SOUTH BEND — The creativity defensive coordinator Clark Lea has shown this season has largely mitigated a statistical dropoff from a stellar 2018 season on defense.
From niche packages to game-specific schemes to halftime tweaks.
The notable and unsightly statistical outlier in 2019 is run defense. That’s one of the reasons Notre Dame (6-2) was a distant 15th in the first set of College Football Playoff rankings, released Tuesday night, instead of in contention for a second consecutive playoff run.
The Irish still have the No. 1 rush offense (Navy) and No. 5 (Boston College) left to face this month, and already they’re on a trajectory to be the worst run defense in the Kelly Era.
Total defense is a respectable No. 33 out of 130 FBS teams. The Irish are No. 22 in pass-efficiency defense. They’re 28th in scoring defense, 25th on third downs.
There are the schematic possibilities and sufficient personnel on a given Saturday to limit the run, but not without sacrificing pass defense and vice versa. If the Irish are to get back in the playoff mix In 2020, they need to be able to be strong against both phases — run and pass — in every game.
The growth potential is there to become that kind of defense, but not without some winter weight room transformations throughout the roster and some pleasant surprises at cornerback — in bunches.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of where the Irish may be headed on defense and on special teams next season.
Current State of Affairs: Even with senior Daelin Hayes out for the season with a shoulder injury, there’s no shortage of experienced talent and ascending prospects. While that shows up indirectly in areas like pass-efficiency defense and turnovers gained (20th nationally), the Irish in the more tangible stats are a modest 37th in sacks and a subpar 73rd nationally in rush defense. Given the talent and who’s coaching it (Mike Elston), the potential for improvement is real.
Roster Churn: The Irish will lose captains Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem to the NFL and productive reserve Jamir Jones to expired eligibility. Irish recruit Jordan Bothelo from Honolulu was recently named one of 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award as the nation’s top high school linebacker. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds and growing, he’s a high-impact add as a defensive end prospect. Germany product Alex Ehrensberger (6-7, 238) is more of a long-term project.
2020 Projection: Hayes was able to redshirt and will likely start in 2020, bookended with senior classmate Ade Ogundeji. Freshman Isaiah Foskey and sophomores Justin Ademilola and Ovie Oghoufo are players who figure to move into the playing rotation next season. Provided that the young talent doesn’t disappoint, there’s reason to believe that the Irish will excel at this position group.
Interior defensive line
Current State of Affairs: Life after Jerry Tillery — and Jonathan Bonner for that matter — has been solid but not dynamic. Neither of the 2019 starters, nose guard Kurt Hinish and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, is on track to exceed or even match Tillery’s 30 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss or eight sacks from last season. There’s depth at the position group. There’s promise, but production hasn’t been overwhelming.
Roster Churn: Not only is there no one from this position group with expiring eligibility, Hinish is the only one who doesn’t have at least two years left after this one. Incoming recruit Rylie Mills (6-5, 270) projects to be ahead of the curve developmentally. Aidan Keanaaina (6-3, 292) is the other new addition.
2020 Projection: This is an area of the team that must show significant improvement if the Irish are going to get back to their second playoff. The two highest-ceiling players among the interior linemen may be backups at the moment, sophomore Jayson Ademilola and freshman Jacob Lacey. Don’t be surprised if Mills works his way into a significant rotational role.
Current State of Affairs: The biggest offseason and preseason concern, a linebacker corps with quantity by seemingly questionable quality, spilled into September and then abruptly came of age in ND’s Sept. 21 matchup at Georgia. Progress isn’t always a straight line, and there have been steps back, but overall there’s promise for a strong finish to the season. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has been a revelation.
Roster Churn: Of the 13 linebackers/rovers on the current roster, 10 have freshman or sophomore eligibility. Only starting buck linebacker Asmar Bilal moves on because he’s out of eligibility. Others could too if they feel there’s no chance to move up the depth chart. The Irish, by choice, will not sign a linebacker in the current recruiting cycle.
2020 Projection: Returning players who made progress, such as middle linebacker Drew White, need to evolve into difference-makers. That goes for whomever succeeds Bilal at the buck. This position group is strong in pass coverage, but needs to make strides against the run.
Current State of Affairs: The Irish have one of the best three-man rotations in college football — freshman Kyle Hamilton and seniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. And they’re even better together as part of ND’s dime package. Sophomore Houston Griffith was moved from cornerback earlier this season to finally train at the position that suits his skill set the best.
Roster Churn: Elliott is gone after the season, and Gilman could well join him, even though he has a fifth-year option. There’s not a pure safety prospect in the 2020 recruiting class, but the Irish got an impactful verbal commitment this past weekend from pending Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor.
2020 Projection: Hamilton, Griffith and Pryor could form a strong trio next year. Pryor, as a grad transfer won’t have to sit out, and he has two years of eligibility at ND. Sophomore DJ Brown and freshmen Litchfield Ajavon will provide depth.
Current State of Affairs: It wouldn’t be fair to call this position group a disappointment, but it hasn’t been a pleasant surprise, either. Senior Troy Pride sort of epitomizes that, though he’s ND’s best corner. As long as Shaun Crawford remains healthy and Donte Vaughn keeps surging, there’s a realistic hope for improvement in November.
Roster Churn: Pride, Vaughn and Crawford all depart after the season, leaving part-time starter TaRiq Bracy as the only returnee with any significant playing experience. The Irish add three three-star cornerback prospects in December — Landen Bartleson, Caleb Offord and Clarence Lewis — and could add a fourth cornerback recruit.
2020 Projection: This is a position that screams for the Irish coaching staff to at least comb the grad transfer market next semester. Besides sophomore Bracy, converted wide receiver Cam Hart, KJ Wallace and Isaiah Rutherford — all freshmen — comprise the “veteran” presence.
Current State of Affairs: Both junior kicker Jonathan Doerer and freshman punter/holder Jay Bramblett have performed well beyond expectations. Doerer has converted 75 percent of his field goal attempts, including a 52-yarder, and all 32 PATs. His touchback rate on kickoffs has improved from 38.6 percent last season to 54.3 percent this season. Bramblett doesn’t have the raw punting distance that predecessor Tyler Newsome did (44.7 to 41.2 yards per punt), but he has a better net rate and has only had one touchback among his 44 punts. Freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard is a great insurance policy at both positions. Chris Finke is more dependable than dynamic as a punt returner. There’s been a wide rotation of players on kickoff returns.
Roster Churn: Long snapper Alex Peitsch is the only addition among the specialists. He’ll either apprentice under John Shannon next season or take over for him if the senior opts out of a fifth-year situation. Incoming running back Chris Tyree joins the potential return group.
2020 Projection: Notre Dame’s coverage units have improved dramatically. That’s been a nice complement to the work Doerer and Bramblett are doing. If there’s an area that needs some oomph, it’s the return game. Tyree could provide that spark at punt returns, kickoff returns or both.