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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 6, 2023

Offense in college football dictates just about everything.

They control the tempo. The ball gets snapped when they want it to and if they want to hurry up to the line and go quick, the defense has to adjust to that.

They control the personnel. When they go big or they go with four or five wide receivers, the defense has to match them.

So much of playing defense is being reactive to what the offense is doing and one of the few times that can change is on 3rd and long. The playbook isn’t as big for the offense in that scenario. That is when defensive coordinators get to let loose and can force offenses to have to adjust to them.

It’s what makes the “sub-package” beautiful. There are so many things that defense can do with it. Everyone still has assignments and responsibilities, but the offense has to worry a bit more about smaller, faster players being on the field that may or may not attack as pass rushers or drop into coverage.

Notre Dame’s defense worked on a lot of 3rd down defense in the open practice last weekend and the personnel they used was “Big Dime”. I got into it further in this piece I wrote for ISD yesterday, but the short description of it is that it’s six defensive backs on the field (Dime) and the “Big” is because there are three safeties.

Six defensive backs is always going to allow for more flexibility with coverages, but it’s the five other defenders who make that personnel package even more interesting. Howard Cross and Javontae Jean-Baptiste were on the field as defensive linemen and so was Jordan Botelho. Botelho is also someone who played Rover for Notre Dame and has the versatility to do a lot of different things. Then there was Marist Liufau who didn’t shine much off the ball last season, but he’s someone who can line up off the edge or on the line and be effective and what he did best was play in coverage last season.

Jaylen Sneed would seem like a perfect fit to be a hybrid defender in “Big Dime”, but we didn’t get a chance to see it because he was injured. We know he has the physical ability to rush the passer off the edge and the speed to cover. There was strong buzz about him before that practice and even if he doesn’t become a starter in the base defense, he has the potential to be a star in this package.

Junior Tuihalamaka is another former linebacker and Nolan Ziegler, a safety in high school who also got in some work with the edge defenders in practice, is another intriguing option for the future.

It may or may not be this season, but Josh Burnham has all of the hybrid qualities to excel in this kind of sub-package too. The same could be said for Kahuna Kia when he returns from his mission. (I really liked what I saw from Kia as a freshman in camp)

I don’t want to call it an embarrassment of riches because most of these players are relatively unproven, but Notre Dame will not only have a good group of these types of players to play on 3rd down this season, but enough of these guys should hit for them to be even better in the next couple of years. When you add that to all of the things Golden can do on the back end with six defensive backs, I can’t wait to see where things go with Notre Dame’s defense on 3rd downs.

2. The goal with any kind of pressure or simulated pressure (showing more rushers at the line, but only rushing four) is to either get a free rusher or get a rusher into an easier match up against a back or tight end.

I always like to see that, but I also think that sometimes there isn’t enough emphasis on attacking an offensive lineman who struggles in pass protection. If the right guard is the worst pass blocker on an opposing team’s line, I think defenses should attack him with their best pass rusher as much as possible. That’s why I liked seeing Botelho line up over a guard and rush the passer from that spot in practice.

Yes, he’s an edge, but moving him around to target a guard who isn’t as good as Notre Dame’s two tackles is just smart football. The Irish are going to play a lot of teams who have guards who aren’t great in pass protection. They should attack those guys with their best pass rushers frequently.

3. I don’t think the intention of Notre Dame’s defensive staff was to target Andrew Kristofic, but it might have seemed that way because of how the day went for him. It was not his best practice.

I’m bringing this up not to pile on because I think it’s totally unfair to do that with someone when we watch one full-practice. I think it’s important to mention how one practice can only mean so much whether it’s good or bad.

Josh Lugg had a very tough day last spring for the open practice I attended. If you had told me that day he was going to win the right guard spot and not give up a sack all season, then I would have said you were crazy.

It can go the other way too. A couple of years ago in August it looked like Michael Mayer was doing Michael Mayer things. He was unstoppable in red zone one on ones showing superior ball skills.

Except it wasn’t Mayer. It was Kevin Bauman. Injuries have played a big part with his last two seasons, but we haven’t seen anything like that from him since.

I don’t know what will happen yet with Notre Dame at both guard spots, but I know enough to not cross Kristofic off the list because of one bad day.

4. The odds aren’t in TaRiq Bracy’s favor to get drafted at the end of this month. He didn’t get invited to the combine and based on his overall measurables, he was never going to be a coveted prospect by NFL teams.

I really think he has a chance to play in the league, though. I see someone like Mike Hilton and think that is someone who Bracy could be.

Hilton is one of the better slot defenders in the league for the Cincinnati Bengals and he was very good for the Pittsburgh Steelers as well. He entered the league undrafted out of Ole Miss and bounced around practice squads until he made the Steelers in 2017 and he’s now played six years in the league as a starting nickel.

Bracy’s athletic profile is very similar to Hilton’s. They are both undersized (5’10” 182 for Bracy, 5’9” 178 for Hilton as a prospect), but they win with quickness and recognition. When I watch Hilton, that’s the kind of player I think Bracy can become in the NFL.

I also think how a player performs against the best players he faces matters. Bracy absolutely delivered going against some very tough competition in 2022.

Against Ohio State’s Emeka Egbuka and Jaxon Smith-Njigba he gave up 3.6 yards per catch on six targets with zero first downs. Against North Carolina’s Josh Downs he gave up 1.3 yards per reception. If you add in those three and BYU’s Puka Nacua, Boston College’s Zay Flowers, and South Carolina’s Juice Wells, Bracy was targeted in coverage 14 times against them. He allowed 10 catches for 67 yards and 39 of them came on one catch against Flowers.

There have been a lot of Notre Dame players who have made NFL teams after going undrafted in recent years and I think Bracy has a good chance to be one of the next ones.

5. There has been a lot of talk about the Irish offense pushing the football down the field and that we should expect more of it this season, but we didn’t see it from them at the open practice. Because of that, we didn’t see the safeties involved in a ton of action.

Thankfully the safeties did speak with the media this week and there was plenty to take from it, including DJ Brown saying that early enrollee Ben Minich is already making plays.

Then there was this video of safeties coach Chris O’Leary being mic’d up, which featured some notable plays from Ramon Henderson.

He had an interception in 7 on 7 and this big stuff near the goal line.

There isn’t a safety on the roster who has made a more spectacular play than Henderson’s first career interception against Virginia in 2021, but he had a quiet season last year, his first full season at the position. A couple of plays made in a highlight video might not be enough to say he has turned a corner, but it did back up what he said earlier this week about processing the game quicker.

It takes confidence to jump in the hole and make a stick like the one Henderson made in that clip.

6. There’s a long way to go before we get to the season and actual depth charts are released, but there’s a real chance that Notre Dame is going to have three starters in the defensive backfield who were recruited to play another position.

Henderson was a corner before moving to safety. He also was recruited by some schools as a receiver and was ranked as an athlete by some services. Hart started his career at Notre Dame as a receiver before moving to corner. He was also ranked as an athlete as a recruit. Xavier Watts started as a receiver before moving to safety. He played safety in high school and could have started out there at Notre Dame if that’s where they preferred him.

Having two starters who started out at another position is unusual. Having three of them in the same group might be unprecedented. That’s just not something that happens at most programs. I’m sure someone will correct me if they can recall it, but I can’t think of that happening previously at Notre Dame either.

Most position switches don’t end up working out. Players are often moved out of necessity for depth or because it didn’t work out at their previous position. That’s not always the case, though, and when it does work out (think Frank Stams, Jeff Burris, or CJ Prosise), it can be fantastic.

Switching positions has already worked out well for Hart, Henderson, and Watts. It has worked out really well for the team too regardless if all three are starting this fall or not.

It’s pretty rare for it to work out as well as it has for everyone involved and if the secondary plays up to their potential, the development of these three at their new positions will deserve to be applauded. Original Retro Brand Notre Dame Fighting Irish Logo Tri-Blend T-Shirt - Ash

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