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Notre Dame Football

Al Golden's Red Zone Defense Improved & Notre Dame's Youth Flashing

September 6, 2023

2022 was a nightmare for Notre Dame’s defense in the red zone. It was downright ugly. 

Opponents scored 94.12 percent of the time they reached the red zone against Al Golden’s defense last fall, which was No. 130 in the country. For perspective, the only FBS team worse than Notre Dame in the red zone was Rutgers at 95 percent. 

Sure, Golden got a late start on the job as he was helping the Cincinnati Bengals reach the Super Bowl, but the other part might have simply been familiarizing himself with the college game. 

Red zone defense was a priority for the defensive staff during the offseason and that included self-evaluation, but also taking the time to look at defenses that were successful in the red zone. 

“You really look at what we did last year in a red zone and where the miscues happen,” stated Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman. “Then you're able to study some of the best. We spent time studying some of those best red zone defenses and seeing if there's something that could fit into our scheme.” 

Golden was a little hesitant to name which defenses he studied, but that’s the true football guy inside Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. There is little doubt Golden doesn’t live for ball, so catching up on college defenses was something he was going to do regardless of the lack of success last fall. 

It’s paid off through two weeks as Notre Dame has gone 2-for-5 in red zone situations against Navy and Tennessee State, which is a drastic improvement regardless of competition. And yes, Notre Dame has already recorded more red zone stops in two games than all of 2022. 

“I watch everything,” explained Golden. “I mean, I watch everything, so nothing in particular, just whatever we need to watch. We watch in every situation on defense, so, as I said to you guys before, that's what we get done in the offseason. That's what we didn't have the luxury of doing the previous year.”  

Freeman has been pleased with Golden’s defense to this point as it’s clear positive adjustments have been made. 

“We made some enhancements,” Freeman stated. “Coach Golden has done a great job and then the emphasis in practice. You have to practice it. It has to be a mentality, there has to be an understanding that the field shrinks and your matches have to become really tight, right? There's not a lot of space for zone defense down there. All those things come into play and they've shown in the first two games.” 

Yes, Notre Dame hasn’t played a Power Five team, but the Irish haven’t given up a touchdown through two games and the only scores have been two field goals. That’s progress considering where the Irish were after two games a year ago, yet that doesn’t mean Golden is content with his defense. 

“I think the guys know there are certain things that we need to improve,” Golden explained. “It's not really public knowledge, but in general, we need to tackle better than we did last week, We need to get more pressure on the quarterback. I’d like to see us keep attacking the football. Then there's some other in-house things, but those would be three off the top of my head.”  

The one thing Notre Dame hasn’t done is start fast on defense. Navy went 38 yards on seven plays before turning it over on downs, while Tennessee State went on a 15-play, 55-yard drive ending with the only three points of the game. 

Sure, adjusting to the triple-option is tough and every team is going to have new wrinkles not on film. Golden would love a faster start, but he also isn’t overly worried as he’s confident Notre Dame can make the proper adjustments.  

“I would love to start with a three-and-out or start with a turnover or start with something positive,” said Golden. “But again, games are tough. Guys run scripts. They work on the scripts for a really long time. A lot of the scripts are uncharted concepts.

“You've got to get them off of the script and then settle in. I think we've done that in the last two games. Just settle in. But it's always tricky in the beginning. I don't get too stressed out about that.”  

Sophomore Joshua Burnham arrived at Notre Dame as a linebacker, but quickly made the move to the edge. It wasn’t necessarily a switch many saw coming, but through two games in 2023, it seems like a natural fit. 

Burnham has recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries and a sack. 

The Michigan native’s production is impressive and it’s come on just 30 snaps. 

“There's no doubt his factor level, so far, has been high,” stated Golden. “So your number of plays divided by factors, that’s your ratio. His is high, whether it's quarterback sacks or tackles or whatever the case may be. I think that's a good sign for him moving forward.”  

True freshmen defensive linemen Boubacar Traore and Brenan Vernon made their Notre Dame debuts on Saturday and while both have a tough battle up the depth chart, Golden has been encouraged with what he’s seen through the fall. 

“They're doing a good job,” Golden explained. “They're talented. They like the game. They compete. They’ve just got to keep learning, keep studying, keep growing, put the time in, in individual drills and techniques, but my first impression is good.”  

Vernon played on the interior of the Irish defensive line against Tennessee State. It’s worth noting several players play out of position in blow outs to simply get guys on the field, but Golden didn’t eliminate the possibility of Vernon ending up inside in the long run. 

“We'll see where his body takes him,” Golden stated. “He's naturally a big man. He's going to be a big man, so we'll see where it goes.”  

Freshman cornerback Christian Gray found himself in the two-deep to start the year, which isn’t necessarily a surprise. Gray enrolled early and impressed before being sidelined with a minor injury in the spring. 

Golden has been impressed with the work ethic Gray, but also the ability to not beat himself mentally. 

“Just getting better every day, not looking ahead and staying in the moment trying to get better,” Golden said of what’s allowed Gray to ascend. “Meeting with Mick (Mike Mickens) on the side. Working on his techniques. Listening to Cam (Hart), Ben (Morrison), C-Lew (Clarence Lewis) and those guys and becoming trustworthy.

“That’s the key for all young players. If you want to get on the field, eliminate things that cause you to lose - penalties, missed alignments, missed assignments and he’s done a good job of that so far.” 

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