Analysis: Continuity key, but evolution also a big part of Notre Dame defense this spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That freshman safety Derrik Allen doesn't arrive until June, yet remains in play to climb to the top of the depth chart at safety by the Sept. 1 opener with Michigan, shows that continuity has its limits when it comes to the Notre Dame football defense under Clark Lea.

“He has such a great skill set,” said new Irish defensive backs coach Terry Joseph of the Marietta, Ga., product, who at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, is slightly bigger than all three of the Irish linebackers in his recruiting class.

“I think the big thing is going to be how quickly can he pick it up?” Joseph continued. “There's nothing that we've seen so far that has shown that he can't.”

Where continuity does rule is with the basic structure of the Irish defense per Lea, promoted to defensive coordinator on Jan. 9, shortly after successor Mike Elko went one-and-done for a bigger paycheck at Texas A&M.

“I want these guys to know the calls, to know how they're lining up, to know how they're playing,” Lea said. “And that way, we can be as fast and physical as we possibly can.”

Added head coach Brian Kelly, “We're not going to be moving far from what the traits are. And so that's the most important thing.

“(Lea) can articulate what the most important traits are in putting that defense in a position to be successful. That's why I think that was a seamless transition and the right move for us at this time at Notre Dame.”

Lea will have 10 returning starters when spring practice kicks off in roughly two weeks. That's from a unit that finished the 2017 season 46th in total defense and improved at least 20 spots in the national rankings each in rush defense, pass-efficiency defense, scoring defense, tackles for loss, sacks, third-down defense and turnovers gained.

Yet at least four of the returning starters from a 10-3 ND team are making subtle position changes (Jerry Tillery, Te'von Coney, Jonathan Bonner and Drue Tranquill). And at least two others will be seriously challenged to stay at the top of the depth chart. Maybe more.

Junior-to-be Khalid Kareem could make a move at defensive end, for instance, as could a gaggle of cornerbacks at junior-to-be Troy Pride Jr.'s job. More likely to overtake the status quo are Allen, rising sophomore safety Jordan Genmark Heath and/or Navy safety transfer Alohi Gilman.

“He has the uncanny ability to make plays,” Joseph said of Gilman, who has muscled up to 205 on his 5-11 frame. “Very productive. But the most impressive thing about him to me is that when I see him in the weight room, I see him at lunch or breakfast, the guy's personality says nothing but leadership.

“Guys flock around him, so I'm excited to continue to mold him to be a great player for our program and a great kid. I just want to help him get to that next level.”

The incumbent starters, Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott, and their backups last season became the first Irish safety contingent in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present) to finish the season without a single interception.

“Any time you bring in a new coach, everybody wants to pick up some momentum,” Joseph said of the safeties. “At the end of the day, the best two guys are going to go out there and play.

“And then if I feel like we can have a rotation and not have a big drop-off, it'll be the best three guys. And if we can get four, it will be the best four — even better. The one thing I told them, 'I want Derek Jeter at safety.' I want the guy who makes the plays he's supposed to make over and over and over again.”

Flip-flopping Tillery to defensive tackle and Bonner to nose guard, moving leading tackler Coney full-time to middle linebacker (he rotated in at both inside spots in 2017) and shifting Tranquill from rover to buck linebacker are all part of a schematic analysis Lea is conducting with other members of the Irish defensive coaching staff.

It started with an exhaustive film review of every 2017 game.

“We're looking for how do we want to evolve the package?” Lea said. “What does the modern offense require of us to defend?”

The Irish can certainly throw depth at those challenges. The only area where that isn't an apparent asset going into spring practice is at the two inside linebacker positions.

What spring also needs to reveal, if Notre Dame is going to take the next step defensively, is the emergence of more difference-makers. Particularly where it comes to pass rush.

Junior-to-be Daelin Hayes, the lone remaining former five-star prospect on the Irish roster, would seem to be the likely candidate to climb to a higher level of efficiency.

As a first-year starter, the 6-4, 258-pounder from Ann Arbor. Mich., collected 30 tackles, with 6.5 for loss, including three sacks.

But after racking up a third of his season total in tackles in a dominant two-game stretch against USC and North Carolina State in late October, Hayes faded in November. He collected a combined eight tackles over the final five games and never more than two in any single game.

Also intriguing to watch this spring will be a pair of defensive linemen who redshirted last season — end Kofi Wardlow and nose guard Darnell Ewell.

“Kofi is going to be a darn good football player,” said Mike Elston, defensive line coach and associate head coach. “He's putting on weight and he's stronger. He's going to add a lot of good things for us this spring.

“Darnell was in a position where he came from a school where he didn't get a lot of training in the game of football, defensive line. He was a little bit of a mauler and an attacker, which is good. You want that.

“But he's got to learn how to fundamentally play the game, and he's doing that. He got a lot of great reps with that last year. I'm encouraged by his growth, but we've got to wait to see how far his growth actually is in the spring practices.”

Fancy footwork?

Late in January, with Elston committed to being a part of Notre Dame's Junior Day recruiting event, nose guard Kurt Hinish stepped in and took care of business on the home front.

The 6-foot-2, 298-pound nose guard filled in for Elston at a Daddy-Daughter dance.

“From what I understand my kids said he out-danced me,” said Elston, who has three daughters, “but he sweats a heck of a lot more than I do.

“So my kids didn't get as wet with the sweat when I was dancing with them.”

Grading out well

Cornerback Noah Boykin was a surprise 11th-hour signing in the 2018 ND recruiting class, but none of the Irish defensive coaches would classify it as a surprise if the 6-2, 176-pound Washington, D.C., product was an early contributor in 2018.

“Noah is long, competitive, athletic — plays both ways,” Lea said. "There's just no way he doesn't enhance your roster. We're thrilled to have him.

“The thing that people don't know about Noah is this is a guy that in the summers was doing academic camps, digging into his school work. In every way, he's been distinguishing himself throughout his life. I'm anxious for him to come to Notre Dame and be able to do that here.”

 Following the recipe

After going 15 years without a single recruit from Louisiana (2000-14), the Irish will have three players from that state on the roster in 2018.

And DBs coach and New Orleans native Terry Joseph is eager to add more players from his home state.

“I will be recruiting Louisiana, and I think per capita that's got to be one of the most talented states around,” he said. “I think having somebody who's familiar with it, you can kind of pick your spots and know where the honey hole's at and where you've got a guy who's going to be a Notre Dame fit.

“I think at the end of the day, if you can identify them early, find the fit and develop the relationship — and the most important thing, eat mom's cooking when you go on a home visit — then you've got a chance to get them.”

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) tries to take down USC’s Sam Darnold (14) during a 49-14 Irish rout of the Trojans, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. Tillery will move from nose guard to defensive tackle this spring. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)