Welcome to the second installment of my midterm grading for your 2019 Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Squad. We’ve already handed out grades to the offense, if you missed it, feel free to catch up here. Whether you read the first review or not, here’s a quick refresher on how we’re doing this... In honor of cinema’s finest teacher, Detective John Kimble, we are eschewing letter grades in favor of assigning each unit to a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’re all on-board right? Let’s dive right in and access what has been the strength of this team, the defense.
When I think of the movie Predator, my first thought isn’t the invisible alien stalker, it’s about what a collection of total badasses Dutch and his crew are. When we’re first introduced to the team, Apollo Creed and Arnold engage in a handshake that was filled with so much testosterone that the IOC needed to ban it’s viewing prior to the 1988 Seoul Summer Games.
The standouts of the unit are obviously the ends, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. We knew that going into the season, and for the most part, they’ve delivered. Combined they’ve had 8.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 12 QB hurries and 2 forced fumbles. What really stands out about this unit however, is the depth. It’s a narrative that’s been beaten to death if you’ve followed this team, but really, it cannot be overstated. Daelin Hayes figured in to having a prominent role on the defensive end rotation and through three games, it’d be tough to argue that he wasn’t best player on the edge. Sadly he injured his shoulder early in the Virginia game and is lost for the season. The plan was for Jamir Jones in redshirt this season and come back for a fifth year, but since Hayes injury, he’s had to take Hayes place and recorded a sack in every game he’s been in since. Also prominently in the end rotation is Ade Ogundeji, taking about 20 snaps a game, who’s snagged 1.5 TFL, 3 QB hurries, 14 tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown in the Virginia game.
The inside was a point of much consternation going into the season with Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner heading to the NFL. Funny thing is, inside has been the consistent strength of the defensive line. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, for my money, has been the defensive MVP to this point. He’s got a pass breakup to go with a forced fumble, half a sack, 2.5 TFL and 14 tackles. But more than that, is his impact in by commanding double teams, collapsing the pocket and serving as the vanguard in preventing the run. The aforementioned consternation was that teams would be able to blow us up in the middle, between MTA and Kurt Hinish, that simply has not materialized.
You know the scene when Jessie Ventura’s character bites it and Dutch, Billy, Dillon, Pancho and Mac line up for that iconic scene and light the jungle up, guns blazing?
That reminds me an awful lot of when Daelin went down early in the Virginia game and the defensive line just took it to another level with 8 sacks, 13 tackles for loss and a forced fumble scoop and score.
Make no mistake, True Lies is a flipping classic. It shouldn’t be a classic. I don’t understand how it’s so good. Does Arnold get into a motorcycle chase whilst riding a horse? Yes. Does he ride said horse into a high rise hotel and take it up an elevator? Yes he does. Does Jamie Lee Curtis drop a Mac-10 down a flight of stairs and on each step does it fire off a round that kills a terrorist? Of course. It has all of these ridiculously cool moments that on paper sound awesome but you wonder how it could all possibly fit together...And then it just does.
They were replacing the most productive tandem of linebackers since the NBC deal was first inked, Coney/Tranquill combined for 209 tackles last year. Throughout the entire spring and fall camps, Clark Lea was setting rotations like he was asked to pick three at Panda Express. While everyone had penciled in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah like Orange Chicken, after that...it was up for grabs. Commonly assumed it was though to be THE reason that the season was going to end in multiple losses. We should have known better. Who is the linebackers coach? Who was tasked with getting these talented and inexperienced young kids ready? Why none other than Clark Lea, who it turns out is actually evil mastermind Lex Luthor.
All three starters were new at their position and all three have been pretty outstanding. Everyone not named Brad Wechter, figured the Asmar Bilal experiment would have run it’s course by Georgia. Instead it’s been like Jamie Lee Curtis getting ready in hotel scene with Arnold, seemingly out of no where Asmar is putting on a show. Not unlike Harrison Smith, as a senior, the light has just gone on for Asmar. It’s going to be a talking point for years to come with future players, where we wonder if they won’t “Turn in an Asmar-like senior season.” His indecisiveness is gone, he’s repeatedly taking great angles to the ball on the perimeter and his play in coverage is tops among the linebackers.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, JOK to the kids, plays a charismatic style of football to be sure. He was the one guy out of the prospective starters at linebacker that was seen as a can’t miss of sorts. His athleticism, speed and reckless abandon, all stood out during the course of the preseason practice sessions. Through six games, those same sentiments have stood out. He was the best defensive player on the field in Athens, and it was his most complete game. Every time you see something flash across your screen as the Irish are playing defense, you can be rest assured that it’s JOK on his way like a missile looking for someone to hit.
That reckless nature however, means that sometimes he has run himself out of plays, going inside and getting beat outside. But that is something that as he garners more experience, he’ll clean up. The future for JOK seems as bright as any linebacker to wear blue and gold since Jaylon Smith, he’s an absolute star in the making.
The final starting piece to this linebacker puzzle was the one that we knew the least about, who was going to be the Mike? Was it going to be Triple B(Bearded Bo Bauer)? Jack Lamb? In the end it was Drew White who received the invitation to start at the Mike. And how did Drew respond?
Currently he leads in the team in tackles for loss with seven and that’s with being the most rotated position of the linebackers. He’s shown some flaws thus far, he hustles but you can tell he’s still not quite reacting as fluidly as Asmar or as decisively as JOK. If he can clean up some of his missed tackles and gap assignment mistakes against the run, it would round out this linebacker corps as one of the more complete units we’ve had under Kelly.
True Lies Moment
Everything about the linebackers this season has been a True Lies moment. It even goes back to the spring, when Drew White, prior to spring practice, injured his shoulder during a spring break ski trip that required surgery. How did it happen?
The secondary is really two distinct personal groupings, the corners and the safeties, but it just made sense to lump them together. In this case the corners are The Terminator and the safeties are Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While both movies are about the same characters and same continuing story, thematically they are very different. The Terminator is a horror movie about an undying, unkillable machine sent from the future to prevent the birth of a child that would serve as humanities savior, by killing it’s mother, Sarah Connor. Do know who else is an undying, unkillable machine? Shaun Crawford.
Shaun Crawford tore his ACL in 2015, tore an Achilles in 2016 and again tore an ACL in prior to 2018. He shouldn’t have been playing at the level he was playing but there he was, through the first three games of the season, making plays like he hadn’t lost a step. He has a couple of pass breakups, an interception and was playing at an extremely high level. Then in the opening minutes of the 3rd quarter against Virginia, while trying to make a tackle, his elbow bent in half like a bendy straw. Dislocated Elbow... He’s done for the year right?
Troy Pride Jr has been tough to really figure out this season. He’s been beaten a handful of times, the Georgia/Virginia games but in almost each instance it’s because the quarterback is making NFL back shoulder throws.
Still, it’s been very difficult to separate the memory of Julian Love when assessing Troy Pride. It’s been a bit rough watching him try and get off blocks in the short passing game but he has done a great job in keeping everything in front of him. I’d be remiss not to mention Tariq Bracy, he’s broken up 5 passes and has done a pretty good job stepping in for Crawford while he was out. I had serious questions about the corners going into next season and seeing how well Bracy is played in these spot starts is comforting to say the least.
While The Terminator had a horror movie feel to it...Terminator 2 was straight popcorn action. It’s not hyperbolic to state that it’s the greatest popcorn action movie of all time. The Terminator is back, but he’s a good guy now. Sarah Connor is back and she’s a bad-ass There’s a new bad guy and he’s very cool. So let’s just do this shall we? Jalen Elliot and Kyle Hamilton are both playing this pseudo centerfield-ish safety role this season. Elliot is the grizzled vet, the T-800, the Arnold Terminator. He’s taken the young players under his wing and been fantastic in coverage. The impressive nature of Elliot’s game are the plays where you don’t hear his name. Yes, he’s got two picks and two pass breakups but he’s been very good at keeping players in front him without playing too soft that forces the quarterback to look elsewhere.
Every scene that featured the T-1000 left you stunned and amazed by the special effects. While the original Terminator had an almost Frankenstein, inevitability to him, the T-1000 was a complete wild card. He was as stronger, faster, deadlier, better in almost every way than the T-800. With Kyle Hamilton you just KNOW you’re seeing something special, every time number 14 steps onto the field you get on the edge of your seat.
The way the staff is using Hamilton right now is masterful. He’s getting in the game 30-35 snaps(almost 70 against USC!), mostly on passing downs. He’s being given a chance to make plays without being as much risk to get exposed, the sparing use is really contributing to his confidence and you can see it when he steps up to lay guys out. He had a few missed tackles in the USC game, including one where he tried to blow-up a man and just bounced off, but that aggression and desire to seek contact is something you can’t teach. Quarterbacks will start to learn that you might not want place the ball anywhere that number fourteen is.
As an adult, viewing Terminator 2, one thing that really sticks out is how hardcore Sarah Connor is. In a movie featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’s Linda Hamilton that comes off as the toughest protagonist. In a safety grouping that features some vastly more heralded players, it’s Alohi Gilman that comes off as the toughest player.
While Elliot and Hamilton are given the luxury of playing out in space, Gilman is asked by Clark Lea to do a little of everything. He’s up supporting the run, he’s blitzing the quarterback, he’s in man to man, he’s bracketing over the top, he’s doing it all. The similarities between Gilman and Troy Polamalu go beyond just the both of them being Samoan, there’s that edge that they both play with and the innate nose for knowing where to be. When Gilman comes up to the line of scrimmage, good things tend to happen.
Down 15, the Cavaliers are moving the ball. With a little under four minutes to go, from their own forty, Perkins looks across the middle to set up shop inside the Irish 40 but not before Kyle Hamilton goes full body extension and cuts off the pass for a game sealing pick.
I hope you all had fun as we broke down and assigned midterm grades to the 2019 Fighting Irish. I plan on continuing to comparative articles as the season progresses, I have a real doozy prepared for Michigan next week... Oh and as long as were on this topic and I’ve got you, if you haven’t seen Predator The Musical, I highly recommend you rectify that during this bye week.