Analysis: Notre Dame defense positioned to spring forward once spotlight fades

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune


The real beauty in the Notre Dame defense Clark Lea will roll out for public consumption Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium is what is expected to happen to it in the weeks and months that follow that spring practice finale.

Which is intriguingly ambitious, given that even the predictably curbed version — purposely stripped of its nuances and most dynamic strategic wrinkles — should still look like an upgrade in the Blue-Gold Game from the rendition that finished last season as No. 46 in total defense, and No. 51 in rushing defense.

Those are the two most important and predictable metrics in what national champions and championship contenders have looked like statistically in this century.

Yet nothing that has happened in the first 13 of the 15 allotted practices this spring, under first-year coordinator Lea, has diminished a possible jump into the top 25 in both categories, benchmarks only two of the 21 Irish teams in the post-Lou Holtz Era (2002, 2012) have been able to reach.

There’s star power in a unit that returned 10 starters but moved three of the most impacting from 2017 to new positions (Te’von Coney, Drue Tranquill and Jerry Tillery). There’s better depth than last season, more athleticism, heightened chemistry, fewer holes and the semblance of an improved pass rush.

Beginning on Sunday and continuing into August training camp, Lea will find out if he can add leadership to that checklist of assets.

That’s when there are no coaches around to supplement it or correct it. Yet from a team dynamic it could be the difference between a defense that ferments during the quiet months —or evolves.

“We’ll get done with the end of spring and sit down with all the players,” Lea said Tuesday after practice, “and kind of give the state of the union here — where we think they are, where they think they are, how we need them to change, what we need them to enhance as individuals.

“But the thing we need to do as a defensive unit, we need that leadership to shine from May through July. We need those guys to take hold of the coaching and the technical progressions. We need to equip them with things they can do to enhance their workouts, taking freshmen under their wings.

“When we do player-run practices (we want them) done in a manner that simulates what real practices are like. I think in year 2, you can expect that. Year 1 is all learning experiences. Year 2, I think we’re going to default to that level.”

While it is actually year nine of the head coach Brian Kelly Era, it is Year 2 of the massive philosophical reboot, not the least of which was the defensive makeover headed by first transient Mike Elko and now by his longtime sidekick, Lea.

While leadership is one of the important offseason wild cards, the June-arriving freshmen constitute another.

Seven of the 27-man class enrolled early, with six healthy enough to go through spring practice with the returnees. and safety Houston Griffith, among the newcomers, is already significantly impacting the depth chart.

Of the remaining 20, 10 are defensive players, and Lea wants and needs some of them this summer to set the stage in August to eventually do what Griffith is doing.

“When I say ‘need,’ I don’t mean to say I see gaping holes in what we do,” Lea said. “When you’re recruiting at the right level here, you’re not bringing in guys that aren’t capable. But they are at varying levels.

“The idea is going to be that you are giving opportunity for competition. I mean that’s what we promise in recruiting. So they’re going to get reps. They’re going to get meaningful reps. We’re going to see what they can handle.”

The three players that appear to be most ready to show they can handle a role and are at positions where the need is ample are Derrik Allen at safety, particularly if sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath’s experimental move to linebacker sticks; Jayson Ademilola, either inside or on the edge at strongside defensive end; or Shayne Simon, who plays the rover position and will be at Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday to take in the Blue-Gold Game in person.

Rover is the most unsettled of the 11 positions on defense, with senior Asmar Bilal and sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Isaiah Robertson all giving Lea options there, perhaps even as a mixing-and-matching group eventually.

Or maybe Simon takes over the position Tranquill mastered in 2017, then vacated to move to inside linebacker.

“I’m really excited for Shayne,” Lea said. “But I think it’s unfair to him to project what he will be able to do, because there’s just a lot that goes into that.

“As I am excited for him and I have a plan to execute with him in terms of when he arrives, I want to be surprised by what he’s capable of helping us with this year. If he proves himself capable, just like any of the other guys coming in, we will absolutely have a place for him.”

Except for a small window of OTAs in June that can’t include a football, players like Coney, Tranquill, Tillery and Julian Love will have a big say in how Simon’s summer will play out.

It’s also a time to refine schematic advances made possible by the progress at the safety positions this spring after a season of having to camouflage their shortfalls.

“It takes some time, and they need some time to be able to execute those responsibilities at a high level,” Lea said. “I think we’re getting to that point. I don’t think we’re all the way there yet. But I do think we’re not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along.

“I think we’re allowed to get back to the base of the (defensive) package, which is exciting.”

And that, in turn, means the cornerbacks can be more aggressive in their coverages and techniques, and the linebackers don’t have as much space to patrol in coverage, and the fronts can be more creative in their pressures if all goes as planned in the coming weeks and months.

“The work that can be done from May through July, it’s humbling as a coach,” Lea said, “because you realize how important you are when you leave and you’re recruiting or you go on vacation or you’re going to high school camps.

“You come back in August, and you’re looking at a team that’s totally transformed. It’s in a different place than before, and you realize you had nothing to do with it.

“It’s their leadership, their choices. Maybe you set the course, maybe you give them the tools, but it’ll be huge for us.” Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea chats with his players during a recent spring practice inside the Loftus Center.