Notebook: Adding simplicity and impact to the Notre Dame defense with Botelho
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly earlier this week preached simplification as a key to Notre Dame improving its surprising/troubling No. 88 national ranking in total defense.
Plugging in sophomore defensive end Jordan Botelho, Saturday against Purdue (2-0), couldn’t be any simpler. Or potentially more impactful.
At least, in time.
The 6-2, 245-pound Honolulu Saint Louis High product is expected to make his season debut Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, where the 12th-ranked Irish (2-0) and the Boilermakers will stage clash No. 87 in the once-annual series (2:30 EDT; NBC), coming off a seven-year hiatus.
Botelho’s skill set doesn’t necessarily address the four plays the past two weekends by opposing offenses of 60 yards or more that have skewed ND’s defensive bottom line and sullied first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s new-car smell.
Botelho does bring versatility, depth, almost over-the-top intensity, and he adds — to this point — to what has been the ND defense’s strength.
► Chat Transcript:Breaking down ND's O-line breakdowns, possible solutions to a slow start
"Jordan is a guy that I think can help us at that vyper position,” Kelly, 5-0 as ND’s head coach vs. Purdue, said Thursday via Zoom. “He brings pass-rush ability. I think he brings third-down, in particular, depth for us in terms of rushing the passer. We were a little thin there, and I think that that's going to be really welcomed to our unit."
Even without Botelho, the Irish are tied for fifth nationally in sacks, at 5.0 per game — a pace, if maintained, that would obliterate the single-season school record (41, set in 1996). Seven different players show up in ND's sack column, led by junior vyper end Isaiah Foskey (1.5 per game).
Foskey and Botelho play the same position, but in August camp practices they played together in certain situations. And Botelho moved around the formation, lining up at times as an inside linebacker, the position at which he excelled in 2019 as a Butkus Award finalist while Saint Louis was winning its third straight Hawaii high school state title.
Botelho, who recently switched uniform numbers from 17 to 12, was listed on the Irish depth chart for their Sept. 5season opener at Florida State. But 90 minutes before kickoff, he and reserve running backs Logan Diggs and C’Bo Flemister, showed up on a list of unavailable players.
ND has used the list primarily for players who were in isolation or quarantine because of COVID-19, without spelling that out or confirming cases. But the list isn’t necessarily limited to COVID cases, and Kelly declined to be specific about any of the players’ situation after the FSU game.
Diggs, Kelly said, will be available Saturday, while Flemister and freshman linebacker Prince Kollie will not be.
Botelho didn’t appear on the depth chart for Toledo last Saturday, and Kelly said in advance he wouldn't be available. That changed this week, with Kelly confirming Thursday Botelho’s availability for Purdue.
He played in 10 games of 12 as a freshman in 2020, mostly on special teams. Botelho recorded four tackles on the season and returned a blocked punt against South Florida for a touchdown.
O-line personnel update
Kelly said Thursday it’ll be a game-time decision Saturday as to whether Michael Carmody or Tosh Baker gain the start at left tackle for Notre Dame. Both players are sophomores, who redshirted as freshmen last season.
Carmody suffered an ankle injury in the 32-29 Irish win over Toledo last Saturday, with Baker finishing. Carmody was making his first collegiate start after relieving freshman Blake Fisher in the Sept. 6 season-opening overtime win over Florida State.
Fisher is out eight weeks with a knee injury.
“Carmody’s made pretty good progress during the week,” Kelly said.
• Kelly on Thursday reiterated his desire to rotate players Saturday at the offensive guard positions. If he were to follow through, it appears former left tackle Andrew Kristofic (6-5, 295) — now a guard/center — would be the first man in, with freshman Rocco Spindler (6-5, 300) next and perhaps senior John Dirksen (6-5, 306) after Spindler.
Marshall grad transfer Cain Madden (6-2, 310) and converted center Zeke Correll (6-3, 295) have started at right and left guard, respectively, the first two games.
“We really like what he's been doing,” Kelly said of Kristofic. “He's been playing some center. He's been playing some guard, and we really like his development. So expect to see him playing some guard on Saturday.”
Feels like the first time?
As Kelly closes in on history — his next win (No. 105) ties Irish coaching icon Knute Rockne for the school record — the more he seems determined not to let it become a distraction.
When reminded Monday that win No. 105 could come against the same team win No. 1 did (Purdue), Kelly professed that he couldn’t even remember what he had for breakfast, let alone the details from victory No. 1 on Sept. 4, 2010.
So we’ll give him a little help.
• The Irish let a 20-3 third-quarter lead erode before an interception by nose guard Ian Williams and then a 37-yard field goal by David Ruffer with 4:30 left sealed a 23-12 victory over the Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium.
• Kelly was awarded the game ball — not by himself, but via athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
“I remember there was so much excitement,” Dayne Crist, Kelly’s opening-day QB in 2010, said this week. “First game. At Home. New coach. New quarterback and offense, and just drastically different from what it had been the year prior.
“I just remember feeling a real palpable excitement on campus, and there was just a lot of uncertainty as to what it all was going to look like and feel like.
“For me personally, I was just incredibly excited to get out there as a starter for the first time at Notre Dame. And just go slinging it. I knew we had such a great team that year and a ton of talent on offense.
“There was certainly going to be some hiccups along the way with any new offense. I was just so excited to get out and play, and just remember having a ton of fun that day.”
The fun didn’t last. The Irish dropped their next three games, but finished 8-5 by concocting a four-game winning streak to end the season.
In his first game as a non-wide receiver last Saturday, sophomore Xavier Watts wasn’t able to try on his new position — rover — and instead only played on special teams.
"The game was in a position where we thought we'd be able to get him in in a limited role,” Kelly said of the 5-11, 195-pounder. “We were still in a situation where we needed to play a multiple-call defense, and he wasn't ready to do that.
“We're getting him closer to that. We expect him to contribute for us this year on the defensive side of the ball."
• Kelly confirmed Thursday that freshman reserve cornerback JoJo Johnson underwent season-ending knee surgery for a torn ACL, and that junior vyper end Osita Ekwonu underwent season-ending surgery for an Achilles tendon injury.
• For the first time this season, Notre Dame will NOT be facing one of its former players on Saturday, but Purdue wide receiver TJ Shefflield was technically in Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting class for a little less than a week.
The now 5-11, 190-pound redshirt sophomore verbally committed to the Irish in July of 2018 in a mix-up over whether he had a committable offer. Irish wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander reportedly called Sheffield a few days later to tell him the school couldn’t honor the commitment.
After missing Purdue’s season-opening win over Oregon State, Sheffield last Saturday had four catches for 27 yards and a TD in the Boilermakers’ 49-0 waxing of UConn — Purdue’s first road shutout of an FBS team in 40 years,
The Thompson’s Station, Tenn., product has two kickoff returns for a total of 18 yards this season and one rush for minus-4 yards.
Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI