The 2012 Notre Dame defensive unit is held up like an untouchable mark that can only be an aspiration, yet an unattainable goal. In the seven years that have followed since that undefeated season, which was led by a defense that didn’t give up a touchdown for a month or a rushing touchdown till week 8, comparisons to that unit can be made, but with a disclaimer. Sure, maybe some aspects to a defense are similar but, come on, it won’t be like 2012.
Dare I say though, the 2018 unit, at least on paper, has the pieces to rival that unit, especially if they can hit at defensive end and safety. And if the Irish defense, led by their rookie defensive coordinator Clark Lea, can reach those heights, all this talk about Brandon Wimbush and whatever struggles he may have, is missing the forest for the trees.
This was the biggest missing link for the 2017 unit and the most obvious area for the 2018 unit to build on next season. The 2012 group was fantastic getting after the passer: they registered 33 sacks on the season to go along with 45 quarterback hurries. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt accounted for 11 of those sacks by himself, just the 5th player in Notre Dame history to reach double digits (since the stat has been recorded.) Last season, which was an improvement from the previous year, they still only produced 24 sacks. However, there is evidence that the sack total could balloon in 2018.
The Notre Dame defense was credited with 63 quarterback hurries, almost 20 more than the 2012 unit. The Irish defense just didn’t finish the job in 2017. Those 20 more pressures produced nine less sacks.
The top three in hurries last year, Jerry Tillery (11), Julian Okwara (7), and Khalid Kareem (6), all return this season. And this is not to mention Daelin Hayes and Drue Tranquill, who will feature in the defense this fall. It also figures that another year in the same defense, and a year of growth and development, players such as Kareem, Okwara, and Hayes would take their games to new heights.
Would Troy Pride and Julian Love start over Bennett Jackson and freshman Keivarae Russell in 2012? Yes. Yes, they would. Is Shaun Crawford better than the first off the bench at corner for the 2012 team (Josh Atkinson or Jalen Brown)? This answer is clearly yes. Heck Nick Watkins, who transferred away following the spring, probably would have started on that 2012 team.
The point is, this group of corners is better than what 2012 offered, and that group was aided by, you guessed it, the pass rush! Which brings me back to my original point above. The corner group is already good, and can be made better by improvements up front.
That leaves the safety group. We don’t truly know this unit will be better than 2017. Can it honestly be worse though? The only evidence it will be is the addition of Alohi Gilman, who has never played a snap for Notre Dame, the addition of Houston Griffith, a freshman who has never played a snap for Notre Dame, and the rise of Nick Coleman, who according to Brian Kelly is having a great camp thus far.
Predicting how good the safety group will be depends on how much faith you have in Gilman and Griffith, and how much you believe Kelly about Coleman. For the record, I do believe Coleman is ascending, but I don’t know exactly what that translates into. Is he a playmaker now? Is he jumping routes and getting his hands on passes? Tough to predict, and along with the pass rush, the biggest question on this defense.
Building on the Improvement from 2017
Notre Dame returns their four best players from the 2017 defense that finished 27th in S&P+: linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te’Von Coney, defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, and cornerback Julian Love. They return their three best defensive ends, and are witnessing a meteoric rise from corner Troy Pride and a growth in play from safety Nick Coleman. All of that to go along with the addition of safeties Alohi Gilman and Houston Griffith.
As noted above, Notre Dame finished 27th in defensive S&P+, largely because their HAVOC rate. That measures a teams total tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays. That rate was only 66th nationally (47th in the front 7, 97th in the secondary). Is it reasonable to expect the defense, which returns most of their best and most impactful players upfront to create more problems for offenses? Is it reasonable to expect the secondary to be more disruptive with a more disruptive line upfront?
I think it is reasonable to expect that. In fact I think it is likely.
The 2012 unit finished 8th in the S&P+, and that is a very attainable mark for a defense that finished 27th last season and his heavily positioned to improve on their weaknesses from the season before.