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Notre Dame Football

How Al Golden Plans to Improve the Notre Dame Defense in 2023

March 31, 2023
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Several members of the Notre Dame defense shined last fall.

Vyper Isaiah Foskey recorded 11 sacks for the second straight year and broke Justin Tucks’ program sack record. Freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison picked off six passes, tying him for third in the nation

Defensive tackle Rylie Mills and cornerback Cam Hart made Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List, recognizing college football’s athletic marvels. 

Still, the Notre Dame defense took a step back in its first year under defensive coordinator Al Golden, even if a handful of players garnered national recognition. 

In 2022, Notre Dame finished with a defense ranked 36th in Football Outsiders DF+, which combines Football Outsider’s DFEI (opponent-adjusted drive efficiency data defensive ratings) and ESPN’s SP+ rankings. It was the first time the Fighting Irish finished with a defense outside the top 20 since the disastrous 4-8 season in 2016.

Notre Dame DF+ Rating by Season from 2016-22

Season DF+ Rank
2022 .56 36th
2021 1.20 15th
2020 1.03 18th
2019 1.40 13th
2018 1.39 15th
2017 1.27 17th
2016 .44 40th

Golden must mold Notre Dame back into a top-20 defense in 2023, even with Foskey, Justin and Jayson Ademilola, TaRiq Bracey and Brandon Joseph departing for the 2023 NFL Draft. 

It helps that Golden returned along with the entire defensive coaching staff returned. It provides the program with continuity it hasn’t experienced in years.

It’s the first time rising seniors will have played for the same defensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons.

Their familiarity with Golden’s defensive system is already paying dividends this spring. 

“I notice a huge difference,” Golden said. “Last year was a confluence of a lot of different things meeting in spring ball. Myself and the systems I’ve been part of, the personnel that was here, Marcus’ system and even to some extent, the guys who were here before Marcus.”

Golden also understands the demands of the job better than he did a year ago. Notre Dame announced Golden as its defensive coordinator on Feb. 15, 2022, just a month before Marcus Freeman’s first spring practice as head coach. 

He did his best to prepare for the variety of offenses Notre Dame would face in the fall, which proved extra challenging since he had spent the previous six seasons in the NFL.

For instance, Golden may have been familiar with Ohio State’s RPO-heavy, pro-style offense, but USC and UNC implement varied versions of the Air Raid and Navy still employs the triple option. 

“I hadn’t seen all those offenses before,” he said. “I tried to catch up. It was hard because I got here so late.”

As a result, Notre Dame misappropriated valuable practice time last the spring — a mistake Golden won’t make twice.

“That was the first order of priority for me this offseason,” Golden said. “Don’t just pick the plays you’re going to run in the spring; look at the opponents first to see what we need to run. We probably practiced some things last spring we didn’t need to and as the season evolved, we needed X, Y, and Z. Now we’re practicing X, Y and Z, and these other things are gone.”

It should help that the Irish will face five 2022 opponents again. That includes projected top-10 teams in USC, Ohio State and Clemson.

The players are also becoming more and more comfortable operating within Golden’s defense. 

Rising junior linebacker Prince Kollie says he felt lost at times last year, unsure of when to make the appropriate check when the opposing offense sent a man in motion. But he betters understands his role within the defense this spring and is given plenty of opportunities to prove himself. 

“Every single day, we mix the starting unit every time we go on the field,” Golden said. “The guys don’t know who’s starting until we announce it that morning. So it’s helping with our preparedness, helping with our preparation. It’s a morale booster. 

“You can’t hide what’s on tape. If a guy is not quite ready for the ones, it works out that way. If somebody is doing well with their opportunity, they should get more reps.”

The Notre Dame defense should play faster as the system becomes second nature.

Golden is also better equipped to put players in a position to succeed based on their individual skill sets.

“I know the personnel better. I know what the strengths are and what they can do really well,” Golden said. “Just to have those veteran guys, when you’re strong up the middle, you have a chance to be strong. Our inside ‘backers and safeties are all veterans, and they can solve problems on the field, which is great.”

Last fall, Notre Dame’s most glaring weakness was its red zone defense. The Irish finished dead last out of 131 FBS teams in opponent red zone touchdown rate at 79.4%. 

It was a significant reversal from 2021 when Notre Dame ranked fourth with Freeman as the defensive coordinator.

Going forward, improving in the red zone is one of Golden’s top priorities.

“There’s no vertical throws in the low red,” Golden said. “It’s all horizontal game, hold your ground. There’s a renewed emphasis, starting with me. I have to do a better job calling it down there. We took some things out and put some things in.”

On the bright side, the Irish allowed 2.62 opponent red zone opportunities per game, which tied with Iowa for the 12th-best rate per game.

“We were very good at not letting guys in the red,” Golden said. “If we can stay there and improve this, it’s going to help us a lot.”

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