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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Defense Still Primarily Intact Heading Into Sun Bowl

December 18, 2023

On Saturday, Marcus Freeman said that all of the opt-out announcements were public, which means no more waiting anxiously or repeatedly refreshing Twitter and ISD’s home page to find out Notre Dame’s latest departure (feel free to resume this practice following the bowl game).

Somewhat surprising non-opt-outs include linebacker JD Bertrand, the team leader in tackles with 75, and Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who led the Irish with 9.5 TFLs and 4.0 sacks. 

Unlike the offense, which lost eight starters from the 2023 season, the Notre Dame defense will mostly remain intact.

That should bode well for the team’s matchup with No. 21 Oregon State (8-4) in the Sun Bowl on Dec. 29. The Fighting Irish finished 2023 ranked No. 8 in both scoring defense (16.6 PPG) and total defense (282.9 YPG).

Departed Defensive Players Position Snaps
Marist Liufau LB 595
Cam Hart CB 572
Ramon Henderson S 304
Nana Osafo-Mensah DE 252
Antonio Carter II S 72
Aidan Keanaaina DT 40
Ryan Barnes CB 16

Overall, the most significant loss is cornerback Cam Hart. Sure, he didn’t make that many headline plays with just four pass deflections and zero interceptions, but Pro Football Focus graded him out the highest among Notre Dame defensive backs this fall. 

Opposing quarterbacks produced a 67.1 NFL quarterback rating when throwing his way, completing 53.6% of passes for 137 yards and zero touchdowns. 

The logical choice to replace Hart is sophomore Jaden Mickey. He’s a subpar tackler, but he limited opposing QBs to an even lower NFL passer rating of 45.1 (albeit against less-accomplished receivers) while recording two pass breakups and a pick-six on 227 snaps this season.

Coach Mike Mickens has also allocated plenty of meaningful snaps to senior Clarence Lewis (214) and freshman Christian Gray (168), so they also should see increased roles in the Sun Bowl. 

Ramon Henderson was a vital depth piece this season, but there’s a reason the talented playmaker couldn’t surpass sixth-year DJ Brown in the starting rotation. So, the Irish should be able to replace his snaps against a Beaver team that’s down to its third-string signal-caller.

Unfortunately, high-flying freshman Luke Talich is still out with a broken collarbone. It’ll be a good opportunity for another freshman like Adon Shuler or Ben Minch to get extra reps. Another option is that Lewis fills in at safety.

The early departure of Marist Liufau also hurts. The two-year start finished third on the team with 6.0 TFLs and second with 3.0 sacks. 

His replacement will be a former five-star prospect, as well as two promising freshmen.

“You'll see (Jaylen) Sneed in there when we play some base,” Freeman said. “You‘ll also see Drayk Bowen being a guy that you'll see at Mike and Will, and then Jaiden Ausberry is a guy who has gotten reps over the course of his bowl practice. So, I can see an increased role for all three of those guys, but right now as we go to base, Sneed will be the third backer.”

With over 199 snaps this season, Sneed is a suitable replacement for Liufau, who was often used as a pass rusher off the edge. Sneed recorded 10 pressures and a sack this season. 

Bowen hasn’t played much this season, but he’s garnered a role in Notre Dame’s goal line package in recent weeks, playing 18 defensive snaps in the final two regular season games. 

Ausberry only played 15 snaps this season, but he’s impressed in limited action since arriving last spring. 

Incredibly, nearly the entire defensive line rotation will suit up in the Sun Bowl. The loss of Nana Osafo-Mensah hurts. He’s second on the team in sacks, but he played less than half the snaps of first-teamer Jean-Baptiste, so replacing his 15 to 25 reps per game should be manageable.

Is the Notre Dame defense as good as it was on Nov. 25? Probably not, but it should still be more than capable of holding its own against an Oregon State offense that’s also decimated by opt-outs and transfer portal entrants.

If it can, Notre Dame should be in a strong position to pick up its 10th win.

“We've got to understand the challenge it will be,” Freeman said, “and we have to grasp this opportunity and we began truly our physical preparation toward Oregon State today.

“The past couple of practices that we've had, we've really been just developing this team, right? Let's develop the team, but today, we truly turn our attention to Oregon State in terms of practice.”

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