Five defensive spring storylines for Notre Dame football

Mike Berardino
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND — For all the recent upheaval on the offensive coaching staff, Notre Dame enters spring practice with its defensive crew largely intact.

Defensive coordinator Al Golden returns for a second spring practice at the controls of the nation’s 39th-ranked scoring defense. Pro Football Focus rated Notre Dame 41st in overall defensive efficiency last season and No. 6 in tackling.

Former NFL linebacker James Laurinaitis returned to Ohio State to be a grad assistant at his alma mater.  Max Bullough, a former Michigan State and NFL linebacker who spent the last three seasons as an analyst at Alabama, was hired to fill the void.  

Spring offense:Five compelling storylines on offense as Notre Dame opens spring practice

Here are five storylines to watch for the Notre Dame defense this spring:

Red zone corrections

After spending significant time at the start of last spring on those all-important showdowns in the shadow of the goalposts, the Irish defense flopped in that department. While Notre Dame allowed its opponents just 34 trips to the plus-20 and in, tied for 10th-fewest in the country, all but two of those trips resulted in points (second-worst nationally among 131 FBS teams).

Foes reached the end zone 27 times on those forays, a 79.4% touchdown rate that left the Irish defense dead last.

Considering Marcus Freeman’s 2021 Irish defense was the fourth-stingiest in terms of red-zone capitulation — 18 touchdowns allowed in 47 total trips — look for more tinkering in these 15 spring practice opportunities.

It should help that after playing for three coordinators in as many seasons, Notre Dame upperclassmen on defense will enjoy system continuity with the same terminology and principles they mastered in 2022.

Generating pass rush

Notre Dame's Jordan Botelho prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Isaiah Foskey, who set a modern program record with 26.5 career sacks, is off to terrorize NFL quarterbacks. The Ademilola twins, Jayson and Justin, have also departed after combining for 24 career sacks, including 20 over the past two seasons.

High-motor edge Jordan Botelho enters his senior season off a 4.5-sack breakout showing in situational duty. Can the freelancing Hawaiian be trusted to set the edge against the run and maintain his pass-rush lanes nearly as well as Foskey did in his Vyper role?

Ohio State grad transfer Javontae Jean-Baptiste, frequently overshadowed during his sneaky-productive time in Columbus, picked Notre Dame over Texas and Mississippi with an eye toward boosting his professional stock. Al Washington, Notre Dame's defensive line coach and run game coordinator, knows Jean-Baptiste from his three seasons coaching linebackers at Ohio State.

Rylie Mills, whose 23 total pressures (four sacks) last season lead the returning group, and fellow upperclassman Nana Osafo-Mensah also will be counted on to step up their production for a Notre Dame pass rush that ranked 39th last year.

Princeton grad transfer Cole Aubrey joins redshirt freshmen Joshua Burnham and Tyson Ford among depth options that could emerge. Over his final two seasons with Princeton, when the Tigers went 17-3, Aubrey recorded 52 total pressures and eight sacks.

“Some of the guys have to step up,” Golden said before the Gator Bowl. “It’s a great opportunity. If the guys that are behind (Foskey) step up and fulfill that role, then you call the game the same. If we’re not getting the pass rush, then we’re going to have to bring a fifth guy. It’s pretty simple.”

Release the hounds

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylen Sneed (17) during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Saturday, April 02, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

After patiently waiting all season, Jaylen Sneed capped his freshman year with a 17-snap cameo in the Gator Bowl win over South Carolina. The five-star rover should get more chances this spring to show progress as he continues to learn from veteran starter Jack Kiser (two missed tackles in 2022).

Similarly, special-teams ace Prince Kollie flashed down the stretch last season as the primary backup to Marist Liufau at outside linebacker. Junior Tuihalamaka, who also saw time at Vyper as a freshman, is pushing for more snaps as well.

Fifth-year senior JD Bertrand has led the team in tackles the past two seasons, but the next wave of playmakers isn’t far behind.  

Corner factory

Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Benjamin Morrison (20) intercepts a late second quarter pass intended for South Carolina Gamecocks wide receiver O'Mega Blake (89). The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish took on the University of South Carolina Gamecocks in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl game in Jacksonville, Florida's TIAA Bank Field Friday, December 30, 2022. The first half ended with South Carolina holding a 24 to 17 lead. [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]

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Benjamin Morrison didn’t enroll until last June, but he still made six interceptions and earned freshman All-America honors.

With fifth-year senior cornerback Cam Hart coming off December shoulder surgery, the floor is open this spring for early enrollee Christian Gray to show if he’s ready to make a Morrison-style jump for position coach Mike Mickens. Rising senior Clarence Lewis, who lost his starting job to Morrison, will get plenty of practice reps as well.

A worthy successor to slot corner TaRiq Bracy (55 career games) must be found. Jaden Mickey took his lumps during an injury-marred freshman year, allowing three touchdowns and a perfect passer rating (the dreaded 158.3) when targeted, according to Pro Football Focus.

Thomas Harper, the graduate transfer from Oklahoma State, has nickel safety experience but is coming back from November surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Watts the answer?

Gone are Northwestern transfer safety Brandon Joseph, who declared for the NFL draft with two years of eligibility remaining, and veteran backup Houston Griffith, whose 62 game appearances set a program record.

DJ Brown, conversely, made a surprise decision to return for a sixth season after playing through a nagging hamstring issue last fall.

Look for budding star Xavier Watts, a fourth-year junior, to continue his rise to prominence after forcing incompletions on 24% of his targets (best on the team). Ramon Henderson, a rising senior for position coach Chris O'Leary, needs to regain his confidence after taking a step back in coverage last season.

A pair of freshman safeties, Adon Shuler and Ben Minich, will get a chance to learn the system as early enrollees, but Shuler figures to be limited after Feb. 8 surgery to repair a sprained AC joint in his left shoulder.

Depending on Harper’s availability, cornerback Ryan Barnes, who has cross-trained in the past, could be a candidate to move inside this spring to boost the depth at safety.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.