First we looked at the offense, now a look at the best 11 players on the defensive side of the ball for the 2016 Fighting Irish. As with the offense, getting the best 11 guys on the field seems an obvious task for the coaches; the defense, especially needs all the talent on the field they can muster given their performance the last two years under the embattled Brian VanGorder. However, as you’ll see, if Notre Dame wants their best 11 to be on the field, they had better play a lot of nickel, which makes getting their best out there a bit of a tough task.
11.) Nick Watkins
The sophomore Watkins saw his first real action against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl following injuries to KeiVarae Russell and Devin Butler and he acquitted himself very nicely against future pros Michael Thomas and Jalen Marshall. His struggles came when he was tasked with playing off coverage against the bigger Thomas, and subsequently gave up shorter throws for medium yardage. Observers of Irish practices throughout spring ball noted the amount of press coverage the corners were playing, which suits Watkins game perfectly; it was thought Watkins had won the corner job opposite of Cole Luke prior to breaking his arm, and even if he is supplanted by the hard charging Shaun Crawford, Watkins needs a place on the field for Notre Dame in 2016.
10.) Jay Hayes
It’s unknown whether Hayes is going to start over Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end opposite of Isaac Rochell, but given what he displayed throughout the spring, he is the better player. Neither is particularly adept at rushing the passer, or at least has shown a great consistency in doing so, but at 290 pounds, Hayes is the better option at setting the edge against the run and holding up over the long haul in that area. Frankly, none of the coaches seem particularly fired up about what they’ve seen from the three techniques in Jerry Tillery or Jonathan Bonner, and it’s unclear why Hayes was moved from that spot, but the better option may be to move Hayes there to make room for the ultimate wild card in Daelin Hayes, especially in pass rushing situations.
9.) Devin Studstill
Yes, he’s only a freshman and it’s hard to imagine a true freshman playing deep middle in a Brian VanGorder defense opening night in Austin, Texas. The truth is, he’s just a better player than Max Redfield and he needs to be on the field as much as possible, He’s got football instincts, a nose for the ball, and he seems to have picked up what VanGorder wants to do on defense much quicker than Redfield ever did. The fact that he can simply be counted on to be where he is supposed to be at all times makes him the better option for the defense. His open field tackle of the slippery Malik Zaire in the spring game, no small feat for a guy who has made more than a few defenders look silly in the open field, shows him to be effective in that phase of the game as well.
8.) Daelin Hayes
We’ve seen Hayes take no live reps, not make a single tackle, not even seen him in a team drill. Yet, he is most likely their best pure pass rusher, which makes him one of the best 11 defenders on the team and he needs to play a major role for Notre Dame in 2016. His shoulder issues have been well documented and they throw a little wrinkle into how much of his services Irish coaches can count on. Hayes has shown more than just an ability to rush the passer, he’s also adept in pass coverage as well, and given VanGorder’s penchant for dropping rushers into coverage, Hayes’ skills can be well utilized in this defense. Frankly, if his health status was a little more clear, he’d be higher on this list.
7.) James Onwualu
Along with Isaac Rochell and Cole Luke, Onwualu is Notre Dame’s most experienced defender and one that linebacker coach Mike Elston called among the “best coverage linebackers in that nation”. We’ll get into why that presents a bit of an issue for Notre Dame in a second, but it is telling about the type of player that Onwualu is: smallish, athletic, and tough. A lot has been made about this being year three for the Notre Dame defense under VanGorder and no player could benefit from that more than a guy like Onwualu, who converted from receiver after his freshman season. Hybrid linebackers are becoming a thing in the NFL (see: Deone Buchanon and Keanu Neal) and this is a mold that Onwualu fits rather well.
6.) Drue Tranquill
If it was known that Tranquill was going to be healthy for the duration of the 2016 season, there would likely be a lot less trepidation about the safety position this year. Unfortunately, he’s suffered season ending knee injuries in each of his first two seasons and there is some question as to whether strong safety is Tranquill’s best spot. To be fair, strong safety is a much different animal than free safety, where he struggled some as a freshman, and he did show some athleticism playing off the hash. He has always showed a knack for being around the ball and he has displayed strong leadership throughout his first two years, even as an underclassmen. He has tremendous positional versatility which makes him extremely valuable for a defense that has a lot of moving parts.
5.) Shaun Crawford
Crawford is the third and final player in the top 11 that has yet to take a live snap for Notre Dame, and in my opinion is a top 5 player for this unit. I may have been accused in the past of being a bit of a Crawford fanboy, whatever, the kid is going to be a star. He’s Notre Dame’s version of Adoree Jackson, minus the embarrassment of Will Fuller lighting him on fire on national television. It’s unlikely he would be used on offense, although that has more to do with Notre Dame’s weapons than Crawford’s ability. If you doubt my praise of Crawford, scour the internet and find anyone who is knowledgeable about the Notre Dame team who isn’t in love with this guy. I dare you.
Here comes the aforementioned issue for the Notre Dame defense. Onwualu is the SAM. The SAM usually comes out when the nickel comes in, and Crawford needs to play, as does Nick Watkins. If one of those players in left out in the nickel defense, Notre Dame is without it’s best 11. Can Onwualu play WILL in nickel? Do they really want to take out a senior–and their best cover linebacker– in Onwualu to play much greener players at WILL?
4.) Jarron Jones
Add Jones to the list of “as long he stays healthy” all-stars, as he’s also had two straight seasons ended prematurely due to injury. Early in his career, Jones had an issue with consistency of play–much like his linemate Jerry TIllery does now–but he has been at times unblockable up the middle, especially late in the 2014 season before being lost to a toe ailment. He worked his way back into the rotation in the Fiesta Bowl, tipping a pass that lead to an interception, but had an uneven spring as he worked his way back to full health. An off-season of weight training is likely to pay big dividends as well as the addition of his younger brother Jamir to the Irish team in the summer. A guy can’t be caught dogging it in front of his little brother, right?
3.) Cole Luke
2016 will be Luke’s third and final season in the starting lineup, and a case can be made that he has been either overrated or underrated by Notre Dame fans during that time. After a solid 2014 season, much was expected of Luke going into 2015, and to some extent he failed to live up to expectations. He gave up five touchdown passes on the season, which is a little high for someone who many thought was a candidate to come out early. He also left a lot to be desired in the run game only registering 42 tackles in 13 games and missing 8 tackles, or around 20% of all opportunities. On the other hand, opponents only completed 41% of their passes against Luke, which is on par with top 10 picks Eli Apple and Jalen Ramsey. The move to more press coverage figures to greatly help Luke, who excelled in press against first round pick Devante Parker in 2014.
2.) Nyles Morgan
I’ll admit this is incredibly wishful thinking, but there is a case to be made that Morgan is Notre Dame’s second best player on defense right now. In 2014, Joe Schmidt, prior to his injury, was the MVP of the Notre Dame football team. Schmidt was a much different player in 2014 vs. 2015–he was slimmer, quicker, faster, stronger. Yet, even at that point, he didn’t have the physical attributes of the 6’1 245 pound Morgan. Morgan will be given the duties of the now departed Schmidt, and those duties are immense. As I wrote about earlier this spring, the role of the middle linebacker is the most important of any position on the defense, and Morgan is more equipped to handle those duties than even the 2014 team MVP version of Schmidt was.
1.) Isaac Rochell
An argument is there to be made that Rochell is the most underrated player on the Notre Dame team over the last four years. He’s not flashy, he doesn’t make huge plays, he doesn’t make a show of himself, and he isn’t much of a talker. What he does do is play, at a high level, pretty much all the time. The guy is always out there, too much, in fact (can someone step up so this guy can rest?), he can always be counted on and he does his job. Think of him as a slightly quicker version of Kapron Lewis-Moore in 2012. He won’t eventually be the highest drafted player on this defense, but his importance to this team can’t be overstated, he needs to stay healthy for Notre Dame to have any chance of improvement from their previous units under Brian VanGorder.