In this edition of the Notre Dame football midseason report card we take a look at the Irish defense. For much of the season the Irish defense was an eyesore on the Notre Dame program. Fans were calling for the head of defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, just one game into year. Fans would get their wish, but it took frustrating home losses to Michigan State and Duke for that wish to be granted.
Since VanGorder’s departure the defense has played better. Considering the regression of the offense over the last two games, some would say that it has grown into the strength of this team.
Brian Kelly will have the task of bringing in a top flight defensive coordinator this off season, but in the meantime the Irish still have five more games to keep improving on the defensive side of the ball.
The Defense - C-
If we gave these grades away after the first four games of the year the Irish defense would have received a grade of an F. In those first four games the Irish were giving up 38+ points and over 450 yards per game. But what a difference a change can make.
Out goes BVG, in comes a whole new defensive philosophy, which is keep everything in front of you, limit points, and don’t allow the big play. For the most part it’s worked. In the last two losses to NC State and Stanford, it has been the offense that hasn’t carried it’s end of the load. In those two games the Irish defense has allowed a combined 18 points and 494 yards, which is good for an average of 9 points and 247 yards per game. Which boosts their grade up to a C-.
The front four has shown flashes, but really haven’t be as disrupting as we’d like them to be. They rank almost at the bottom in sacks with six, which is “good” for No.121 nationally. Isaac Rochell has been a rock, as one of the most consistent players on the defense. Jerry Tillery and Jarron Jones have had their moments, but they’ve had as many suspect moments. Jay Hayes has shown he deserves more snaps as he’s a pretty consistent pass rusher. Andrew Trumbetti and Daelin Hayes have been used in Notre Dame’s speed packages. Hayes is a promising prospect and probably will turn out to be a pretty good player for the Irish; while we know what we’re getting with Trumbetti.
Two of the best Irish defenders reside in the linebacking corps in James Onwualu and Nyles Morgan. Onwualu is fourth on the team in tackles, leads in tackles for loss, and also has a sack to his name. Morgan has been an absolute beast in the middle of the Irish defense. He leads the team in tackles and sacks. He will return as the definite leader of the defense in 2017. Te’Von Coney, Greer Martini, and Asmar Bilal have all seen time at the WILL linebacker position. All three have shown they have a role on this defense.
The Irish secondary was a major question mark going into the season and that question hasn’t been answered positively. Yes, they’ve had their share of bad breaks. Max Redfield was kicked off the team just weeks before the season started. Shaun Crawford suffered another season ending in just the second game of the year.
These circumstances have pressed Kelly into playing four to five freshmen in the defensive backfield. Donte’ Vaughn, Jalen Elliot, Troy Pride Jr., Julian Love, and Devin Studstill have all seen significant time in their freshman seasons. So if you want to be positive, there’s a lot to hope for in Notre Dame’s secondary for the next couple of seasons.
By no means is this close to a perfect unit. They still don’t generate much of a pass rush. They still don’t force many turnovers (No.105 in turnover margin), but for now the Irish just need to limit points and big plays and they’ve done that over the last two games. This defense is definitely taking steps in the right direction, so whoever comes in as the next DC will have something to work with.