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Notre Dame Football

On Defense, Notre Dame DC Al Golden Will Rely on a Wealth of Experience, Depth

August 27, 2022
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After spending the last six seasons in the NFL, Al Golden returned to the college game as Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. 

Shortly after he arrived in the spring, he expressed a desire to build depth throughout the defense.

“We never know what’s going to happen, both on game day and throughout the season,” Golden said in March. “We’re just trying to cross-train a bunch of different guys at multiple roles, and that’s going to make us stronger in the long run.”

Fast forward five months later, and it appears the Irish defense has accomplished Golden’s goal.

At linebacker, Golden says he’s prepared to use a six-man rotation at linebacker. 

The four players expected to receive the most playing time are all seniors or graduate students: Bo Bauer, Jack Kiser, Marist Liufau, and JD Bertrand.

In the past, each has primarily played one of the three linebacker positions: Mike, Will or rover. But this fall, Golden is emphasizing versatility.  

“Whatever it takes for us to move them around and feel comfortable with whatever combination is in the game or as the season unfolds or if there’s an injury,” Golden said on Saturday.

Liufau was already a bit banged up in early August, which prevented him from getting as many reps initially.

However, he’s healthy now and Golden is optimistic when it comes to what the  “long linebacker who can run” will add to the defense this fall. 

No matter which of those four players are in the game, Golden is confident they’ll be prepared and able to communicate with the rest of the defensive players on the field.

“I love coaching them. It’s an honor to coach them,” Golden said. “They prepare like crazy every day and work really hard at it. They’re very good leaders and do a nice job of running the show up front. We have to get zeroed in this week, but it’s been a pleasure during camp.”

Two underclassmen should also be in the mix this fall: sophomore Prince Kollie and freshman Junior Tuihalamaka.

Of the two, Tuihalamaka is in the best position to play against Ohio State. He’s stayed healthy throughout fall camp, which aided his on-the-field progression and understanding of the defense. 

“He’s worked very hard at it,” Golden said. “I’m excited for where he is.”

Kollie, on the other hand, missed a significant amount of time in August as he worked through concussion protocol, before returning to the practice field about a week ago.

“The last two days he looked like himself,” Golden said. “He played like how he ended the spring. He had an awesome summer. This will be a big week for him in terms of being right there on the cusp. He was right there going into camp, but he got banged up a little bit. 

“He’s healthy now, and I told him yesterday I thought that was his best practice.”

Experience, Talent & Depth on the Defensive Line and Secondary

Notre Dame expects a steady rotation across the entire defense, which will keep players fresh and enable the team to utilize a variety of sub-packages. 

This starts along the defensive line, where Notre Dame can turn to three- and four-man fronts.

“We have a bunch of defensive linemen,” Golden said. “We’re fortunate again that we have a veteran group there, and it’s an unselfish group. They all have their specific roles in a game.”

At the backend of the Irish defense, Notre Dame will employ at least a four-player rotation at safety. Fans should expect to see Brandon Joseph, DJ Brown, Ramon Henderson and Houston Griffith all receive significant minutes. 

“All of them are really smart, but also audible,” Golden said. “They’re very confident. They’re not afraid to make calls. And again, in this day and age, with all the motions were getting — the jet motions, unbalanced, whatever the case may be, you have to have great communicators up the middle. 

“That’s going to be tested Saturday night [against Ohio State], but those guys are up for the challenge.”

On Thursday, Notre Dame cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens also stated that he expects to lean on a deeper cornerback rotation this season in order to give Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis more frequent opportunities to rest.

Where Will the Golden, Defensive Coaches be on Game Day?

Each defensive coordinator has a preference as to where they’re going to be on game days, either with their players on the sidelines or up in the coach's booth with a headset on.

From 2018 through 2020, the stoic and cerebral Clark Lea preferred to be upstairs, where he had a much better view of the entire field. 

Last fall, then-defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman operated down on the field, where he could feed off the energy of his players. 

As the Cincinnati Bengals linebackers coach in 2021, Golden was on the sidelines, which is where he intends to be this fall.

“I like to look the guys in the eyes and solve problems and be down there,” he said.

As for the rest of the defensive coaches, Golden will let them decide themselves where they’ll be on game days. 

“It’s wherever their counterpart is, it’s vice versa,” Golden said. “I like the guys to choose where they feel comfortable.”

For instance, if defensive line coach Al Washington decides to be on the field, Golden wants assistant defensive line coach Mike Moon upstairs. 

Golden expects safeties coach Chris O’Leary to be upstairs in the booth, like he has been in the past. 

“He does a great job in terms of pass-game recognition,” Golden said.

In each of the last two seasons, Mickens has coached the cornerbacks from the sidelines.

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