Notre Dame Spring Football: 9 Questions on Defense

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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  1. southside 2 years ago

    Frank , glad you started your article about ND 2018 defense with the D- Line. A great defense starts here in the trenches. As poster Brendan mentions–Irish finally have a steady rotation of talented athletes. Time for Daelin Hayes to be a force for all 12 games–not just half a season. But not to worry —Okwara and Kareem are hungry pass rushers in waiting from the left or right side. Jay Hayes , work your ass off –cause there are some up & coming beast drooling — like Kofi Wardlow and Ogundeji to step in. The interior line—nice move to switch Tillery/Bonner. Tillery at D-tackle will enable him to be more involed in close scrimmage battles with running plays or inside pass rush to QB. One more player that needs mention is Ewell. As Frank states — the potential of this kid is raw talent—if he can be ready to go in ’18–on the interior line ? It all starts with the D-line–if you want to be in mix of National Championships. That’s what Alabama Coach Saban recently said. Hey , what does he know !

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    1. david 2 years ago

      So Clemson is huge favorite for national champs 2018.

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  2. Brendan 2 years ago

    If we can get better safety play like you said, this is an elite defense in my opinion. One thing we finally have as well is DEPTH. It’s been a long time we’ve had a steady rotation along the defensive line, options at LB/Rover where we can move people around to find the best match of players, and elite freshman talent that we can play around with positions to best suit them and the position group.

    With the elite talent already signed on the DL in ’19, and Notre Dame thought to be leading with several other elite defensive players early on in the ’19 class, it is crucial to play strong D under Coach Lea, Elston and co. early and often next fall. This could be a dynamic class coming up.

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    1. duranko 2 years ago

      Brendan, fine post. I will offer four “hypothetical” reasons why our safety play might/should improve.

      Subjective though it may be, I will offer these in the order, in my bleedin’ ‘umble opinion, that they are most PROBABLE (cf
      Bob Rubin and “Probabilistic Thinking”) to improve safety play. Football, and life, carry no guarantees

      (1) Alohi Gilman-highly successful at Navy as a frosh (after prep school) He will be in his fourth year out of high school. (Spent a year at a prep school) Kelly was unequivocal that he would have started as safety in ’17 had he been granted eligibility by the NCAA

      (2a) Last year’s frosh Jordan Genmark Heath, Jeremiah Owusu_Koramoah and Isaiah Robertson are now blooded, after a year. They received plaudits from the coaching staff in roughly the order they are listed
      (2b) This year’s frosh, Derrick Allen, Paul Moala, Shayne Simon and possible Houston Griffith. FWIW, as a group they are higher rated than the ’16 safeties.

      (4) Studstill and Elliot are now in their third year, second year in the Elko/Lea system, have had a lot of reps. D.J. Morgan appears to be a squadman.

      There are more reasons for optimism at safety than there are for pessimism, but cautious skepticism is never

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      1. Brendan 2 years ago

        Very well said. I agree on the cautious optimism. I feel like it’s been years (pre Brian Van Gorder era) since we’ve had quality safety play. Max Redfield was an absolute bust as a former 5* player.

        My flexibility comment was geared toward several of the players you mentioned. The rover spot is a hybrid LB/S position that is well suited for both Shayne Simon and Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah, who have both been mentioned to be in the thick of the competition for that position, along with Asmar Bilal, with Drue Tranquill very likely moving to ILB to replace Greer Martini (I love this move FWIW).

        After the starting rover position is filled, we have so many options to find the best 2 players to fill in at safety. Nick Coleman flashed at points last season, and I agree on all fronts with Alohi Gillman. He was a machine at Navy, finishing 3rd on the team in tackles (From the safety position!). With the vets (Studstill, Elliot, etc), Derrick Allen and co with this years class, we have a high ceiling. Hopefully we get close to that ceiling this year, because we could be a top 20 defense if so.

        Lastly, don’t forget about Houston Griffith, one of our highest rated recruits. He will get a look at CB to start, but most recruiting pundits think his career trajectory is best projected at safety.

        To summarize my long winded response, I concur, sir. Thanks for replying!

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      2. Bruce Gregory Curme 2 years ago

        I like Alohi…he could be an impact player…but I am not certain that having a safety finishing third in tackles is a good thing! When your safeties are making a lot of tackles you are usually giving up a lot of yards and a lot of first downs!

        BGC ’77 ’82

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  3. duranko 2 years ago

    What is intriguing is that the Irish now have four recruits in the 2019 class, and all are four stars.

    Three of them are on the defensive side of the ball.

    And one wonders: Of the four defensive coaches, Elston, Joseph, Lea and Lyght, which one will turn out to be the weakest recruiter?

    As Lusi Fonsi and Big Daddy Yankee say,


    Go Irish

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    1. david 2 years ago

      Where’s the Beef ?!

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  4. ndcrazymike 2 years ago

    Lets see how LEA does, b4 we give him a head coaching job!! First year as a DEF-CORDINATOR LEA wanted this job, he told Kelly and all of us how much his family loved being at ND!! ELKO was working any angle for more $$!! ELKO played both sides driving up his pay by going back and forth b-tween teams!!! Just like FAT-ASS WEISS!! Lets hope Lea has every team wanting him as head coach in about 5 years!!!!!!!!!!!!

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    1. david 2 years ago


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  5. duranko 2 years ago

    Good coaches leave. It is the nature of the beast, the natural food chain of coach advancement.

    Notre Dame’s greatest defensive coordinator ever, Johnny Ray, left.
    Jim Johnson left
    Serafino Fazio left.
    Barry Alvarez left.
    Charley Strong left
    Greg Mattison left.

    It is as December as Christmas Carols and decorating the tree.

    Some day Lea will leave, to be head coach? to be a DC? Who knows.
    The day he does, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Chicken Littles will scream and maw.

    And, most of the time, there will be a good decision to name a substitute, give or take a Gary Darnell, Jon Tenuta, Corwin Brown or Brian Van Gorder.

    Change happens. It’s the way of the world.

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    1. david 2 years ago

      “Change happens. It’s the way of the world.”

      Then heed your own wisdom, and follow a team that still cares about winning.

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      1. ndcrazymike 2 years ago

        you should CHANGE sites too DAVEY, here’s one for u DAVES who are DICKS!

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    2. Keith 2 years ago

      What better way to attract top coordinators than to consistently have your coordinators rewarded with higher salaries/head coaching jobs? If a coordinator succeeds at Notre Dame, the doors to being a head coach (or to getting buckets of money somewhere else) fly wide open. That’s the only reason we were able to go out last year and land Elko and Long in the first place.

      What is most important is establishing a winning culture that endures the comings and goings of assistants (Alabama doesn’t sweat losing a coordinator because the culture is in place–same with Ohio St., the NE Patriots, etc.). Kelly made adjustments to his coaching last year that went a long way toward re-establishing that kind of culture at Notre Dame. If that progress continues, then Kelly will have his pick of “up-and-coming” coordinators to replace Lea (after he’s hired away).

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  6. david 2 years ago

    Lea has exactly the same ties to ND as Elko — ie. none.
    If Lea turns out to be very good, he’ll eventually be offered a “boatload of money” from some school committed to winning bigtime football.

    “All signs point to Lea being… of the up and coming young coaches in the game.”
    If so, enjoy his service while he’s there.
    And if not, future articles might spin the “stability” and “continuity” under Kelly.

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  7. Alan Francis 2 years ago

    I agree. The Defense has a lot of talent and interchangeable parts to mix and match with any kind of opponent we have on the schedule and a lot of players who can rotate and keep players fresh.

    Coney-Tranquil and Tillery are great players and will make us strong up the middle–glad they are all coming back.

    Late last seasons teams were going with quick throws to offset ND’s pass pressure—so we need to press in the secondary
    because WR’s are not going very far up the field for quick throws coming at them. Love and Pride and the other DB’s are getting better and we can jam and stop these quick tosses or tackle immediately to counter it.

    I think we’ll still trigger more turnovers with picks and stripping balls for fumbles…teams will be nervous playing us.

    Stay healthy and get bigger-stronger-faster.

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  8. Greg Kelly 2 years ago

    Best looking pre-season unit I’ve seen in a long, long time. But, in typical college/ amateur fashion injuries will decimate this once feared group. Some will play over their heads and be useless ( Jaylon Smith) And our dreams will fade away. Don’t get your hopes up. Look at our record the last two years, 14-11. Only a unrealistic dreamer can think we will go 11-1.

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  9. Damian 2 years ago

    I’m more confident with the defense then the offense, esp. since Lea was retained on staff. I thought for sure Elko would try to bring Lea with him, as happens many times in similar situations. Thankfully that did not happen. Defense made a lot of strides last year and I was happy to see them keep up the pressure against LSU and not go into prevent as happens so many times in similar situations.

    Keeping Lea was probably the most important thing for the defense. Being an Elko apprentice, he’ll keep the basic fundamentals of the defense intact, important since a lot of the players were recruited for his system and trained for it. There will be no defensive overhauls, no restarting from scratch. Sure Lea will have some differences, but the basics will be the same.

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  10. Keith 2 years ago

    Lea will be fine. He has good coaches around him and doesn’t have to go through the process of establishing a new system. I think his playcalling is less important than his ability to teach fundamentals and get players more comfortable in their roles. If he can build a talented, disciplined, and confident defense M-F, then he won’t necessarily have to outcoach anyone on Saturday.

    As for the position adjustments, I can only say that these are the best kinds of position adjustments. In years past, we’ve HAD to shift people around to fill multiple holes. Now we’re in a position that we CAN move people around to get the most of their talents because we have enough depth to do that. We aren’t hoping for players to establish themselves in 2018. We’re hoping for established players to become stars. If a handful of them do, 2018 will be special.

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