Despite having a new coordinator on the defensive side of the ball heading into 2018, Notre Dame is in much better shape defensively than they are offensively. While the offense has to answer some fundamental questions like who will be the starting quarterback, Notre Dame returns as many as 10 defensive starters and has the pieces in place for a potential dominant group. IN fact, the kind of questions Notre Dame has on defense are more about whether or not the Irish will be great on defense or just very good.
Let’s start off with the most obvious, shall we?
Is Clark Lea ready to call the Notre Dame defense?
When Notre Dame lost Mike Elko to a boat load of money at Texas A&M, Brian Kelly turned the keys of the Notre Dame defense over to Clark Lea. Lea knows Elko’s system better than anyone else at Notre Dame and is expected to keep much of it intact. Any first time defensive coordinator, however will want to put his own stamp on his defense and this will be the first time Lea’s ever called the defensive plays in his career.
All signs point to Lea being ready for this promotion and to him being one of the up and coming young coaches in the game. None of that changes the fact that when Michigan comes to town in September, it will mark the first time Lea will have ever called a game on his own. Being ready for that situation and actually going through it are two different things.
Lea will have perhaps the most talented Notre Dame defense from top to bottom of the Brian Kelly era in 2018 to work with so he will have everything he needs to be successful. Lea’s command of the Notre Dame this spring will be interesting to watch.
Can Daelin Hayes take the next step forward as a pass rusher?
Notre Dame’s leader in sacks last year was its nose tackle. Now, while Jerry Tillery is a very talented lineman, your nose tackle probably shouldn’t ever lead your team in sacks. Last year marked the first time Daelin Hayes was a full time starter and while he flashed early, he slowed down as the season progressed.
Many hoped for a huge, breakout season where Hayes racked up 10+ sacks. That didn’t happen. He flashed and showed the potential to be that kind of player but he wasn’t there yet. This year could be that year. With another off-season under Matt Balis under his belt (Hayes still looked long and lean last year) and a season’s worth of starting experience, Hayes could be primed for a big junior season.
If Hayes can start to become the dominant pass rusher Notre Dame has been missing, the Irish defense can be very, very good in 2018.
How will the young defensive ends develop?
Outside of Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame has a few young defensive ends that could make the difference between between a solid pass rush and the kind of pass rush Notre Dame has been lacking. Julian Okwara showed flashes in 2017 but like Hayes, he needs another off-season with Matt Balis to really be ready to shine. Khalid Kareem showed flashes from the strong side defensive end position as well and figures to be heavily in the rotation behind Jay Hayes.
The real question marks though are Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Kofi Wardlow. Both were recruited as raw prospects in need of development. Ogundeji is entering his third year in the program and Wardlow his second so it’s fair to hope to see some of that development on the field this spring. Both have reportedly shown flashes in practice over the last couple years. Notre Dame doesn’t need either to become full time players in 2018 but if either of them is able to provide situational pass rushing in 2018, Notre Dame will be in much better shape in the pass rush department this year.
How will the Jerry Tillery / Jonathan Bonner position swap work?
A little lost in the euphoria of the news of both Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner returning when it looked like both would not be on the roster in 2018 at one point was the news of the two swapping positions. Tillery will be moving over from nose tackle to defensive tackle and Bonner vice versa.
There shouldn’t be any question about Tillery’s move. He could and should thrive in his new position after leading Notre Dame in sacks at NT in 2017. Moving over to DT should allow Tillery to be an even more force in the middle of the Irish defense. That is, as long as Bonner is able to hold up at the point of attack at nose tackle.
Bonner was solid in his first stint as a starter in 2017, but now he’s going to be tasked with clogging up the interior line and take on double teams. If he is able to do that, Tillery will owe him a nice little commission when he gets drafted high in the 2019 Draft. If Bonner takes to NT well, Tillery could be in store for a monster season. So could Tevon Coney.
Will Darnell Ewell be ready to make an impact?
At this time last year, most instant impact freshman lists for Notre Dame included Darnell Ewell – one of Notre Dame’s most highly rated recruits in 2017. Two true freshmen interior defensive linemen did play extensive minutes in 2017 for Notre Dame, but neither of those players was Ewell. Both Kurt Hinish and Myron Taglovailoa-Amosa were keg kogs in the Notre Dame defensive line rotation over their more highly touted classmate.
Reports were that Ewell came into camp in a similar situation as Ian Williams and Louis Nix did years ago – in less than ideal physical condition to play in the fall. Like Williams and Nix, Ewell thrived as a prep by being bigger and stronger than his competition. Just like both, he also redshirted as a true freshman. Now, if he continues their career arcs, he will put in the time in the weight room this off-season and be ready for playing time in the fall.
Adding another quality defender to the interior defensive line rotation would go a long way in helping the line hold up all season long and not breaking down as they did towards the end of 2017.
Can Drue Tranquill hold up at the BUCK?
Jerry Tillery isn’t the only big name returnee who will be playing a new position in 2018 – 5th year senior Drue Tranquill will as well. After playing the ROVER linebacker spot last year and the strong safety position two years ago, Tranquill is on the move again to the BUCK position. Brian Kelly and the defensive coaching staff’s pitch to get Tranquill back in 2018 instead of pursuing the NFL now was to put him at the BUCK to enhance his draft stock.
The question will be if Tranquill – who was a safety two years ago – will be able to hold up at the point of attack at the more physically demanding position. He played last year at 231 lbs, but will likely be looking to add on a few more pounds this year. Tranquill is a gym rat though so if anyone is able to do it, he can. And Greer Martini’s listed weight in 2017 was only 236 lbs so he doesn’t need to add a ton of weight just to match Martini.
With Tranquill moving to BUCK and Tevon Coney taking over the MIKE, Notre Dame has a chance to have perhaps its most athletic group of linebackers in a long, long time.
Who will step up at ROVER?
Speaking of the ROVER position, with Tranquill’s move, Notre Dame has an opening at the ROVER position. Asmar Bilal was Tranquill’s backup in 2018, but it remains to be seen if Bilal can hold up in coverage enough to be an every down player at ROVER. To date, he has not shown good awareness in the passing game.
Behind Bilal, Notre Dame has some talent but also a bunch of questions. Rising sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is the most intriguing option of the group. He came in raw last year for the Irish but impressed in practice and could thrive at the ROVER spot. He played last year at 204 lbs though so he’ll need a great off-season to bulk up enough to be an every down player at the position.
A pair of safeties – Jordan Genmark-Heath and DJ Morgan – could get looks at ROVER as well. Genmark-Heath saw the field on special teams and safety last year as a frosh while Morgan has been lost in the safety mix a bit as he heads into his junior year.
Will Tevon Coney & Julian Love become stars?
Both Tevon Coney and Julian Love have the potential to be All-Americans in 2018. They aren’t the only defenders who could – it wouldn’t surprise too many people if Tillery or Tranquill were as well – but Coney and Love have the looks of being the next superstar defensive players for the Irish.
Coney played like a man possessed in the Citrus Bowl with 17 tackles against LSU as he led the team in tackles on the season despite being a part-time starter. With Coney back and moving to MIKE, he could put up a historic season in 2018. The Elko/Lea defensive system is built to make the MIKE a star. Coney looks ready to be that star.
Julian Love was one of the best cornerbacks in college football last year. Sports Illustrated noticed with a 2nd team All-American honor at season’s end. This year the rest of the college football world will take notice. Love is a game changing corner for the Irish and is ready to become a household name in college football this fall.
Can Notre Dame find some playmakers at the safety position?
For all the positives of the 2017 Notre Dame defense, the one glaring weakness was the safety position where Notre Dame failed to record a single interception at the position. The position could look completely different in 2018 though.
Navy transfer Alohi Gilman is eligible to play now and is an early favorite to nab a starting position this season. Early enrollee Houston Griffith could get a look at safety as well even though most recruited him as a corner. Many feel Griffith has more long term potential at safety and there is more immediate opportunity there as well.
Jalen Elliott and Nick Coleman are the incumbent starters at safety, but neither is a lock to return to those starting roles. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if neither was in the starting lineup for the season opener against Michigan. Elliott is still a young player who spent most of his prep career playing offense so there is still a lot of reason to hope that he continues his ascent, but with the influx of talent in the spring and then again in the fall when Derrik Allen arrives on campus; Elliott faces a critical off-season.
Notre Dame has a lot of questions on defense, but other than safety, they should all be a lot easier for the Irish to answer this spring than the questions the Irish face on offense. The pieces are there for a dominant defense this year. The biggest question of all though will be whether or not they all come together.