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Notre Dame Football

Camp Questions | Notre Dame Defense

July 25, 2023
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Preseason rankings are great…until they become worthless.

The moment teams start playing ball, all of the projections get thrown out. Things can change quickly and what we thought we knew doesn’t always become real.

Notre Dame’s 2021 defense finished 15th in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking). For the 2022 season, they returned six of their top-seven tacklers, three starters in the secondary, their two best pass rushers, and added what they thought would be an impact player at safety and a playmaker at linebacker who missed the 2021 season with an injury.

The expectations for the 2022 defense were high and they should have been. They were projected by SP+ to be the eighth ranked defense before the season.

Well, so much for all of that.

Things didn’t go as planned in many ways and with a new coordinator, it ended up being their lowest ranked defense in (36th in DF+) in six years. They kept the points down (22nd in points per drive), but the standard is the standard. The ‘22 defense didn’t meet the standard of defense Notre Dame had played in the previous six seasons.

The defense should be better in 2023. It’s year two for Al Golden as defensive coordinator and the adjustment for him to the college game and the players to his system shouldn’t be an issue.

They are bringing back 13 players who played 200 snaps or more last season, which includes their four leading tacklers. This is the deepest group they have had in the secondary in years. Their top-three linebackers return plus they have young talent at the position who could push to play over them. Even after losing Isaiah Foskey and the Ademilola twins up front, they don’t lack options with several former blue-chip defensive line recruits ready for bigger roles as well.

There really is zero excuse for this to not be a top-20 defense this fall, but they still have some questions that need to be answered in camp before we get a better idea of how much better they can be.

Let’s start up front and work our way back to the secondary.

Who cracks the defensive line rotation?

The rotation up front was pretty much set with eight players logging more than 180 snaps in ‘22. I think it could end up being closer to 10 this fall depending on how some young players develop.

Jordan Botelho, Rylie Mills, Howard Cross, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Nana Osafo-Mensah, Gabriel Rubio, and Jason Onye are pretty much established as the top group after the spring. That’s seven and from there it gets interesting.

At least one more Vyper will play with Junior Tuihalamaka and Josh Burnham competing there. I think we might end up seeing both in the mix if they have good camps this August. Both showed good signs of progress during the spring.

At end, Aiden Gobaira has flashed as a pass rusher, but a lot of how much he plays could depend on showing if he is a reliable run defender. Osafo-Mensah has proven he can set the edge and if someone is going to take snaps away from him or JJB, they have to prove they can play the run.

Inside, Tyson Ford had some nice moments in the spring and if he can show consistency from snap to snap, he might be too good to keep off the field. Donovan Hinish isn’t going to be confused with his older brother Kurt when he was a senior quite yet, but I wouldn’t count Donovan out from pushing to get into the mix.

There hasn’t been a true freshman to average more than 10 snaps a game on the defensive line at Notre Dame since 2020 and with the depth in front of them, Boubacar Traore, Brenan Vernon, Devan Houstan, or Armel Mukam will have to stand out to be the next one to do that. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, though.

The rotation can get tweaked during the season and Botelho is a perfect example of that. In the first half of the season he only played 19 snaps on defense. In the final six games he averaged 18 snaps per game.

The Irish will be favored by three scores or more in three of the first four games of the season as well, so there should be opportunities for those young players to show out.

Out of the eight who were in the rotation last season, Foskey and Mills are the only two who I would have placed in the category as definite future NFL Draft picks. Out of the top-10 on the defensive line this fall, that number could probably be closer to five or more, but most of those players haven’t played many snaps in college yet.

There is talent up front for defensive line coach Al Washington to work with, but more of it is in year one or two on campus than a coach would like to have. If some of that young talent looks very good in camp, it will mean good things for the defensive line rotation this fall.

How many linebackers will play?

JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Marist Liufau are going to play this season.

Bertrand is locked in as the starting Mike linebacker and Kiser and Liufau are going to be in the mix in some form or fashion. We go into camp knowing that at linebacker.

We don’t know how many more linebackers will play, what roles everyone will have, or how they will divvy out the snaps at the position. We also don’t know if Golden is going to be different with his personnel usage this season compared to last year.

Notre Dame’s base was a nickel defense last fall with Tariq Bracy as a slot corner. That meant two inside linebackers and no Rover on the field the majority of the time. Kiser was listed as the starting Rover, but he only played 35 snaps last season (10.4% of his total snaps) where he was aligned outside of the box compared to 136 in 2021 (34.2%). He was an inside linebacker and the Irish played with two linebackers on the field most of the time.

If that stays the same, that obviously will have an impact on how many linebackers play this fall. If they play a Rover more then it opens things up for Jaylen Sneed and Jaiden Ausberry to compete there.

The Irish have Sneed, Nolan Ziegler, Preston Zinter, Ausberry, and Drayk Bowen as candidates competing with the three more experienced players in front of them. For any of them to play, they have to be better than the other three, which is something Prince Kollie was unable to do before he decided to transfer.

There’s always an assumption that the more experienced player will keep a starting job by default, but we’ve seen it go differently in recent years. In 2020, Jordan Genmark Heath was supposed to be next in line at Will (formerly Buck), but Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau leapfrogged him on the depth chart. Simon was supposed to be the starting Will in 2021 after Liufau was injured, but Bertrand ended up winning that job. Kollie was the presumed next in line this season, but he joined JGH and Simon as transfers. A lot of things can happen in camp when it comes to shuffling the depth chart.

Liufau was moved around in the spring lining up off the edge in subpackages as well and if he’s not a starter, playing that hybrid role might be the best fit. Notre Dame also used Sneed off the edge in the bowl game against South Carolina and he might be moved around to get him on the field as well.

There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out at linebacker with Notre Dame during camp and what we see from them on day one could look a lot differently than a few weeks from now.

Will Cam Hart look like the 2021 version of Cam Hart (or better)?

This might be the best Notre Dame has been at the corner position in terms of overall talent and depth in a long time.

Benjamin Morrison is a star, Jaden Mickey looks like he is ready to take a step after his freshman season, and Christian Gray looks like might be the next young corner who is too good to keep off the field.

Clarence Lewis and his 21 career starts barely even get mentioned with the top group. He might be the fourth corner this fall and is competing to be the nickel.

They also have a two-year starter returning in Cam Hart who had a promising season as a first-year starter and was supposed to take that next step in 2022.

It never quite happened for him. A hamstring injury in camp slowed him down to start the year and a shoulder injury ended his season early. His performance wasn’t bad by any means, but he went from 14 Havoc plays (tackles for loss, interceptions, pass breakups, and forced fumbles) in ‘21 down to seven.

He’s returning for a fifth year at Notre Dame and if he’s healthy, there’s no reason to think he won’t regain the form he had in ‘21. He could end up being even better and if that happens, it changes the ceiling for the defense as a whole.

Hart has missed the last two spring practices and last season’s bowl practices because of injury. That’s a lot of missed opportunities to get better. Notre Dame needs him to have a healthy August and be the best version of himself by the time they play Ohio State in late September.

How much of an impact can the two transfers in the secondary make?

Notre Dame had five safeties play more than 300 snaps last season and three of them return in DJ Brown, Ramon Henderson, and Xavier Watts. They might be the three safeties who play the most snaps this year, but depth and competition were needed at the position so they decided to bring in Thomas Harper (Oklahoma State) and Antonio Carter II (Rhode Island).

Harper was on campus for the spring, but was unable to fully participate while recovering from shoulder surgery. Carter arrived in the summer. Fall camp will be the first time we get to watch both compete in practice.

Last year the staff brought in Brandon Joseph to help replace some of the production they lost after Kyle Hamilton left for the NFL. It didn’t work out how anyone hoped it would. The expectations aren’t nearly as high for Harper or Carter, but both have the potential to play key roles.

Carter played outside corner at Rhode Island and could play safety or nickel. Harper is a candidate at nickel for the Irish as well. We know they will provide depth at the very least.

I guess the biggest unknown with them is whether or not they can beat out players who have played a lot of football for the Irish at safety and nickel (Lewis).

Alohi Gilman transferred to Notre Dame and had to sit out under the old transfer rules. When he was eligible, he had two returning starters in front of him in Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott. Neither were considered top tier players at the time, but Gilman still had to prove himself and win a starting job.

He did that and then some. PFF graded him out as the top safety in the country in 2018 and adding an impact defender like him to that defense was one of the catalysts that helped them become a playoff team.

That’s probably the best case scenario for any transfer. It’s unlikely going to be anything similar with Harper and Carter, but we know the floor with their additions is solid depth at the very least. If they can prove to be more than that heading out of fall camp, then I don’t think becoming one of the top secondaries in the country is an unreasonable goal.

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