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Notre Dame Football

5 Priorities for the Notre Dame Defense this Offseason

January 17, 2023
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It was a good year for the Notre Dame defense in year one under Al Golden. They finished 24th in points per drive, 8th in yards per play against Power 5 competition, and most importantly, they kept the boat from sinking when the offense struggled.

It was also the worst defense the Irish have had since the infamous reboot of the program in 2017.

That’s the reality of the standard that was set from 2017-2021. They were below the top-20 in DF+ for the first time since before Mike Elko was hired and dropped from 15th to 36th.

Some of the reasons for that drop had to do with personnel. They struggled to replace some players who left and some players who were expected to make a leap with their play didn’t. The big transfer who they expected to be a productive playmaker battled inconsistency and injuries.

This was also Notre Dame’s third defensive coordinator in three years and it would be foolish to think that didn’t have an impact. It did take a while for everyone to settle in.

None of that matters for 2023. The slate has been wiped clean and as of today, it looks like the entire defensive coaching staff will remain intact. What matters is that Notre Dame gets back to playing the level of defense that they expect to play because they aren’t getting back to being a College Football Playoff contender if that doesn’t happen.

There are important areas they need to prioritize this off-season in order to be better in ‘23. It starts with an area of the field where they were shockingly bad last season.

Red zone defense

Notre Dame finished dead last in red zone touchdown percentage. Not 109th. Not 87th. They finished 131st out of 131 FBS teams when it came to giving up touchdowns in the red zone.

Before we get into that, let’s talk about how that happened yet they still managed to keep the points down because it shows that they were doing pretty well outside of that.

Eckel rate, created by college football stats genius Parker Fleming, is the ratio of productive drives in a game. Here’s how he describes a productive drive.

“What's a productive drive? Glad you asked; a productive drive is one in which a team has a scoring opportunity (first-and-10 across their opponents' 40-yard line) or a big-play touchdown. Eckel is a measure of game control that is more informative than the traditionally used time of possession: instead of asking how long a team held the ball, Eckel asks how well a team held the ball.”

Notre Dame finished the regular season 13th in Eckel rate. They didn’t give up a lot of productive drives and that is a credit to Golden and the defense as a whole. They finished 10th in total red zone attempts so teams weren’t getting to the red zone very often.

Back to the issues in the red zone and any time a defense is this bad in one category, nothing less than a full scale deep dive into every red zone play will do.

Were they too predictable with coverage calls? Were they bringing enough pressure?

Only the film and the calls can tell them why they performed as poorly as they did. They need to find answers because they can’t afford to have a repeat of that in ‘23.

Increase the havoc

This could have helped them a lot in the red zone. They didn’t create enough negative plays (tackles for loss, pass breakups, interceptions, forced fumbles) and as much as it would be easy to point to certain players having a drop in production (Isaiah Foskey going from six forced fumbles to one, Brandon Joseph finishing with only on interception), it’s clearly more than that when the Havoc rate for the team is 15.3%.

Traditionally, a great Havoc rate is 19% or above. Anything above 20% is elite.

The good news for Notre Dame is that the rate went up sharply in the second half of the season. During the 3-3 start, the rate was a dismal 12.2%. In the final seven games, it went up to 18.1%. A lot of that had to do with the emergence of Benjamin Morrison and Jordan Botelho.

That leads right into the next priority.

Development of young players

What’s going to make the biggest difference for the defense is if we see not just players like Morrison and Botelho continue their rise, but also have several young players, most of whom were highly ranked recruits, take a step forward this season.

Third year defenders Prince Kollie and Gabriel Rubio are two logical choices to advance their games, but it’s the class behind them that could really help propel things if several of them are ready for bigger roles.

It might not necessarily have to be starring roles. For players like Tyson Ford, Aiden Gobaira, and Joshua Burnham, it may mean cracking the defensive line rotation. For players who had typical freshmen growing pains like Junior Tuihalamaka and Jaden Mickey, it might be as simple as finding that level of consistency and the experience gained by playing last season should only help. For someone like Jaylen Sneed, it may be as simple as him finding the right role and then unleashing his talent.

It would be helpful if next year at this time we are talking about a 2023 freshman the same way we’re talking about Morrison now, but even if that were to happen, the 2022 class on defense has to join the fray to make the defense better. It will be interesting to follow all of them this spring.

Fix the leaks in the run defense

Again, some of this is personnel driven. Howard Cross missing a game and then playing on a bad ankle for a large portion of the season didn’t help. The linebacker play in general wasn’t good enough against the inside run.

The overall numbers weren’t bad. 3.92 yards per carry and six games where they held the opposition to under 100 yards on the ground is perfectly fine.

The underlying numbers are not good. 91st in opportunity rate (giving up four yards or more when four yards are available). 103rd in EPA (expected points added) per rush.

Ohio State ran it down their throats in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t stop USC from running the football. They both had good running games (USC was 1st in EPA per rush, Ohio State was 7th), but if Notre Dame has a better run defense those games go differently.

They need to be more disruptive up front. They need to tackle better. They need to be more consistent from game to game.

Replace the pass rush

When a program is losing a player who broke the school record for sacks, those are going to be big shoes to fill. It’s more than just losing the sack production from Foskey, though. With the loss of Jayson and Justin Ademilola, that’s the three players with the most pressures on the team last season. That’s ¾ of the defensive line on 3rd down.

The Irish didn't finish with as many sacks as they did in 2021, but they were 13th in the country in sack rate (33rd in ‘21). It’s the highest they finished in sack rate since 2019. It’s going to be difficult to duplicate.

Jordan Botelho had 4.5 sacks in the final six games. His pass rushing sample size wasn’t large, but a 24% pass rush win rate and 38% win rate on true pass sets (no screen, no quick game, no RPOs, etc) are the kind of numbers that suggest he’s going to be a major factor off the edge.

The Irish also added defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste from Ohio State in the transfer portal. He had the 15th best true pass grade on PFF last season and his 16% pass rush win rate (26.5% on true pass sets). There’s a lot of upside that is untapped with him as a pass rusher that could blossom with more opportunities at Notre Dame.

Cross and Rylie Mills can and need to do more from the interior and there’s going to be more competition there from the defensive line rotation and possibly some linebackers like Marist Liufau and Jaylen Sneed. The good news is that Notre Dame should be very strong at corner and with coverage and pass rush going hand in hand, these defensive linemen can benefit from what the Irish are doing in the secondary.

Some problems can be fixed by talent and development of that talent. Others are deeper than that. They all should be priorities for the Notre Dame coaching staff this off-season in order to get the Irish defense to a higher level in 2023.

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