Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Spring Post-Mortem | Defensive Back

April 29, 2019
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The pass rush played a big part in it, but the defensive back play in 2018 was a critical reason why the Irish played elite pass defense. They finished 8th in passing S&P+, gave up only 5.6 yards per attempt (tied for 2nd), and finished sixth in pass efficiency defense.

With three starters back and a potentially great pass rush supporting them, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for 2019.

Spring ball had them minus two starters with Alohi Gilman out for the majority of practices while working back from an injury. With other veterans missing for similar reasons, it was a chance for young players to get a lot of reps.

They showed promise while taking those reps, but it’s unclear if they are ready to thrive if those reps come in games this fall.

Safety

As mentioned, Gilman didn’t participate for much of the spring. They chose to hold him out of 11 on 11 portions of practice and he mostly got his work in during individual and one on ones.

Nothing changed one bit with his compete level when we did see him. His anticipation against routes in one on ones looked even better than it had before. There was no use pushing him back early to get on the field this spring.

He should be fully healthy and poised to have a great season this fall.

His fellow returning starter, senior Jalen Elliott, did participate the entire spring and all anyone needed to see he was ready to build on last year was the forced fumble he caused in the Blue-Gold game.

Elliott was a blitzer on the play and pressured Ian Book. He forced Book to get the ball out to Jafar Armstrong in space where he was turning it into a big play. Many players would have given up after they got pressure and thought their job was done. Elliott chased the play down the field and punched the ball out when he got there.

The defense recovered the fumble. Elliott looked like Troy Polamalu minus the hair.

It is amazing remembering the questions around Elliott out of last spring and now look at him as a legitimate NFL prospect. He and Gilman together can be even better than they were in ‘18.

The depth chart after that is a bit muddled, though.

DJ Brown moved from cornerback to safety and did show out at times in his first spring ball for the Irish. He has good ball skills and did not look out of place at the position.

There’s a lot of details he needs to refine to his game in terms of finishing at the catch point and reading route concepts quicker. A lot of that comes with experience and the many reps he tooks with the ones in the spring definitely helped speed up his development. They’re going to need him to be ready because he is the third safety after the spring.

It was also the first spring for Derrik Allen and it wasn’t looking too pretty when it kicked off. He had some struggles early, but as things progressed, he performed better. The spring game was when he looked the most confident and physical out there on the field.

Clark Lea mentioned that Allen’s in the process of cutting weight to be where they need him to be athletically. Can he get there? The answer looked like a no when practices started and then flipped to a maybe by the end.

He’ll need to continue to improve in every aspect if he’s going to not just add depth this season, but compete to play in 2020.

Two freshmen, Litchfield Ajavon‍ and Kyle Hamilton‍, will be reporting this summer. Hamilton is expected to compete immediately for the two-deep. Athletically he has the tools to do so, but we’ll see how quickly he can pick up the mental side of things.

Cornerback

The biggest hole to fill at corner had to do with replacing Julian Love. That won’t be an easy task for anyone the staff chooses to play on the boundary.

After the spring, it’s still up for debate as to who that will be.

Could it be Troy Pride? He was very good playing the field corner last season and had a strong spring in coverage. He would be a logical choice if Notre Dame could feel confident about him as a tackler with the way teams run the ball there.

I don’t know if they can feel that way, though. It’s difficult to say when they don’t tackle that much during the spring and he hasn’t shown that to be one of his strengths. They know he can play the field and play it very well and it looks like they’d like to keep him there.

They moved Houston Griffith to the boundary after he worked at nickel and safety. The tackling part of the job won’t be an issue for him. He can do everything that is needed in that aspect.

Can he handle the big receivers he’ll have to face each week? He didn’t have an easy assignment going up against Chase Claypool so often in practices. Griffith did not get the better of that matchup.

Overall Griffith didn’t look overwhelmed athletically at corner. There are technical things he needs to improve, to be expected for someone transitioning to the position, and he doesn’t have the anticipation a player like Love had. Griffith didn’t get his hands on the football as much I’d like to see this spring.

TaRiq Bracy tweaked his ankle about halfway through practices and was a bit limited after that. I think many were hoping he’d make a leap in his first spring, but whether the ankle had much to do with it or not, it didn’t happen for him.

The coaching staff decided to work with Avery Davis at nickel rather than Bracy so the presumption is that if Bracy is going to make an impact this season, it will be as an outside corner and not competing at nickel.

No one knew what to expect from Davis with him moving to corner. What he proved is that he has the physical traits to do well and more natural instincts for the position than most. Is he someone who can play this year? We’ll see how much better he looks in the summer.

The surprise of the spring might have been walk-on Temi Agoro. Generally seniors who have not made not found themselves in the mix prior to their final year are going to be career scout team players. That may not be the case with Agoro who had enough good practices to the point where he looked like a scholarship player. He topped it off with a few pass breakups in the Blue-Gold game.

I don’t think people should be buying in to him being a factor based off of that or even a few strong practices, but he at least put people on notice not to forget him once the summer hits. When asked to play press coverage, he did not look out of place.

Noah Boykin ended up transferring at the conclusion of the spring. That means more opportunities for true freshman KJ Wallace‍ and Isaiah Rutherford‍. I expect Wallace to compete at the boundary and the nickel. Rutherford I think will start out at the field, but we’ll see where they fit once they get to campus.

Notre Dame is essentially adding those two and inserting Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford back into the corner competition.

Everyone knows about Vaughn’s struggles last season. Perhaps a healthy shoulder helps him regain his confidence. It would be good for the Irish if he can push for the starting boundary spot and he’ll be needed to play in ‘19.

With Crawford it will always be about whether he can stay healthy. In addition to that, he simply hasn’t played much football in the last four years. He’s really only had one full-year where he’s been able to practice. It would be a huge help for the defense if he can be there to play the nickel when needed.

This is all dependent on not only him staying healthy, but him also being close to the same athlete he was prior to the latest injury.

There’s plenty of uncertainty at corner heading into the summer. When the receivers show out, it usually means the corners aren’t doing well and that was the case for many instances this spring.

Is that something that will be remedied by the freshman additions and the return of Vaughn and Crawford? Will we see significant improvement over the summer from young corners like Griffith and Bracy? Are the receivers just that good and fans shouldn’t worry that much?

When we figure all this out, we can have a much better idea if Notre Dame can play the same kind of pass defense they did last season.

 
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