Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Has Intriguing Options in Dime

March 24, 2020
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There’s been a steady rise for the Notre Dame defense the last few years. Things changed for the better almost immediately in 2017 with Mike Elko as defensive coordinator and continued to progress when Clark Lea took over that role.

Despite losing talent to the NFL before 2019, the expected step back didn’t happen. In some ways, the Irish defense actually took a step forward and one of them was on 3rd down. Notre Dame finished 19th in 3rd down defense last season, the first time they’ve been in the top-20 in that category since 2011.

They finished 5th in 3rd down pass efficiency defense, aided by a fierce pass rush. They did some amazing things when they forced offenses to become one dimensional.

On passes of 3rd and 4+, they only allowed opponents to convert first downs 21.5% of the time. When they put teams behind the sticks on 3rd and 10+, the opposition only converted one first down the entire season.

That was one out of 30 attempts. No one was better on 3rd and long than Notre Dame’s defense in 2019.

Outside of the pass rush, one of the things that made them so good on 3rd down was the use of personnel in the back seven. Lea took out all three starting linebackers and replaced them with linebacker Jack Lamb, nickel back Shaun Crawford, and safety Kyle Hamilton. Injuries forced them to adjust that group at times during the season, but the idea of playing three safeties stuck.

That allowed Lea to really diversify the looks he showed from play to play. This season he should be able to do the same, but a lot depends on who the staff decides to play in their Dime package.

Up front they are replacing Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, but Ade Ogundeji already showed what he could do with more chances rushing the passer. It’s not a coincidence his sack and totals exploded after Okwara went down in the Duke game. Ogundeji had zero sacks before then. After that he had 4.5 and a couple of forced fumbles.

Daelin Hayes returns and will no doubt be included. 3-technique tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Jayson Ademilola split reps on 3rd downs near the end of the season. They may do the same again in 2020.

That only leaves one spot up for grabs with Ovie Oghoufo, Isaiah Foskey, and Justin Ademilola competing with true freshman Jordan Botelho as a dark horse candidate. There is a lot of potential there all around and the pass rush has a chance to be as much of a factor as it was last season.

The only question would be how they plan to use Hayes or the new end that would join him in Dime. Hayes has been more of a floater in his role. Sometimes lining up off the edge, but frequently playing in a two-point stance over a guard. He can cover, but Oghoufo and Botelho in particular have experience playing in coverage as well.

It may be that Hayes is more permanently stuck to rushing as an edge and they utilize someone else in that Hayes/Jamir Jones role. Jones really stood out when he got his opportunity. Here he is lined up in a two-point in a 3-technique position against Bowling Green.

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Things get a lot more interesting in the back seven.

The cornerback position needs to be figured out, but what they decide to do at linebacker and safety could make Lea’s job calling 3rd downs just as fun as it was last fall. Here’s a couple of directions they may choose to go.

Jack Lamb and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at linebacker

Lamb is an obvious choice having played well there before his injury. He’s terrific at diagnosing plays and does a great job against backs in man coverage. He was all over this screen tackling D’Andre Swift against Georgia.

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It’s pretty remarkable that JOK was finished with 5.5 sacks, the most for an off-the-ball linebacker at Notre Dame in the last decade, and he wasn’t a regular on 3rd down. If he’s not playing in the Dime package this year, then it would be surprising.

Te’von Coney had a monster season not playing in the Dime in 2017 and earned his spot there in 2018. I see a similar move for JOK this season.

He’s too athletically gifted to not be given multiple responsibilities in the Dime. He can match up in coverage and is an explosive blitzer off the edge. If Lea ever decides to dip back into this Bear front that he showed against Clemson, JOK could be used like Drue Tranquill (lined up outside shade of the left tackle) was on this play.

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JOK has the potential to be very productive coming off the edge and add some extra to the pass rush. There are other options at linebacker, but these two seem to make the most sense.

Three safety look 

Last season Lea had the luxury of having a super talented freshman who was ready to contribute that he could add in with two veterans at safety. This year it’s just Hamilton back and if it’s about getting the best eleven in Dime, it might just be Hamilton and whoever the other starter at safety is.

But I wouldn’t count out Lea using three safeties just yet. If Houston Griffith makes the leap some expect him to and Isaiah Pryor is ready to jump in and play a role, those two together with Hamilton may be part of the best eleven. No one should forget DJ Brown as a possibility either.

There’s a luxury to playing three safeties where the offense has no idea what look you might show them each 3rd down. They can show three deep like this play and have Hamilton work as a Robber jumping routes like this one.

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Then there’s a look where a safety is basically a linebacker like Hamilton is here. He’s showing potential A-gap pressure with Lamb. Gilman is threatening as a trail blitzer as well. He drops deep and Hamilton is dropping underneath where he snags this diving interception.

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Hamilton is playing man against Iowa State tight end Charlie Kolar on this play and the defense still has safeties splitting the field.

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Those are just some of the possibilities with three safeties. Of course, Crawford can play safety as well and he may be the third safety in Dime if that’s something Lea and Terry Joseph want. That would take him away from playing the nickel, though.

There are plenty of reasons to keep him there.

Crawford or another young corner at nickel

It makes so much sense to play a healthy Crawford at the nickel. He’s smart, a good tackler, and there’s never going to be a situation where they don’t feel comfortable with him out there.

He’s also a heck of a blitzer. His timing has always been good like it was here against LSU.

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And here against Iowa State.

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They have to groom someone to replace him because he’s not getting a seventh year from the NCAA. Maybe we see TaRiq Bracy or KJ Wallace as candidates. It’s to be determined, though, because they still have to figure out who is covering on the outside.

Lea and the defensive staff have a lot of intriguing options to work with and because of that, the 3rd down defense could be just as formidable as it was in 2019.

 
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