Find the ball, stop the ball — sound tackling mantra for Al Golden's Notre Dame defense

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — One of the most noteworthy plays in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game was a simple 4-yard run up the middle for Jadarian Price that ended with a textbook form tackle by freshman linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka. 

Sound tackling was a renewed emphasis from the moment new defensive coordinator Al Golden arrived in mid-February. Actually, it’s been a vital part of the daily checklist ever since Oklahoma State pinned 30 straight points on an uncharacteristically turnstiling Irish defense in the Fiesta Bowl loss

“Tackling is a priority anytime you have the pads on,” junior rover Jack Kiser said recently. “Even when we don’t have the pads on, we’re still working on footwork, leverage, leverage shoulder, keeping your head up, the form tackle, the strike zone, all that stuff.” 

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime, right, brought down linebacker Jack Kiser during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

According to Pro Football Focus’ data analysis, Notre Dame ranked sixth out of 130 FBS teams in tackling efficiency last season. Only national champion Georgia and Toledo, which nearly upset the Irish on their home field in Week 2, ranked higher during the regular season. 

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The two glaring exceptions for Notre Dame (86.6 overall grade) in terms of tackling came in the season-opening overtime win at Florida State (55.7) and in the bowl loss (52.9). Not coincidentally, Notre Dame’s defense gave up a combined 75 points in those two games.  

The so-called “opener” in each spring practice, a competitive period Marcus Freeman instituted once he took over for Brian Kelly in December, typically featured “some type of ball security or tackling drill,” he said earlier this spring. 

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“We’re trying to emphasize (tackling) in practice,” Freeman said. “We have live periods in practice to work on tackling. It’s going to be a continued point of emphasis.” 

Blue team coach Al Washington, Notre Dame’s new defensive run game coordinator and defensive line coach, made it clear heading into Saturday’s exhibition that sound tackling was a major priority. 

“We put a lot of work into that — those basic things,” Washington said. “You want that to show up on tape. When the moment comes, you want to see them trust their technique, trust their preparation and get it done. For sure, that’s big.” 

Redshirt freshman cornerback Ryan Barnes led Washington’s side with six solo tackles, while linebacker Jordan Botelho added five combined tackles. Missed tackles were rare on this day of quick whistles, red jerseys for the quarterbacks and a practice mentality overall. 

Notre Dame linebacker Jordan Botelho (12) and defensive lineman Jacob Lacey (54) celebrate during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The main checkpoints for tacklers, Washington said, include “closing the space” between you and the ball carrier and “making sure your eyes are where they need to be.”

Namely on the opponent’s near hip. 

“And you want to make sure your feet are underneath you,” Washington said. “So many missed tackles occur when (defenders) don’t have a base. They’re reaching.”

From there, it’s a matter of wrapping up and delivering a blow. 

“On contact, you’re just engaging your whole body and violently wrapping,” Washington said. “All those little details are things we stress and things that we expect to see.”

For the most part Saturday, those showed up. Now the trick is to carry those forward through a long offseason and August training camp and make sure they show up on Sept. 3 at Ohio State. 

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Golden, who spent the past six years as an NFL assistant, doesn’t buy the idea that teaching proper tackling technique is harder at the college level, even with the 20-hour rule restricting football time. 

“I think you have to make it part of your DNA,” Golden said recently. “You have to work really hard at it.”

This spring, that has meant weekly film sessions with Irish defenders to drive home the message that tackling matters. 

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring Football game on Saturday, April 23, 2022, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

“Every Saturday, we try to have a ‘State of the Fundamentals,’ if you will, where we review the week: the good, the bad, the things that we’re teaching, making sure that we’re teaching it and they’re hearing it correctly,” Golden said. “We work really hard at it. We’ve got a long way to go, but it’s evident … that they’re really buying into the technique and the different (drills) that we’re challenging them in.”

Now on his third defensive coordinator in as many years, Kiser noted the basic concepts of tackling have not changed, nor has the way it has been taught by Clark Lea, Freeman and now Golden. The difference, KIser suggested, might be in the level of emphasis placed on that skill. 

“The types of tackles that we teach are all the same: ‘Near foot, near shoulder’  has always been the same,” said Kiser, who led the Gold team with five solo tackles in a winning cause. “It’s very consistent. I think that just shows that we are doing the right thing and we are teaching the right way to tackle.”

Whether it’s a 290-pound interior lineman like Gabe Rubio trying to slip a double team or a 245-pound heat-seeking missile like Botelho, the job remains the same: Find the ball, stop the ball. 

“As a linebacker, we pride ourselves on being the best tacklers on the team,” Kiser said. “If you’re not in the right position – palms down, (focused on) ‘near hip, near shoulder’ – what are you doing? You’re not living up to that standard that has been set. ”

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDInsider.com. Email him @mberardino@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.