Defensive Learnings from 11 Notre Dame Football Spring Practices

Of the two units on the Notre Dame football team, the one with the most questions resides with the defense. The offense had been largely intact entering spring practice; most of those who follow the team closely could have predicted the starting unit, save for center and Jarrett Patterson.

The defense has had to replace several key starters, with an entire position group–linebacker–in flux. 11 weeks into spring practice we have a pretty good idea how the team will look heading into fall camp and presumably week 1 against Louisville. Here is a group by group update of where things stand as we head into spring ball’s final week.

Defensive Line

Holy Defensive Ends

If forced to list the best things about the Notre Dame football team top to bottom, you’d start with either Ian Book at quarterback or Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara at defensive end. Having a good quarterback and being able to sack the quarterback are needs 1 and 1a for a team with playoff aspirations. The best thing we can say about the duo at defensive end so far this spring is they have so far gotten through it healthy. Those two have nothing to prove in spring drills, their major tests will come in the fall.

The major news on this front however is the depth that resides behind them, and it is substantial. Daelin Hayes has looked very good all spring, which is no surprise, while Ade Ogundeji and hard charging freshman Ovie Oghoufo have shined in recent practices. Dare I say, Notre Dame goes at least four deep at defensive end and if Oghoufo continues his ascent, it’ll be five deep when the Irish to play real games in the fall.

Generally when Notre Dame has an advantage at a certain position, for example linebacker last season, they are susceptible to things like injury. When Drue Tranquill injured his ankle against Navy, it wasn’t just the fear of losing Tranquill, but the discomfort of what was behind him. This is not the case at defensive end, and while the backups there don’t have the ceiling of the two all-american candidates, they can play winning football for Clark Lea and the defense.


Jack Lamb and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah Have Made Their Move

The unit with the biggest questions on the entire team appears to have found some answers. If the current trends continue the linebacker trio will be Jack Lamb at Buck, Asmar Bilal at Mike, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (JOK)  heading into the fall as the first team linebackers.

Lamb has been impressive from the start, especially during passing drills, and has brought a good level of physicality since bulking up and overcoming injuries in the fall. At 6-4, 227, with more room to grow in the summer, he brings nice size and athleticism to the position. Perhaps not quite Drue Tranquill athleticism, but in that ball park.

Owusu-Koramoah looked good at Rover last spring, and moved onto the first team when Shayne Simon was moved to the Buck position following a couple spring practices. JOK is a lights out athlete, who can run with receivers out of the slot, and has enough size at 6-2, 215 to hold up against the run. He’s a playmaker who has been out of position at times, but appears to be playing at a high enough level to make up for some of those errors, and at the moment has a clear path to the starting spot, given his quality of play.

Bilal in many ways is the biggest question mark, even given his 5th year senior status. The move from Rover to Mike seems to be an odd jump; he’s never really projected to play in the middle. He’s also much lighter than the last two Mike linebackers to man the position in Clark Lea’s defense. Both Nyles Morgan and Te’Von Coney played in the 240’s, while Bilal is currently sitting at 227. He is, however, the only one who has played real snaps in meaningful games for the defense, and there is comfort to that. Plus, it isn’t as though there is an obvious alternative behind him.

If this is the trio that leads the way for the linebacking core, one thing is certain: they will not be slow.


Questions Remain Beyond The Top Two At Corner

At the very least, we know who the four starters will be: Troy Pride, Houston Griffith, Alohi Gilman, and Jalen Elliott. That’s a good quartet, one they can win with. Beyond that, it depends on what day you’re asking. TaRiq Bracy has looked good at times, other times not. Noah Boykin hasn’t really flashed at corner, where he is running with the third team, and converted quarterback/wide receiver Avery Davis has been getting lots of reps at nickel, which is intriguing, but also hard to see sticking. Remember, Notre Dame had top 100 defensive back Houston Griffith playing their last season and that didn’t go so hot.

This is all wonderful news for injured corners Shaun Crawford and Donte Vaughn, and incoming freshman Kyle Hamilton. There is an opening for Crawford and Hamilton to earn the nickel spot, and Vaughn will have the chance to earn his place as the third team corner and make up for his lack luster Cotton Bowl.

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  1. Last year the defense was definitely the strong unit on the team. In college football the defense often is ahead of the offense in the beginning of the year…at least until the “O” catches up. The strategy is always to keep the score low and give the “O” plenty of chances. But this year I think it may be the offense that is ahead on September 2. You may see Book and his crew putting up a lot of points, chewing clock, and leaving the defense plenty of green to defend by constantly moving the ball. At least that’s what I’d try to do early on. It’s not the usual way to go early in the year, but with 8 or 9 returning starters on “O” and only 5 or 6 on defense it seems to me that our “O” guys should be ready to “protect” the “D” a little bit, until they’ve seen some action as a unit. With Book running ball control for us, I think we’ll be in good shape. That’s one of his strengths anyway.

    We’ve lost both defensive tackles and both inside linebackers. That suggests that our defense will be tested between the tackles a lot early in the year. If Bilal can hold them together until they can “jell” as a unit he’ll be one heck of a hero. I guess that’s why he’s there. But Book and the offense can help them out too, by providing plenty points, and just not letting opposing offenses start with a short field due to an early stall, a stupid penalty, or a turnover. Turnabout is fair play…for all the years I’ve seen our “D” protect our “O” early in the year, it’s time to return the favor.

    BGC ’77 ’82

    1. Disagree BGC. The D is solid —- from D- line to Linebackers to Secondary. Too much said on weakness of losing Tllery/Bonner and cornerback Love . It’s media fodder. The interior of D-line is in better shape with Amosa/Hinnish and back ups Ademilola and new freshmen Jacob Lacey . Let’s cut the accolades on Bonner—nobody ever heard of him till his junior year — 2017. He was okay , just okay along side Tillery in 2018. When one talks of losing interior of both Tillery /Bonner on D-line for 2019 — I can’t agree there’s a problem here. Tag-Amosa , Hinnish , Ademilola and Lacey rotating in — are more than capable of holding fort on interior. Let’s get to rest of D-line which involves Defensive ends. That would be two potencial Al- Americans in Okwara & Khalid Kareem. Yet , Dailen Hayes is a back -up ? Hayes is a starter to — We all know that — he’ll be outside or inside at interior- depending on Coach Lea sniffing out opponents game. BTW — Kareem , also plays interior in the line for sack ops—and y’all so worried about interior of D-line ? Linebackers ? Best crop of talent at this position in years. Thanks to recruiting. I can’t say who will start–up for grabs going into Louisville game. I think Jack Lamb or Shane Simon are at buck/mike by first few games of season. Bilal — is not the answer — at these positions —lack of tackling and lateral movement/nose for football –will put him back at rover or on the bench — rotating in. Jordan Genmark Heath will be playing a lot — perhaps a starter. Secondary — loaded , best in years. Bottom line — Defense wins Championships.

      1. Southside,
        I hope you are right. I just see us needing to prove it in September. Early in the year they’ll be running right at us and won’t stop until we prove that what you say above is correct.

        BGC ’77 ’82

  2. I can see some trick plays coming with Avery Davis. Nobody will expect ND to throw a pass from the nickel position!

  3. When I see names like oft- injured Crawford and Vaughn that does leave me worried. Irish have to do better than that.

  4. I know off topic a bit but the Lady Irish just knocked off UConn for the 2nd year in a row in the Final Four (and how sweet it is to see ole Geno swallowing the bile rising from his stomach). Let’s make it 2 in a row ladies–Sunday night at 6 on ESPN against Baylor (who will be very tough to beat, but then it’s the NC game, it’s not supposed to be easy).

    1. Now that you bring it up, I’d rather see Muffett keep Her mouth shut and just Coach. Hate seeing Her use this as a platform. Politics and Coaching just don’t mix.

      1. Muffin’s remarks were well intended and pertinent but using presser before Final Four game was
        not very cool. She chastised male white ADs for hiring the same, but almost in the same breath said if she was an should hire women coaches. You can’t have your cake and eat it too, Muffins.

    2. Damion , great to see Irish beat U-Conn . I don’t like Coach Gino either. Muffy and former legend coach Pat Summit of Tennessee both had problems with this arrogant dude. Possibly he downgrades women coaches — I don’t know. So excited for for ND Womens B-Ball in Finals again back to back. Go Irish.

    3. Sadly the Irish came up short. They did a great job climbing out of a 17 point deficit. The biggest disappointment is they missed a couple free throws, and not just Ogunbowale’s final miss (then making it when she was supposed to miss to give the Irish a chance at a rebound). There were some earlier misses too. They lost by one point so those FT’s were critical. One shot could have forced OT (which I think would have been advantage ND). Two would have won it. Disappointing because when it comes clutch time the Lady Irish usually make those shots.

  5. If Irish can establish decent rush, sacks, hurries, sealing perimeters we won’t have to worry so much of the maligned secondary.

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