Notebook: Notre Dame's talented, deep defensive line could cause problems for Louisville

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Finding Mekhi Becton won’t be hard.

The massive 6-foot-7, 369-pound NFL prospect will line up at left tackle for Louisville in Monday’s season opener against No. 9 Notre Dame.

Becton, a junior, was the first Louisville player Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly mentioned during his press conference Wednesday. He will provide a challenge for Notre Dame’s top defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.

Unfortunately for Louisville, the Cardinals don’t have more than one Becton. Only one team at the FBS level (Oregon State) allowed more sacks per game than Louisville (3.58) last season. The Cardinals quarterbacks were sacked 43 times in a nightmare 2-10 season.

In addition to a new coaching staff, the Cardinals will feature almost an entirely new offensive line in 2019 under head coach Scott Satterfield. Beyond Becton, the only returning starter from last season expected to play is center Cole Bentley, who is still in a position battle with Florida graduate transfer T.J. McCoy.

The new Cardinals line will be tested against Notre Dame’s defensive line, which Kelly considers a strength of his team.

“We’ve worked really hard at developing our defensive line,” Kelly said. “We hope they have an impact in the game. If they don’t, Louisville is pretty good. I know our guys are pretty good.”

Last week, defensive line coach Mike Elston described Notre Dame’s current group as “the best defensive line we’ve had here in quite some time.”

That extends beyond captains Okwara and Kareem. Both have talented backups in seniors Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Oguendji. Even the third group of defensive ends — sophomore Justin Ademilola and senior Jamir Jones — have experience and will be used throughout the season.

“One guy that we haven’t talked much about, and I will just say that he’s had his best camp since he’s been here, is Daelin Hayes,” Kelly said. “I think that says a lot about what we can do, when we haven’t talked about a guy like that.”

Hayes falls behind Okwara on the depth chart, but the 6-4, 266-pound, former five-star outside linebacker, will have opportunities as part of a rotation and pass rush packages.

It falls on Elston to figure out how to employ all the different options on the defensive line. He remains confident in his ability to do so. Notre Dame played 12 different defensive linemen in the Cotton Bowl loss to Clemson at the end of last season.

Defensive coordinator Clark Lea has helped explore ways to utilize the talented defensive line depth.

“We have packages that Coach Lea and the staff have put together to try and get everybody in as best as we can,” Elston said last week. “It’s a good problem to have to have some good depth, but there’s a plan to try and play as many guys as we possibly can.”

Rolling deep at LB

Even Notre Dame’s first attempt at releasing a depth chart for the Louisville game couldn’t nail down the inside linebacker situation accurately.

A printed copy handed out to reporters before Kelly’s press conference Wednesday had to be corrected soon after Kelly stopped answering questions.

The distributed depth charts are never absolutely final, and that will certainly be the case for the inside linebackers throughout the season.

Graduate student Asmar Bilal has been pegged as the starter at buck linebacker alongside junior Drew White at mike linebacker. Junior Jordan Genmark Heath and sophomore Jack Lamb are listed as either/or options as backup buck linebackers. Sophomores Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer have the same designation as the backup mike linebackers.

Just don’t expect the tinkering from Lea to stop quite yet.

“I still think we’re in a position where they have to go play in a live game for us to really continue this process of solidifying rotation and finding those guys,” Kelly said. “I think you’re going to see Drew and Asmar probably starting the game.

“This is a pretty fluid situation. That’s why there’s a lot of ands, ors and buts out there. You see a lot of guys. We think they’re all capable. They’ve all done really good things.

“The arrows are up on all of those guys. They’ve all made significant progress and have done the things we’ve wanted them to do. They’ve earned playing time. We’ll see how it goes.

Unlocking Keys

The injury to wide receiver Michael Young opened the door to a starting role for sophomore Lawrence Keys III. But Keys put himself into position for playing time well before preseason camp.

Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander said Keys was the first freshman wide receiver to have a handle on the playbook last season. Still, Keys did not see any game action as a freshman as he continued to develop physically.

“We were able to add some sandbags to his pockets, put on a little weight,” Kelly said. “We felt like he needed to be sturdier physically. He did a great job in the offseason of really attending to that. He’s kept his weight on.”

The 5-10, 173-pound Keys still doesn’t have imposing size, but his athleticism gives Notre Dame a tough receiver to cover and tackle.

“Everybody can see that when he touches the ball he’s got great speed,” Kelly said. “One of the things that he does that’s a little bit different than all of our guys is that he catches the ball at full speed. Some guys have to throttle down a little bit. He can catch it at full speed. That’s a great trait to have.”

Extra points

• Junior Jonathan Doerer received the nod as Notre Dame’s starting place-kicker and kickoff specialist on Wednesday’s depth chart. Freshman walk-on Harrison Leonard challenged Doerer for the place-kicker spot during preseason camp.

Running backs Jafar Armstrong and Kyren Williams were listed as the top two kick returners.

• The matchup with Louisville will be Notre Dame’s first-ever game played on Labor Day. It’s the only college football game scheduled for Monday.

• ESPN will take advantage of Notre Dame-Louisville being the only game played Monday night by offering a few different viewing experiences.

In addition to the traditional telecast (8 p.m. EDT on ESPN), a BlimpCast from the Goodyear Blimp and a SkyCam broadcast will be available on ESPN3 and the ESPN app.

The ACC Network will televise an All ACC Watch Party during the game featuring Notre Dame graduates Jac Collinsworth and Mike Golic Jr. and former Louisville offensive lineman Eric Wood.

Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes, left, may not be a starter, but he is part of a deep defensive line group that head coach Brian Kelly expects to make an impact for the Irish. Hayes is pictured celebrating with fellow senior defensive end Khalid Kareem.
Notre Dame has turned to sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Keys III with Michael Young out with a broken collarbone.