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Notre Dame Football

Friday’s Sun Bowl to provide a glimpse of Notre Dame’s future defense

December 28, 2023
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Notre Dame wrapped up November ranked eighth in scoring defense and total defense. That’s the highest the Fighting Irish had finished the regular season in either category since 2012 when they lost to Alabama in the BCS National Championship game. 

On Friday, the defense will face No. 21 Oregon State in the Sun Bowl without a few prominent players, especially cornerback Cam Hart, linebacker Marist Liufau, nickel Thomas Harper and safety Ramon Henderson.

“They’ve had some opt-outs, and we’ve had some opt-outs, but I don’t think that’s going to change who they are at the core, which is a very, very balanced offensive unit,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said. “From a personnel standpoint, they really challenge you with personnel groupings and formations.

“From that standpoint, we’re excited about the opportunity and have been working hard to defend them.” 

With that said, the majority of defenders who’ve traveled to El Paso, Texas, will return to South Bend in 2024. The notable exceptions are linebacker JD Bertrand, defensive end Javontae Jean-Baptiste and safety DJ Brown.

Now, this trio still represents significant soon-to-be departures. Bertrand leads the team with 75 tackles, while Jean-Baptiste ranked first in two important statistical categories with 9.5 TFLs and 4.0 sacks. Brown is a sixth-year senior who produced the best college season.

Still, the Sun Bowl should give the Notre Dame coaching staff a pretty good look at what the future holds on defense, with All-Americans such as defensive tackle Howard Cross III, safety Xavier Watts and cornerback Ben Morrison all likely coming back for another season. 

Each will look to pick up momentum for 2024 on Friday. 

“This is the starting point for a very great year,” Cross III said. “I was talking to my dad (former New York Giants tight end Howard Cross), if you want to go into the season being that guy, this is where you prove to everybody that you can compete with the best.”

Cross III will be joined by fellow interior havoc-wrecking defensive lineman Rylie Mills.

“We’re both big parts of the defense,” Cross III said of Mills, “so both of us coming back, it’s just a really good part or base to build a great (defense).”

The last significant returnee is fifth-year linebacker Jack Kiser. 

“You can argue the last half of the season, he has been one of the more productive players and has really improved,” Golden said of Kiser. “We’re excited. Obviously, an early Christmas gift for us when he announced he was coming back along with Rylie and Howard. 

“We’re excited about Jack. He’ll still play outside in the 4-3 package, and in the 4-2 package, he’ll be inside.”

Next, it’s up to a host of promising young blue-chip prospects who will garner bigger opportunities in the Sun Bowl. 

Based on the depth chart Notre Dame released on Sunday, Jaden Mickey and Christian Gray will fill in at field corner for Hart. Both will likely be battling for the position from now until the start of the 2024 season.  

Former five-star Jaylen Sneed will get to show off his explosiveness while filling in for Liufau. Second-string freshmen backers Drayk Bowen and Jaiden Ausberry should also receive valuable reps against the Beavers. 

Up front, Joshua Burnham will get second-team reps at strongside end, potentially leaving behind the Vyper position for good. 

“I do think his frame will allow him to hold considerably more weight and still be a really, really fluid athlete,” Golden said. “He is a fluid athlete. He can run. He’s longer than a lot of people think when you stand next to him.

“I do think he’s going to be a 255-pounder player this coming season. I think that’s really going to afford him the opportunity to hold up inside and be fast and fluid enough to rush the passer on the outside.” 

With that said, coach Marcus Freeman has already added two defensive transfers in Duke edge rusher R.J. Oben and Arizona State nickel Jordan Clark. In the offseason, he may dip into the portal for another safety prospect as well, but the bulk of next year’s defensive contributors are likely already on the roster.

That’s why, Golden is happy with the players who are still available, even if he had to endure a tumultuous December to get here.

“You’re disappointed sometimes by the challenges that are in college football right now,” Golden said, “but then you’re rewarded when you come down here and see our players interact with the Sun Bowl people and the people of El Paso. It makes it really rewarding, and for that we’re grateful.”

Beyond that, all Freeman has to do is convince Golden to remain in South Bend for at least one more season. If he does, the Irish should be in a prime position to produce a top-10 defense for the second year in a row. 

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