Notre Dame will need to replace five starters on defense who served significant roles last season.
Sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford and graduate senior defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji were Irish captains. Senior rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah claimed the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. Top cornerback Nick McCloud, a graduate transfer from N.C. State, garnered third-team All-ACC honors.
Nose guard Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, linebackers Drew White and Shayne Simon, cornerback Clarence Lewis and safety Kyle Hamilton are the six returning starters. Notre Dame also signed 26 recruits from the 2021 class in December and could add another next month via running back verbal commit Logan Diggs.
The Irish defense could look different schematically under new coordinator Marcus Freeman. Recruiting could change, too. Below is an assessment of the group he inherits, along with recruits on defense Notre Dame could add in the 2022 class.
• Interior DL: Hinish opting in for a fifth season solidified the interior defensive line as Notre Dame’s best position group on that side of the ball. Graduate senior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish are two-year starters and solid candidates to be Irish captains next season. Senior Jayson Ademilola, juniors Jacob Lacey and Howard Cross III, and sophomore Rylie Mills are productive backups and have been called on for numerous high-leverage situations. Gabriel Rubio, a four-star defensive tackle who signed with Notre Dame last month, brings encouraging potential. So does sophomore nose guard Aidan Keanaaina.
• Cornerback: For the fifth straight offseason, Notre Dame will look for a new boundary cornerback. McCloud left a vacancy at the position after declaring for the NFL Draft. Senior TaRiq Bracy and Lewis are Notre Dame’s only returning corners who have meaningful experience, but they both play the field position. Junior Cam Hart, sophomores Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord, and incoming freshmen JoJo Johnson, Ryan Barnes, Chance Tucker and Philip Riley still have something to prove. Every corner but Bracy has freshman eligibility.
• Safety: Desperate to find a serviceable strong safety, Notre Dame switched Crawford to the position from cornerback last season. Though he struggled, there were no promising options to replace him. Senior DJ Brown and juniors K.J. Wallace and Litchfield Ajavon return to the Irish and will be joined by incoming freshmen Khari Gee and Justin Walters. Those five safeties have not started a game in college. And Notre Dame may only receive one more season from Hamilton, their star at free safety who could be a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. This position needs quality and quantity, and fast.
• Defensive end: This position group boasts a promising short-term outlook. Senior Justin Ademilola and junior Isaiah Foskey look poised to shine as first-year starters next season. Junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah should step into a rotational role after suffering a season-ending knee injury last fall. Sophomore Jordan Botelho is expected to impress as a backup. He shined as a key special teams player last season. The only other options beyond those four, though, are raw sophomore Alexander Ehrensberger and three incoming freshmen who held a three-star rating in the 2021 cycle: Devin Aupiu, Will Schweitzer and Jason Onye. Every defensive end but Ademilola holds freshman eligibility.
• Linebacker: In the last two recruiting classes, Notre Dame signed just two linebackers: Kahanu Kia and Prince Kollie. Both of them came in the 2021 cycle, but Kia will count toward a future class eligibility-wise. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Kia plans to serve a two-year mission after his freshman season. So the Irish have some long-term questions and lost Owusu-Koramoah. They will need to sign multiple linebackers in 2022 and maybe 2023. Still, Notre Dame has a handful of competent linebackers, especially White, Simon, graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor, senior Bo Bauer, and juniors Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau.
2022 class outlook
• Defensive line: Pittsburgh Central Catholic defensive tackle Donovan Hinish and Red Bank (N.J.) Catholic defensive end Alex Bauman figure to be automatic commitments if Notre Dame’s coaching staff pushes for them. Donovan and Alex are the younger brothers of Kurt Hinish and Irish tight end Kevin Bauman, respectively. Sun Prairie (Wis.) High defensive end Isaac Hamm named Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Penn State as his top four schools in November. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman’s Cyrus Moss and Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep’s K.J. Miles are two other defensive ends who are heavily interested in the Irish. Defensive tackle Caden Curry and defensive end Elijah Brown will be worth monitoring if Notre Dame heavily pursues them. Curry is an in-state recruit from Greenwood (Ind.) Center Grove. Brown plays for Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne, the same high school that produced new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman. Tyson Ford, a four-star defensive end from John Burroughs School in St. Louis, is another top target. He is also considering the University of Oklahoma and plans to announce his verbal commitment on Monday.
• Linebacker: Evanston (Ill.) Township’s Sebastian Cheeks, Nashville (Tenn.) Christ Presbyterian Academy’s Langston Patterson, Omaha (Neb.) Burke’s Devon Jackson and Honolulu Punahou School’s Tevarua Tafiti were the key linebacker targets under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea. How Freeman will prioritize those four and others in the 2022 class is not entirely clear yet. As linebackers coach, Freeman will already inherit one verbal pledge at the position this cycle in Grand Rapids (Mich.) Catholic Central’s Nolan Ziegler. Going forward, the Irish will likely pursue Cheeks the hardest. Freeman heavily courted Cheeks and forged a relationship with him while serving as the defensive coordinator at the University of Cincinnati. Patterson attended Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime win over Clemson in November. Jackson was high school teammates with Irish receiver Xavier Watts. Liufau played at the same high school as Tafiti. Notre Dame offered Lander Barton, a four-star linebacker from Brighton High in Salt Lake City, on Friday. Reno (Nev.) McQueen’s Robby Snelling will be another four-star linebacker to watch.
• Cornerback: A lot could change at this position from a recruiting perspective in the coming weeks. The first three scholarship offers Notre Dame extended after announcing Freeman’s hiring came to 2022 cornerbacks. Earl Little Jr., a four-star recruit from Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) American Heritage, boasts the best pedigree among the three. Union (N.J.) High’s Davison Igbinosun and Buford (Ga.) High’s Ryland Gandy are the other two corners. They both are three-star recruits and were pursued by the Bearcats under Freeman. The Irish will likely extend offers to more 2022 cornerbacks. Notre Dame may also push harder for Bobby Taylor, a four-star recruit from Katy (Texas) High. He shares the same name as his father, who was a consensus All-American cornerback for the Irish in the ‘90s. Notre Dame just needs to show more interest to become one of his top schools. The Irish have a few other options, including Oradell (N.J.) Bergen Catholic’s Jaeden Gould and Apopka (Fla.) High’s Nikai Martinez. Gould (Jan. 7) and Martinez (Nov. 8) recently included Notre Dame in their top 12 school lists.
• Safety: Like cornerback, the top targets at safety could look entirely different in the coming months compared to now. Notre Dame will hire a new safeties coach after Terry Joseph left to be the defensive pass game coordinator at the University Texas earlier this month. Don’t be surprised if the Irish extend offers to more 2022 safeties. In the meantime, four-star safety Xavier Nwankpa will be a significant target to follow. The Altoona (Iowa) Southeast Polk product included Notre Dame in his top 12 school list on Jan. 1. Chesapeake (Va.) Oscar Smith’s Sherrod Covil Jr., Buford (Ga.) High’s Jake Pope, Chatsworth (Calif.) Sierra Canyon’s Kamari Ramsey, Detroit Belleville’s Myles Rowser and Lexington (Texas) High’s Jarred Kerr are other possibilities.