Notebook: The Notre Dame defense is decidedly different, but is it better?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Thomas Booker’s eyes didn’t wander even during the most meticulous, most mundane portions of the Notre Dame football team’s defensive drill work early Friday morning inside the Loftus Center.

It’s as if the elite defensive end recruiting target from Baltimore, in town on an unofficial visit, appreciated how painstaking attention to fundamentals was translating into big-picture progress.

For the first six practices of the spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly was peppered with questions and provided willing answers about how different the aborted Brian VanGorder regime was from the dawn of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s.

After practice No. 7 on Friday, Kelly was ready to take that a step further.

The defense isn’t just different, it’s better, he contends. And it will be better when it matters, in the fall.

Better in run support. Better in turnovers forced. Better in situational football. Better in avoiding getting gashed with big plays.

“Your players still have to make plays,” Kelly said. “But I know going into the season, we’ll be smarter and we’ll be fundamentally sound.

“And I think if we walk away from every game and go ‘Dang, that’s a smart defense and that’s fundamentally sound’ — with the players that we have — I’ve got to envision that that’s probably going to be pretty good.”

Booker — all 6-foot-4, 250 pounds of him — comes from the same program, the Gilman School, that produced former Irish defensive starters defensive end Victor Abiamiri and cornerback Ambrose Wooden.

There may not be a comparable skill set on ND’s current roster to Booker’s, which speaks to both his own elite prowess as well as some perceived swings and misses in Notre Dame’s recent recruiting classes when it comes to proven edge players.

The twist is Kelly is basing his optimistic assessment regarding his defense’s evolution in part on the position group whose shortcomings were the most glaring in both Notre Dame missing a playoff berth in 2015 and making Kelly’s job security a daily debate for much of 2016.

The defensive line.

“What’s we’re getting right now is the younger players starting to show themselves (at that position group),” Kelly said. “(Julian) Okwara. You’re starting to see Khalid Kareem. You’re starting to see Micah Dew-Treadway. Daelin Hayes.

“We’re cross-training Jamir Jones inside (at linebacker), and on the edge on third down. We’re seeing some young, athletic players that are adding to our defense.”

And even if they’re not finished products in most cases, Kelly says, Elko is able to at least teach them to be proficient with a situational skill for the time being.

The final eight practices of the spring, culminating with the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 22, should provide more clues as to whether the position group’s past shortcomings were really more of a scheme/developmental issue or one of raw talent.

The first part of the 2017 schedule will provide a more conclusive referendum.

“Mike Elko is about the fundamentals and teaching the fundamentals,” Kelly said, “So if you were to just sit there and watch his practice, you would not walk away with anything else but, ‘Man, this guy just teaches the fundamentals.’

“Then when we come together — in 11-on-11, 7-on-7 — then you want to see all those fundamentals come to fruition.”

How much is too much?

Long the vacant content in the media viewing windows on practice, the team stretching period actually now carries some entertainment value, thanks to new director of football performance Matt Balis.

The stalking. The barking. The crazed stares. Even the correcting of certain stretches all speaks to a higher standard.

But is it a standard with acceptable limits?

No one wants another “Oregon” on their hands, a situation in which three Ducks players were hospitalized in January and new strength and conditioning coach Irele Oderinde suspended after the latter reportedly crossed a line with his methods.

Kelly is convinced there are no parallels to be made at ND.

“The culture that I create and charge our strength staff with is to build the traits necessary to be successful,” he said. "And one of the most important traits that you want to build in your football team is the ability to fight through stress and fatigue.

“And you certainly can’t fight through stress and fatigue if you’re simply breaking players down. That’s unacceptable in any program I’ve ever been around. It’s counterproductive. It doesn’t serve a purpose to the end.

“And that is what you want your players to be, building a mental toughness so they can handle the stress and fatigue for the fourth quarter. Matt clearly comes from that same camp. That’s why he was hired.”

Kelly spoke to how Balis and his staff adapt to the conditioning capacity for players on an individual basis. He also said what’s on paper in terms of work volume sometimes has to be cut back in real time.

“I think there’s a fine line if you don’t want to see it,” Kelly said. “But it’s pretty clear you want to build everybody’s competency. And by building their competency at some level, you’re going to get something back on the other end.”

Testing Wimbush

In the early days of spring, Kelly and Elko were careful not to overload the defense with a too advanced version of Elko’s 4-2-5 scheme, given that it was the defensive players’ third different one to master in less than a calendar year (VanGorder’s, Mike Elston/Kelly’s, Elko’s).

The flip side of that was Brandon Wimbush and the other quarterbacks wouldn’t be getting tested with much more than vanilla resistance.

Not so the case anymore.

“Today we had third down, two-point plays, fourth-down situations,” Kelly asserted. “They saw three down (front). They saw fire zones. They saw pressures. They saw swipe coverages. They saw everything that they would see in a game situation.”

Personnel matters

There’s plenty of position battles with little or no separation between the 1s and the 2s that will play out over the final eight practices, per Kelly.

Among them on defense: Defensive tackle: (Micah Dew-Treadway/Jonathan Bonner), nose guard (Jerry Tillery/Daniel Cage), defensive end (Jay Hayes/Andrew Trumbetti), weakside linebacker (Greer Martini/Te’von Coney), strong safety (Devin Studstill/Jalen Elliott), and rover (Asmar Bilal/Drue Tranquill).

On offense: Right tackle (Tommy Kraemer/Liam Eichenberg) and tight end (Durham Smythe/Alizé Jones).

“The wide receiver position is really a competitive situation,” Kelly said. “Miles Boykin is having a really good spring. Tracking the ball very well. Catching it consistently.

“He eats up a lot of ground with those long strides. And before you know it, he’s running past people. There’s a big battle going on out there, what that rotation is going to look like.”

• Junior running back Dexter Williams missed practice Friday because of an academic exam, Kelly said. Williams twice on Saturday limped off with a gimpy ankle, but Kelly confirmed he was healthy and had practiced on Wednesday.

• Junior backup linebacker Josh Barajas returned to practice Friday after missing three sessions because of illness.

Visiting recruits

Thomas Booker wasn't the only recruit attending Notre Dame's practice Friday morning.

Three-star tight end target George Takacs and four-star wide receiver commit Micah Jones were also on campus, as previously reported.

Three young prospects from East Kentwood (Mich.) High were also watching the Irish: 2019 defensive tackle Mazi Smith, 2020 offensive lineman Dallas Fincher and 2020 DE Bryce Mostella.

Three-star defensive back Michael Dowell, a 2018 prospect, also visited Notre Dame on Friday. Dowell attends the same high school, Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward, that produced Irish cornerback Shaun Crawford.

Notre Dame's Micah Dew-Treadway (left) talks with defensive line coach Mike Elston during practice. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)