict a 13-1 year. Go Irish!

  2. It’s going to be another long and disappointing season filled with excuses and frustration.

    That moron Swarbrick should be flogged at the Basilica for not firing Kelly last year! Replacing the assistants and position coaches…yeah, that’ll fix it. WTF?

  3. It remains to be seen. You can get away with a mediocre offense if you have at least one grim reeper defensive stud. One built in the likeness of Te’o or Smith. The offense must fear meeting this person anywhere on the field. Until we have a player that fits this, I see this team at7-5.


  5. The proof of the pudding has been in the eating and the ND defense has been anything but appetizing the last several years. Mike Elko and his defensive coaches have emphasized fundamentals, especially tackling, and have installed a player friendly system. I expect to see a significantly improved defense, with more QB sacks and hurries and more turnovers.

  6. This article is just speculation and the writing is abysmal. He establishes all the reasons why the ND defense is now legit
    and then says “That said, the defense would be very hard pressed to be any worse.” Saying that they were terrible and anything
    would be an improvement, is not exactly an endorsement. There are just so many new faces on this defense that it is really
    hard to evaluate this from a fan point of view. I do agree the Irish need a much better defense if they want to be even a top 20

    1. Right. Like touchdowns in the red zone at least 2/3 of the time. I am drinking this Kool-Aid with a fire hose because love the Irish, but I need to see them finish off a struggling opponent like Alabama would.

      Editor’s note: Forgive me, I can’t help this. “The proof is in the pudding.” ??? Where? Buried at the bottom like fruit in a Yogurt container? The expression is: The proof of the pudding is in the eating. http://www.npr.org/2012/08/24/159975466/corrections-and-comments-to-stories. Let’s also eliminate “chomping at the bit.” OUCH! That must hurt! It’s champing at the bit, i.e., the house grabs the bit in his mouth so he can run unrestrained by the reins. Okay, back to football. Go Irish!!

  7. I remain hopeful but skeptical about the defense. It’ hard to imagine them being any worse than last year, but I’ve thought that about Texas Tech for each of the last several years. Somehow they defy the impossible and actually do get worse. An equally big question for me is if the offensive line is even half as good as touted. It has been quite a while since a Notre Dame offensive line has blown the opponent off the ball consistently, especially in short yardage third and fourth down situations. Last year’s line was declared the best int he country before the season started, and aside from not blocking well, they committed far too many procedure penalties. I an skeptical that they can improve so much from last year’s disappointing season to to being the All-American line that everyone is expecting. So when I hear that the offensive line did not push around the defensive line in the New and Gold game, I can’t help but wonder if it’s less of an indication of defensive improvement as it is an indication that the offensive line has not turned the corner.

    1. Agreed Chris In Dallas,

      How many times did we hear how great our OL would be in the runup to the 2016 season? Same for the 2015 team, that group
      did have good results late in that season, but disappointment earlier in the year. Same for 2014 in my memory.

      Each year we get “Potentially the Best OL in the Nation” or information about how the line will be great not good. Then around
      game 6 the line starts improving after some switching around of players on the OL.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that ND’s 2017 OL will underperform, I hope the line is one of the best in the country.

      Our OL coaching staff really needs to get the unit off to a quick start this year and improve throughout the season, or the team
      needs to reevaluate the OL staff with the same metrics used for the other position coaches last year.

      1. Agree also. Lot’s of accolades to O-line coach H-H —has a great producer of players being drafted into NFL and doing well. As individuals these players are talented. As a Unit under coach HH –at ND in college play —I saw no rushing game under his helm. Whether between the 20’s or in the red zone. If a clean sweep of new assistant coaches for 2017 is warranted — I fully expected Coach HH was out the door to. I could care less of an O-line coach sending players on to NFL. I would like an O-line coach at ND to have players perform as a unit —under Coach HH —I haven’t seen it.

  8. If the D can get a good rush from the ends and the LBs create havoc in the backfield, how many teams have QB’s (on paper as
    of today) that can exploit a weakness in our defensive backfield, especially safety? Temple, MSU, Miami, UNC, have first year
    starters. Navy is a running team. BC, WF, and Miami (OH) will also need some good WR’s.
    Georgia, USC, and maybe Stanford have some experience at QB with Darnold being the best.

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