Going into the 2017 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish offense will be returning it’s offensive line filled with future NFL draft picks and plenty of playmakers at the skill positions. Scoring points doesn’t look to be much of a concern. Finding a way to keep opposing offenses off the field will likely be the major focus in Spring and Fall camps.
New defensive coordinator Mike Elko will look to increase production starting with finding a way to create pressure on the quarterback, sacks, turnovers and 3rd down efficiency. He will be installing his very effective 4-2-5 base defense he brings with him from Wake Forest. This past season, the Demon Deacons defense, loaded with 2 and 3 star talent top to bottom, finished 10th in turnovers gained, 13th in sacks, 30th in tackles for loss and 20th in scoring defense.
Not bad for a school with 8,000 students. Needless to say, Notre Dame fans are very excited to see what Elko can do with the talent in South Bend.
The 4-2-5 defense is similar to a “nickel” defense in that it uses 4 defensive lineman,(the weak side defensive end is typically a stand up end) 2 linebackers, a “Mike” and “Buck,” 2 cornerbacks and 2 safeties. What's different, is instead of having a traditional nickelback, usually the 3rd cornerback on depth cart, it utilizes a “rover” position.
The rover is a linebacker/safety highbrid type that, in this scheme, can be a lot more effective than the nickelback option. The typical responsibility of the rover is to line up on the wide-side of the field over the inside receiver whether it's a slot back, split-TE or running back, and typically deploys man coverage. By doing this it allows the safeties to play closer to the line of scrimmage where they can provide quick, effective help in the run game, as well as run cleverly disguised or timed blitzes which are difficult to for offenses to diagnose.
In this scheme you’ll often see safeties creeping up in the box as the play clock is winding down. Also, when watching film of Wake Forest from this season, I noticed the rover would blitz off the edge and either a linebacker or safety would pick up the inside receiver. This new position brings more versatility and aggression than the typical nickelback does due to the size and skill set of the personnel.
Many think that this defense fits Notre Dame very well, and I agree. The Fighting Irish have a lot of “tweeners” on their defense. By that I mean smaller linebackers who excel in pass coverage and larger, more physical, defensive backs that are stout in run support.
Drue Tranquill is the first name that comes up in this discussion. He played linebacker and safety in high school and has played a role similar to the rover for the Irish in past seasons when they were up against run heavy/option teams like Stanford, Georgia Tech, Army or Navy, for example. He’s also been used in blitzes from the backfield.
Another player in the discussion is Asmar Bilal, the junior linebacker and former consensus four-star linebacker from Indianapolis. He has room for improvement in pass coverage but has the rangy size (6’2, 230lbs.) and athleticism to thrive at this position. Getting Bilal playing time at one of the two linebacker spots is tricky with captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini returning as well as starting WLB Tevon Coney. Cross training Bilal at rover will be a good way of getting the talented, high-ceiling athlete on the field.
Two true sophomores have also entered the discussion as rover candidates; Spencer Perry, the 6’2, 205 lb. safety who attended powerhouse IMG Academy (#1 prep school in the country) as well as D.J. Morgan who was projected as a LB/SS hybrid and also comes from a top prep school (St. John Bosco in California).
With solid depth at the linebacker position and plenty of young talent with starts under their belts in the defensive backfield, something Notre Dame didn't have last year, I’m predicting Notre Dame will greatly improve defensively in 2017.