Let’s get one thing straight right off the top: whatever the concern is, it’s going to be fine. What is being discussed in this space is just fodder; things to pass the time. These are not really problems in the sense of “are any of these things going to get solved?” If we’ve learned anything over the past three seasons with the defense, everything will in fact be ok.
Consider that in 2017 we were terrified of the defensive line and weren’t sure if there was any depth there. Then Jerry Tillery, Khalid Kareem, and Julian Okwara emerged. Then in 2018, it was the safety play. Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman turned in star seasons. And finally in 2019, the linebackers were in shambles, who could ever replace Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill? All the trio of Asmar Bilal, Drew White, and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah did was total 239 tackles and 31.5 tackles for loss, in what might have been the best position group on the team.
Clark Lea is not perfect, but this defense has a way of figuring out what needs to get figured out. It’s happened three seasons in a row, at this point it should just be expected. So let’s trust it and not get in a tizzy over this corner or that linebacker. It’s going to be ok folks, sit back and enjoy the ride.
How Deep Can This Group Get?
The defensive line group doesn’t appear to have the high upside potential this unit had last season (potential that wasn’t really realized, by the way), but it’s strength is in the overall quality and experience across the board. The top six interior players return, and while they lose Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and Jamir Jones outside, they return 5th year seniors Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji, plus precocious ends Isaiah Foskey and Ovie Oghoufo.
The focus should be on the backups, players like the Ademilola twins, Foskey, Oghoufo, interior players Hunter Spears and JA’Mion Franklin, and end Nana Osafa Mensa. Those are seven backups who could figure heavily into the rotation next season and doesn’t include Howard Cross, who could miss the majority of the spring with an injury.
An obvious choice to make a leap is Foskey. He drips with size and athleticism and he made plays last season during the four games he appeared. He’s got the look of the a star player. How consistent is he? How often does he flash during open periods? The more consistent the reports are, the more likely it is he has a big impact next season.
What’s Going On At Buck?
Last seasons starting Buck linebacker, Asmar Bilal, departs and the race is on to see who takes his place. One option is to move JOK to that spot and thus the question becomes “what’s going on at Rover?” If JOK remains at his Rover position, a huge opportunity would present itself for Jordan Genmark Heath with Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon both injured and at the very least limited in the spring. He’d get the lions share of the reps, and he saw time at Buck last season. It may be his last good chance at staking a claim to the starting spot.
Lamb forged a role last season in Notre Dame’s dime package and played well, and Simon also earned himself time on the field in base sets. Without their injuries, the race for this spot might have been the most competitive on the team. As it is, they have to do what they can given their limited status, and hope Genmark Heath doesn’t close the door on them in the spring.
What Does Notre Dame Have Behind Crawford And Bracy?
We know Shaun Crawford and TaRiq Bracy can play and are the odds on favorites to start next season. Behind them is a whole lot of mystery and not a lot of playing time. Freshmen Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace, and Cam Hart (who is dealing with a shoulder issue), really need to begin their development in earnest to build the depth behind the starters. Notre Dame regularly plays multiple defensive backs and the idea of going the whole way with Crawford and Bracy, two smaller players, doesn’t seem realistic. At least one of those three players needs to hit this offseason and be a real player for the defense.
Incoming freshmen Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson will be enrolling early and are already on campus, thus giving themselves a chance to play their ways into the rotation this offseason. Both players are seen more as developmental types, but Henderson especially has the physical tools to make an impact with his size and speed.
What Can Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor Give Opposite Hamilton?
We know Kyle Hamilton is playing all the snaps at one safety spot, but who will play opposite of him and how good will they be? One thing we do know is the position is high on perceived talent. Both Pryor and Griffith were top 100 players out of high school, but neither has yet to live up to that billing.
In all likelihood, both of these players will see the field next season, as Notre Dame likes a rotation at the position and both are good enough to see the field. They also have similar games; not overly athletic, but very aggressive with nice size. Griffith is probably a little bit better in coverage, with Pryor bigger and more stout in the running game.
This defense can’t function at its best with only one good safety, so the level of play opposite of Hamilton this offseason will be something to watch throughout.