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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

April 11, 2024

Notre Dame’s 2023 defense could end up having four players drafted in next week’s NFL Draft. For some programs, that might mean that side of the ball would take a step back in the following season.

That shouldn’t be the case for the Irish.

They have other great players returning. They have young talent ready to replace those players who are off to the next level. They also are in year three of Al Golden’s scheme and it’s made for a comfortable transition to 2024.

There isn’t just optimism about the defense. There is confidence that Notre Dame will once again have one of the best defenses in the country. That was the case before the start of spring ball and it’s stayed that way.

I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s uncertainty about the offense, but it’s clear that the other side of the ball isn’t in the same place the defense is quite yet.

There’s a new coordinator in Mike Denbrock and players having to gain familiarity with the scheme. There’s turnover with the offensive line and figuring out exactly who the starting five will be. There’s also the fact that the offense hasn’t had anywhere close to their full allotment of skill players working together.

As quarterbacks coach Gino Guidugli mentioned earlier this week, this isn’t just about Riley Leonard not working at full capacity yet. Everyone is in the same boat when it comes to building chemistry. Tight ends Mitchell Evans and Eli Raridon have both been out for spring. The only receiver who was heavily involved last season who's been available all spring has been Jaden Greathouse.

While that’s given the staff a better evaluation of the new skill players and allowed them to get better acclimated to the scheme, both Guidugli and Denbrock emphasized how big the summer will be in getting everyone up to speed to hit the ground running during fall camp.

Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t had Leonard, Evans, Jordan Faison, and Beaux Collins for most or all of spring football. It’s impossible to set expectations for them when four players who should all be key pieces haven’t been on the field together yet.

It’s not concerning. It’s just a reality that whatever version of Notre Dame’s offense we’ll see this season isn’t what they’ve been this spring because of who they’ve been missing. We’ll have to wait until August to get a clearer picture of how good they can be.

2. One of the reasons why the talent on defense excelled last year had to do with the preparation Golden and the staff did before the spring. He mentioned that pairing things down and focusing on what they needed to have based on the opponents they were going to play in the fall was a priority.

I’d say that plan worked out extremely well for them.

I asked Jack Kiser about them doing something similar this spring and I thought his answer added a lot of insight into Golden’s approach.

”There’s a little of it,” Kiser said of tailoring what they are doing in the spring to what they’ll see from offenses in the fall. “When you’re looking at film ahead of opponents and you see a play pop open in practice, you’re like, I know why we’re doing that because we’re going to see that later.

“At the same time, when you have a young group, it’s important to get them experience and get them comfortable with the fundamentals and scheme without trying to throw a ton of stuff at them.The coaches are sprinkling in stuff that maybe some of the players don’t realize, but as you look ahead, you can definitely see this team does a lot of this and we’re getting that in practice.”

To me, this explains exactly why this staff is so good. If they are stressing young players about what they are going to see in the fall, it’s going to overwhelm them. These players still have other things to master and doing it this way is like sneaking vegetables into a kids’ smoothie. They’re focusing on other things now while making sure they still have what’s necessary in there for later on.

Maybe if Notre Dame wasn’t working with so many young linebackers and young safeties this fall, Golden and the staff would be a bit more overt with it. This approach feels like the right one with more inexperienced players.

3. I also asked Kiser about what he has communicated with Jaiden Ausberry about the Rover position and I thought his answer was really insightful in regards to anyone thinking that Notre Dame is going to play a lot more with three linebackers this season:

”My big thing is I’ve been put into this position where if you’re a Rover on a nickel team, it’s hard to get on the field. You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself into just being a Rover. (Jaiden) Ausberry has really taken that to heart. He’s trying to do anything he can to get on the field, whether that’s in sub-packages or even on third down, nickel or playing inside - whatever he can do.”
“It’s important to have that mindset and not pigeonhole yourself into one position, especially when you’re a nickel team and that Rover doesn’t get on the field as much.”

Notre Dame might call three linebackers base, but their base defense is with a nickel on the field. It has to be because of how they are forced to match personnel. Mike Denbrock talked about targeting the slot receiver because he’s often matched up with the third best corner. Well, the third best corner can cover a slot receiver better than a linebacker, which is why the Rover isn’t on the field as much as a slot corner like TaRiq Bracy, Thomas Harper, or Jordan Clark.

I think people who envision Jaylen Sneed or Ausberry on the field at Rover for the majority of snaps might not realize the changes Notre Dame would have to make on defense and not in a good way.

And that’s nothing to do with them as players. It’s just that having an extra linebacker limits how the defense can play in terms of coverage against 11 personnel (one back, one tight end).

I do think the idea of Ausberry playing as the “Aztec” in Notre Dame’s Spear sub-package, with Ausberry ostensibly a Dime defender like DJ Brown was last season. is very interesting. I hope to at least get a glimpse of that at some point.

I also think Adon Shuler is a great fit in that spot and I’d imagine he’d be the favorite to play there on third downs this season.

4. I don’t want to kill the sunshine and lollipops vibes emanating from the defense as a whole, but one position where I have questions is at defensive tackle.

There aren't any questions about this season. Howard Cross and Rylie Mills with Gabriel Rubio, Jason Onye, and Donovan Hinish as depth would make a lot of programs envious. I just don’t really know enough about the young guys behind them.

None of Brenan Vernon, Devan Houstan, Armel Mukam (out for spring with a shoulder injury), Tyson Ford, Cole Mullins, or Sean Sevillano will be forced to play earlier than they should. It would be great to see one of these players force their way onto the field this fall or at least show they are good enough to make it a conversation.

The media has seen one non-padded full practice and a bunch of days where we saw the first five periods of a practice. Most of those days didn’t include a lot of action where we got to see these young defensive tackles take meaningful reps.

However, Cross and Mills haven’t been in pads for a lot of practices and Rubio hasn’t been practicing at all. I haven’t heard a lot about those young defensive tackles even though some of them have been getting reps with the twos.

It’s WAY TOO early to start worrying about the future at the position, but I’m hoping to see or hear something more about that group before the conclusion of spring.

5. JD Bertrand isn’t the kind of player who gets mentioned on these mock draft shows. He wasn’t able to complete all of his athletic testing at the NFL Combine or at Notre Dame’s Pro Day. Based on his profile, he’s probably in line to be a late selection on day three of the NFL Draft and even that’s not guaranteed.

He has been able to work out for NFL teams recently and I have little doubt he makes a strong impression when he meets with them. He impressed people at the Senior Bowl as well.

Bertrand was a very good player at Notre Dame. The list of players who led the team in tackles for three straight seasons is short and he’s on it. He made a big impact on the field, but these kinds of comments from Jaylen Sneed and Drayk Bowen about Bertrand shows what kind of impact he had as a leader and mentor.

Sneed on Bertrand:

I learned a lot from JD Bertrand. He taught me so much on how he carried himself, handled himself. I was his roommate during fall camp at one point. Just watching how he did everything the right way helped me to be able to kind of model myself after him.

Bowen on Bertrand:

JD helped me a lot last year. He was more of a mentor for me. Anything I needed to go to with him, I could do. I asked a lot of questions. I asked how he did things, how he handled himself in class, the weight room, football study and out on the field. That part I learned a lot from him. For me on the field, it’s just going and being myself. I’m not JD, but I want to be like him. He was a great leader, great football player. He’s what you want to be as a Notre Dame linebacker. I’m trying to be like him, but play as myself.

When a player signs to play football at Notre Dame, of course everyone wants to see recruits grow into multi-year starters and NFL Draft picks. Setting the example for those who are following him at Notre Dame is a legacy just as great as anything he did on the field.

No matter what selection he gets drafted, it won’t be an accurate reflection of the impact he made within the program. 

6. In less than one week, the transfer portal is going to open again. Undergraduate football players can officially enter April 16, four days before Notre Dame’s spring game.

We’re already hearing about intentions to enter before things open up and USC defensive tackle Bear Alexander intending to transfer should come as no surprise. He can now keep his average of transferring to a different school every year that reaches all the way back to when he started high school!

Although maybe some programs would be scared off by all the baggage that comes with a player like Alexander, several are going to bet on his talent. They’ll essentially be renting him for a year before he presumably heads off to the NFL.

Not having him at USC makes them worse. They don’t have another interior defensive lineman with the potential to disrupt like he can. Only three returning defensive tackles from Power 5 programs had more pressures than him last season. They aren’t returning any other player and didn’t add anyone in the portal who can match him at his best.

USC is probably going to be looking to add during this spring portal window much like they did when they brought in Jordan Addison a couple of years ago. It’s interesting to see them be on the other end of it and having it significantly weaken an area that was already considered an issue for them.

(Edit: Alexander tweeted he is staying at USC. So someone cut a check. Or he’s just waiting until the day he can officially enter.) 

The Trojans are going to be better on defense simply by upgrading the staff on that side of the ball. It’s tough to imagine them being good, though, if they are losing possibly their only defensive linemen who could present problems against Notre Dame and the other top teams on their schedule.

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