Notre Dame defensive practice notes 3-8

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The circumstances don’t qualify as an unveiling, but the media got a chance to see Mike Elko’s defense at Notre Dame for the first time Wednesday morning.

The components of the new scheme will take time to come together, yet the first practice of spring football inside the Loftus Sports Center showed some personnel and coaching matches to monitor.

Similar to how former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder started his practices, Elko had his defensive players line up in 11-man units and sprint to the sideline. His 4-2-5 defense featured the following players in the first group: Daelin Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti at defensive end, Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini at linebacker, Asmar Bilal at rover, Nick Watkins and Julian Love at cornerback, and Nick Coleman and Drue Tranquill at safety.

The biggest takeaway by far was Bilal lining up at the rover position. Many assumed a safety like Tranquill would get the first chance at the position, but using an athletic linebacker like Bilal added a bit of a twist. It will be interesting to track if this alignment continues. Does Bilal fit the position better or does Elko see safety as lacking depth and needing Tranquill to stay on the back end?

The second defensive unit lined up with the following personnel: Julian Okwara and Jay Hayes at defensive end, Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway at defensive tackle, Te’von Coney and Jonathan Jones at linebacker, Robert Regan at rover, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. at cornerback, and Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill at safety.

Hayes staying outside at defensive end and not sliding inside to tackle was notable. Regan, a walk-on linebacker, made an unexpected appearance in the second unit. And Elliott and Studstill being jumped by Coleman, a converted cornerback, on the first day of practice was a bit surprising. Tracking the safeties and rovers will likely be the most interesting competitions on defense this spring.

Former starters Daniel Cage (concussion) and Shaun Crawford (Achilles) both participated in practice as they work their way back from injury. Kelly described Cage as “good” on Tuesday, but he was working with the last group on the defensive line. Crawford looked athletic in drills with his fellow cornerbacks, but he isn’t expected to take contact this spring.

On the coaching front, the biggest surprise was seeing special teams coordinator Brian Polian working with the linebackers through drills. He helped linebackers coach Clark Lea, who was directing the linebackers and the rovers during the portion of practice viewed by the media. Both defensive backs coach Todd Lyght and defensive line coach Mike Elston stuck with their position groups with Elko coaching alongside Lyght. Head coach Brian Kelly even watched the various position drills on defense.

The last segment of practice viewed by media included some one-on-one passing drills. Love made the best play from the defensive side with a pass breakup covering wide receiver Deon McIntosh. Tranquill also had good coverage in an early matchup with tight end Durham Smythe. But Tranquill was on the losing end later when freshman tight end Brock Wright beat him with ease.

Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko runs drills during spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ