Notebook: Notre Dame's 'extremely deep' defensive line will play a vital role for Marcus Freeman

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

When Marcus Freeman described the importance of Notre Dame’s defensive line this spring, it wasn’t completely clear if he was referring to his system as a defensive coordinator or the program he joined in January

Regardless, the two are one and the same now, and it’s clear how much he values the men up front.

“We’ve always been and will always be a defensive line-driven program,” Freeman said Tuesday following Notre Dame’s 11th spring football practice. “That means as our defensive line goes, our defense will go. They’ve done an excellent job. They’ve done an unbelievable job. They’re extremely deep at the position.”

So deep and trusted is the defensive line that of the 16 players the program has chosen to be available for press conferences so far this spring, five of them were defensive linemen. Reporters spoke to more Irish defensive linemen in the last four weeks than will be in the starting lineup against Florida State on Sept. 5.

“As they continue to play well, it makes our job behind them that much easier,” Freeman said. “(Defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston has done an unbelievable job to get them to learn the scheme and get them to learn the things that we want them to do. It’s made it easier for the linebackers and safeties and corners to make the transition of a new defense.”

Soon after taking the job at Notre Dame, Freeman reached out to cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens, who he coached with previously at Cincinnati and has known since their playing days at Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne High School, to identify returning leaders on the defense. One of the first names mentioned was Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

Freeman anticipated keeping the duo of Tagovailoa-Amosa, a fifth-year graduate senior, and Kurt Hinish, a sixth-year grad senior, on the interior at defensive tackle and nose guard, respectively. But he welcomed Tagovailoa-Amosa’s desire to play defensive end and has been impressed with what he can do both as a pass rusher and run defender on the outside.

“He’s done an unbelievable job making that transition from tackle to end,” Freeman said. “We’re trying to do a couple different things with him to try to free him up and give him the ability to go make plays within the scheme. He’s had a great spring.”

With defensive ends Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Daelin Hayes off to the NFL Draft, the Irish have to replace a lot of experience at both end positions. While Tagovailoa-Amosa will help fill Ogundeji’s role, junior Isaiah Foskey and sophomore Jordan Botelho have taken over the vyper defensive end position.

Freeman remembers being told early on that Foskey had the potential to be a first-round pick of the future, but his next start will be the first of his college career.

“Foskey hasn’t played a whole bunch of football,” Freeman said. “That’s a point of emphasis we continue to make. We need to continue to get his football intelligence up and get him reps and reps and reps. But he made a major stride from week two to week three. Last week he had a really, really good week.”

Botelho continues to apply pressure on Foskey as they push each other to become better. Botelho offers the disruptive tendencies Freeman wants to see on the defensive line. But they need to keep his intensity in check.

A laughable example could be seen in highlights of Tuesday’s practice when Botelho bumped running back Chris Tyree out of bounds after other defenders just touched Tyree to allow him to finish the play.

“If we continue to get him lined up right, continue to get him to understand exactly what he has to do within each defense, he’s going to get better and better,” Freeman said. “He plays with the effort, attitude and reckless abandon that we need every member of our defense to play with.

“That’s why you’ve seen him flash. That’s why you’ve seen him make some havoc plays in the background because he plays with an unbelievable motor.”

A renewed Bracy

TaRiq Bracy lost his starting cornerback job to freshman Clarence Lewis in the latter half of last season. But his spring rebound included Freeman deeming him as one of the most consistent defensive backs so far.

“He’s consistently meeting with (cornerbacks) coach (Mike) Mickens and the corners, and just trying to get better at his craft,” Freeman said. “He’s doing the little things off the field that it takes to be a successful player. You’re seeing the results of his sacrifice and his attention to details on the field. He’s having a heck of a spring, and he’s done a great job in 11 practices.”

Bracy finished eighth on the team with 24 tackles and tallied three pass breakups and two tackles for a loss. Yet he didn’t even play in the ACC Championship or the College Football Playoff semifinal. Heading into his senior season, Bracy has worked his way into the nickelback competition while pushing for a starting role.

Freeman didn’t single out any other cornerbacks beyond Bracy and Lewis when asked about the position. Maybe there isn’t much separation yet among junior Cam Hart, sophomores Ramon Henderson and Caleb Offord and freshmen Philip Riley and Ryan Barnes. Or maybe Freeman’s keeping his favorites close to the vest.

Either way, Freeman seems to like his options.

“They are extremely talented from top to bottom. Talent is God-given for the most part,” Freeman said. “We can develop as much as we want, but you’re going to develop based off the talent that they have.

“That excites me, because I know how talented they are. I know the speed and the athleticism that they possess. I’m extremely excited to see them continue to develop the specifics of the position and to be able to go out there and perform at a high level.

“We’re going to need them. For what we do defensively, you’re going to need the cornerbacks to be high performers. That’s going to be important for us.”

Safety in numbers

Chris O’Leary started his tenure as Notre Dame’s safeties coach without the best player on his depth chart. The absence of junior Kyle Hamilton, who has been sidelined while recovering from surgery on his ankle, has provided the chance to learn more about who can start alongside him and the depth behind him at the position.

“The entire room as a whole has performed really well for the spring,” Freeman said. “Houston Griffith is a guy that’s played here. We were able to get him to come back and has done a great job as our boundary safety and sometimes our field safety in some packages.

“DJ Brown has done a really good job of being consistent and understanding the details of the position. KJ Wallace has had a great spring. He continuously shows up — a guy that can play nickel and safety.”

Freeman added that freshman safety Justin Walters, who was highlighted a few times in practice videos, has stepped up and junior Litchfield Ajavon has progressed throughout the spring.

Hamilton, who led the Irish with 63 tackles last season, hasn’t been a passive observer either.

“He’s a film junkie. Him and coach O’Leary are always in there watching film,” Freeman said. “He’s always trying to find ways to improve. He’s like a coach sometimes back there. I see him coaching those young safeties up. That’s what he has to do.

“You can’t physically be out there, but mentally you have to strain your mind and push yourself to work even with you not being out there. He’s done a really good job. I’m excited to get him back for the fall.”

Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman expects Notre Dame’s defense to be as successful as its defensive line dictates.
Notre Dame safety DJ Brown, pictured, has received plenty of opportunities to prove himself this spring with starter Kyle Hamilton sidelined with an ankle injury.