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Notre Dame Football

Pass Rush and Personnel Key to Playing Elite Defense

July 9, 2021

Defense doesn’t win championships. At least that’s not the case anymore with how good the top offenses are in today’s college football.

Playing elite defense certainly can help a team get there, though. One of the reasons Clemson is a consistent threat to win it all every year is because of how great their defense has been. They’re average finish in FEI’s defensive ratings since 2015 is 4th.

Notre Dame has played really good defense over the last four seasons, but it hasn’t quite been at an elite level. Their average finish in FEI during the Mike Elko/Clark Lea era was 14th. Only once did they finish as a top-five group according to FEI and it was during the 2019 season. They might be surprising to some who have fond memories of the 2018 defense led by Jerry Tillery, Te’von Coney, Julian Love, and Drue Tranquill, but the ‘19 defense was statistically better. It just didn’t get as much love because the team lost two regular season games.

Despite losing an All-American at cornerback, the pass defense was what separated them. Nine out of their 13 opponents threw for 151 yards or less. They finished tied for third in yards per attempt allowed and were fifth in opponent passer rating. No team in the country was better at preventing big plays through the air as well. They had the lowest amount of completions of 20-yards or more against them.

The personnel was a huge factor because even though they lost a significant talent at corner, they were able to add a special young talent in Kyle Hamilton as well as getting back a healthy Shaun Crawford to play the nickel. Those additions gave Lea a lot more flexibility with his 3rd down package where he often played three safeties.

Maybe the most significant reason why the pass defense was so great had to do with the rush. They finished 5th in overall pass rush grade according to PFF. They had a group up front that could generate pressure with only four rushers.

Five defensive linemen finished with 23 or more pressures. Four of them (Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Jamir Jones, and Ade Ogundeji) finished with pressure rates above 11% and the defense as a whole finished 13th in sack rate.

Without the quality depth up front and the versatility on the back end, that defense wouldn’t have been nearly what it was. They weren’t quite as deep on the defensive line and didn’t have the same level of talent in the secondary in 2020 so it wasn’t a surprise that they took a step back with the pass defense (24th in overall pass rush grade, 47th in YPA against, and 34th in opponent passer rating).

To see if they can get back to that level they were at ‘19 will largely depend on the personnel being better and having young players develop.

Notre Dame needs to find a nickel, whether that is TaRiq Bracy or KJ Wallace. They need to be able to feel confident they can play with three safeties if they need to. Marcus Freeman knows what he’ll get from Hamilton, but locking in two others from Wallace, Houston Griffith, DJ Brown, or someone else.

It’s going to be imperative that they have at least three quality corners as well. A bounce back from Bracy to go with the next step for Clarence Lewis would help solve that. Getting high-level play from at least one of Cam Hart or Ramon Henderson would take care of it as well.

The pass rush may be a little trickier considering they lost their two best ones on the D-line from last season with Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes off to the NFL. They do return Isaiah Foskey (12.8% pressure rate), Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (11.7%), Rylie Mills (16.9%), and Jayson Ademilola (11.5%) who all showed promise getting after the quarterback and should be better this fall. It would be huge if Justin Ademilola (10.2%) could make jump as a pass rusher too. 

The key could be Jordan Botelho, who looks like he has sky high potential to make an impact this season after being a terror on special teams last season, and one of NaNa Osafo-Mensah or Alex Ehrensberger. If two out of those three begin producing pressure, that would be significant.

Quality depth in the front four and the back four were significant factors in helping the ‘19 defense be elite against the pass. If Notre Dame develops depth there this fall, it could be the key to helping them become a top-five group again.

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