Defensive practice report: Notre Dame football 8/9

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Even on the smallest of victories, Notre Dame’s defense is bound to make a little bit of noise. On Saturday, a number of big plays from the Irish secondary amplified the volume.

The defensive backs dominated much of the seven-on-seven portion of practice even without star cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who head coach Brian Kelly said was given a break to prevent overuse on the sixth practice of camp and the first day with two sessions.

In Russell’s place slid seldom-used senior Josh Atkinson, who took advantage of the opportunity in a big way. It may have been the best Atkinson has looked in front of the media during his career. He broke up passes against Chris Brown, Will Fuller and Justin Brent. On one play, Atkinson blanketed Corey Robinson so well on an out route that he forced an errant throw into the turf.

Cody Riggs, Cole Luke and Nick Watkins also put together impressive performances. Luke hauled in an interception that deflected off of tight end Durham Smythe’s hands. On the next play, Riggs caught a pass that ricocheted off the hands of wide receiver Corey Holmes. Both passes came from quarterback Malik Zaire.

Safety Max Redfield nearly reeled in an interception, but the officials ruled the ball hit the ground on an errant pass floated over the middle of the field. The ups-and-downs of Redfield were on display in a two-play sequence early in the seven-on-seven portion of practice.

On the first play he closed in on a crossing wide receiver Chris Brown, who caught the ball, but likely would have been lit up by Redfield if it was a game situation. Redfield quipped, “You’re not catching that one,” when Brown zoomed by after the catch.

The next play unfolded similarly on the other side of the field, but Redfield closed earlier and allowed Brown to slip behind him, who made the catch past Redfield and the cornerback in coverage. Redfield was reminded by the coaches to not undercut the receiver in that situation.

The secondary continued to thrive when the seven-on-seven was moved into the red zone. At times quarterback Everett Golson was left bouncing around in the pocket surveying a field with no open receivers.

The front seven of the defense didn’t fare as well as the secondary. The offensive line overpowered the defense on most reps during the inside run portion of practice, and the running back trio found clean creases to run through.

On the injury front, linebacker Ben Councell was not dressed as he recovers from a concussion, per Kelly. Linebacker Jarrett Grace’s return from a broken leg continues to progress slowly. With the team in full pads, Grace was held out of most live action. Kelly said he should know if Grace can be a factor in the first weeks of the season within the next 7-10 days. Cornerback Devin Butler ended his practice early to receive an IV.

Here’s a breakdown of how the top two units lined up during practice and players deserving recognition:

No. 1 defense – Defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams, defensive tackles Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day, linebackers Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and John Turner, cornerbacks KeiVarae Russell and Cody Riggs, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Max Redfield.

No. 2 defense – Defensive ends Isaac Rochell and Andrew Trumbetti, defensive tackles Jacob Matuska and Justin Utupo, linebackers Doug Randolph, Michael Deeb and James Onwualu, cornerbacks Cole Luke and Josh Atkinson, and safeties Matthias Farley and Eilar Hardy.

Defensive MVP: Cody Riggs. He set the tone for the secondary while Russell rested and has really settled in nicely into Notre Dame’s defense.

Biggest surprise: Josh Atkinson. His performance on Saturday inspired a double-check to make sure he was wearing No. 24. Maybe something has clicked for the senior cornerback.

Best freshman: Nick Watkins. All the love goes to the secondary today. Watkins looks to be the freshman with the best chance to see the field on defense. Some defensive linemen will likely start to emerge later in camp.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder observes the players during practice at Notre Dame on Saturday, August 9, 2014, in South Bend. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)