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Notre Dame Football

5 Questions for Notre Dame's Defense

July 7, 2020

Brian Kelly made a lot of smart choices when he rebooted the program after the 2016 season. There might not have been a better choice than hiring Mike Elko as defensive coordinator.

Even though Elko left after only one season, he helped build a foundation for where the defense is at now. He also brought Clark Lea with him to coach linebackers and without that decision, Lea would not be currently running the defense for Notre Dame.

Before Elko and Lea, the defense finished in the top-25 in yards per play just once during the Kelly era when they finished 17th in 2012. When Brian VanGorder took over in 2014, Notre Dame finished 70th, 64th, and 45th in YPP. In the last three seasons the defense finished 25th, 14th, and 8th.

Despite losing key contributors from last season, they have the potential to be just as good or better than they were in 2019. It’s all because of the work the staff has done recruiting and developing talent, which is as strong and deep as it's been in a long time.

That doesn’t mean the defense doesn’t have some looming questions heading into the season. The answers to them could determine if the defense can continue the path it’s on and go from very good to dominant.

Can Shaun Crawford stay healthy?

Crawford returning for a sixth year is big for a lot of reasons. His leadership is needed with a young secondary and his versatility is a huge asset.

It can only be an asset if he is on the field, though.

He’s back for a sixth year because he’s been forced off of it by injuries too many times during his career. Twice he has been injured during camp and missed the season. One year he only made it through one full game. He’s only had one season where he made it through the whole way without missing time.

A healthy Crawford gives Lea, Mike Mickens, and Terry Joseph options in the secondary. If Notre Dame elects to play three safeties at one time, Crawford can fill that role. He’s a heck of a blitzer and an intelligent player as a slot corner in sub-packages. He might just be the best field corner on the team as well.

What impact can the transfers make?

Cornerback Nick McCloud and safety Isaiah Pryor immediately help the secondary when it comes to depth. Adding two Power 5 defensive backs with starting experience was a no-brainer move for a secondary which consists mostly of players who haven’t seen the field yet.

They are going to make the defense better, but how much better will be determined by if both can win starting jobs.

McCloud has to beat out a bunch of young corners on the boundary. We know he can play physical and match up with bigger bodies out wide, but there are questions about his speed. Pryor has to contend with Houston Griffith among others competing at safety to start opposite Kyle Hamilton. We know he’s a good enough athlete to play a lot in the Irish secondary, but he struggled before losing his starting job at Ohio State.

The safer bet to start is McCloud. Pryor probably has more potential with two years of eligibility left. If they both prove to be legitimate NFL prospects this season, that would be a great thing for a pass defense that will attempt to continue to be one of the best in the nation.

Will the elite recruits from the 2018 class make the leap?

The 2018 recruiting class for Notre Dame was an impressive one on paper. One of the main reasons why had to do with the top-100 talent they signed on defense.

Houston Griffith, Jayson Ademilola, Shayne Simon, and Jack Lamb were all considered elite prospects. All four have played and contributed, but none of them locked down a starting job. This year that could change in a big way with Griffith and Ademilola ready to make a move this season and Simon and Lamb two top contenders to play at Buck linebacker.

Year three is the time when players like Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareerm, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Te’von Coney, and Jerry Tillery made the leap from contributor to impact player. If the four I mentioned can do the same, it will change what we consider to be the ceiling for the defense.

Is there an All-American caliber player on the defensive line?

Notre Dame has a linebacker, Owusu-Koramoah, and a safety, Kyle Hamilon, who project to be in contention for All-America honors. Is there a third who can join them from the defensive line? It would be a luxury to have that level of player at all three levels of the defense.

Daelin Hayes has seen his name pop up as a second-team pre-season All-American in a couple of publications this summer. That’s a big projection based off his production so far in his career, but also not that surprising given his athletic potential. We’ll see if he can put it all together in his fifth year.

If Ade Ogundeji continues the pace he was on in the final ⅓ of 2019, then he’ll be getting some All-American love. Him and Hayes together might be one of the better starting edge duos in college football.

Notre Dame doesn’t need one dominant player to have a great defensive line. They can get contributions from several different individuals in their rotation, like they did last fall. But that’s expected. If they have that and an All-American level player (or two), it will make the entire defense better.

What can we expect from the second-year players?

It only took a couple of practices last August to get excited about the potential of the defensive players Notre Dame signed in the 2019 class. The future looks bright for many of them already showing that they could compete at a level where most of them would have played as freshmen on previous teams.

Hamilton has already shown he can be a playmaker. Jacob Lacey is already in the defensive line rotation and is a candidate to be a breakout player. It’s not just those two, though. There are several others who could join them in the two-deep.

Cornerbacks KJ Wallace, Isaiah Rutherford, and Cam Hart have a prime opportunity to play big roles. Isaiah Foskey and Howard Cross could both crack the rotation this season and expectations are high for Foskey as a pass rusher.

There’s buzz surrounding all four of the second-year linebackers as well. Jack Kiser, Marist Liufau, JD Bertrand, and Osita Ekwonu have a shot at being more than special teams contributors. They are a big reason why Notre Dame chose not to take a linebacker in the 2020 cycle.

How many of them will be factors is yet to be determined. It wouldn’t be a shock if a handful of them demonstrated that they are going to be the foundation for a future Notre Dame defense by flashing on Saturdays this season.

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