SOUTH BEND — The Irish embraced more contact on Saturday than any of their previous observed practices this spring.
That did not bode well for certain members of Notre Dame’s defense. Most of the Irish defensive backs struggled in coverage against receivers Chris Finke, Chase Claypool and Kevin Austin Jr. A few missed tackles by ND’s linebackers allowed for longer gains.
Defensive linemen Julian Okwara and Jacob Lacey, linebacker Jack Lamb and cornerback Troy Pride Jr. were among those that impressed. Not many others stood out, though, in spring session No. 9 of 15 held at the Loftus Sports Center.
The Irish rolled out their usual starters on the defensive line — Khalid Kareem, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish and Julian Okwara. Jalen Elliott and Brown remained at safety while Houston Griffith and Pride lined up at cornerback. Notre Dame continued to intermingle its linebackers.
Griffith had his worst observed practice. The 6-foot-4, 229-pound Claypool used his physicality and route running to dominate Griffith on the boundary. Claypool flashed the latter when creating separation on an out route against Griffith during one-on-one drills. In a later scrimmage portion, Claypool caught an out route versus Griffith while falling to his side.
Quarterback Phil Jurkovec then subbed in and delivered a strike downfield to Griffith’s man, Claypool. Junior receiver Michael Young also torched Griffith on a vertical route in a 7-on-7 setting.
The sophomore Griffith flashed his athleticism at times — like when registering a pass breakup against Claypool on a back shoulder throw in the end zone. What Claypool appeared to expose was Griffith’s newness on the boundary. Griffith's familiarity with the position and technique will need to improve.
Pride returned to form after having his worst observed spring practice on Tuesday. The senior registered a pass breakup in a red zone one-on-one matchup and another against tight end Cole Kmet during 7-on-7 work. On a two-point conversion attempt, Pride stuffed Finke before he could reach the goal line. Pride kept his side of the field in check for most of the day, as did Elliott.
DJ Brown started at free safety again. He overtook sophomore Derrik Allen this week as incumbent starter Alohi Gilman remains limited. Though, Gilman saw more action than earlier this spring and participated in early one-on-one drills. He registered a pass breakup and lost a battle with Finke.
Brown struggled in early one-on-one work, surrendering two straight completions against Austin. Finke also beat Brown with his shiftiness in a one-on-one red zone situation.
Recovering from his early struggles, Brown recorded ND’s lone interception of the day. Under pressure, quarterback Ian Book heaved into the end zone and Brown made the play.
The 6-1, 192-pound sophomore had one of the better efforts among ND’s defensive backs against Finke. His tight coverage on a slant during seven-on-seven work resulted in Finke’s marginal gain. Brown also delivered a hard hit on tight end Brock Wright.
Avery Davis struggled in his time at nickelback and cornerback. The Irish receivers blew past Davis a few times in one-on-one and 7-on-7 settings. Davis did undercut a screen pass during a scrimmage portion, but he dropped the easy interception.
Allen assisted in Davis’ coverage of Austin on one play, flying in from over the top for a pass breakup. Running back Jahmir Smith leveled Allen in the open field later, though. For now, Brown appears to be the more fluid player at the position.
Lamb’s rise on the depth chart stems from his ability in coverage. The Irish now like starting him at buck in their nickel package, which adds an extra defensive back onto the field. If it was allowed, Lamb would have sacked Jurkovec in a scrimmage portion.
In early drills, sophomore Bo Bauer started at mike with Asmar Bilal manning buck and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover. The Irish went with a different look in scrimmage settings, sliding Bilal to the middle. They kept Owusu-Koramoah at rover, with Paul Moala rotating. Lamb and Jordan Genmark Heath rotated at buck.
Sophomore Shayne Simon spent his first observed practice exclusively at mike. He seemed to see more action in scrimmage settings than Jonathan Jones and Bauer.
The Irish linebackers struggled to defend ND's running backs. Simon’s missed tackle in a scrimmage portion allowed Smith to run for a first down. Moala failed to secure his tackle of running back C'Bo Flemister, leading to 13-yard gain. Junior Jafar Armstrong streaked past Bilal before hauling in a long reception.
Owusu-Koramoah did not raise eyebrows like he did in ND’s March 23 practice. However, he tallied a pass breakup on Jurkovec’s overthrown pass intended for receiver Lawrence Keys III. The junior also dropped Finke for a short gain on a screen as Hinish pressured the quarterback.
Lacey had one of his best days this spring. He twice beat fellow early enrolled freshman Zeke Correll in a one-on-one pass rush drill, overpowering the center the second time. Lacey pressured Jurkovec in a scrimmage portion. He also combined with Jayson Ademilola in dropping Smith for no gain. Walk-on offensive lineman Max Siegel split one of his two reps against Lacey in the pass rush drill.
Okwara shined in the pass rush drill. He overtook left tackle Liam Eichenberg both times. Hinish struggled the most. He lost his first two battles against center Jarrett Patterson and jumped offsides on a third rep. Hinish later stuffed Jafar Armstrong for a short gain during a scrimmage portion.
Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kareem and the Ademilola twins held their own in the pass rush drill. Sophomore Ovie Oghoufo trumped Cole Mabry with ease in their two battles. NaNa Osafo-Mensah split his reps against fellow early enrolled freshman Quinn Carroll.
• Backup cornerback TaRiq Bracy suffered a “grade one” ankle sprain, Kelly said.
• Other Irish players limited to sideline work were cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford, defensive linemen Hunter Spears and Jamion Franklin and rover Jack Kiser.
• Linebacker Drew White remains out following surgery on his right shoulder.
Cornerback Julian Love was among former Irish players observing practice on the sideline. He was seen chatting with 2020 cornerback target Clark Phillips III. Athlete Cullen Coleman, a 2020 recruit, also attended practice.