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Tuesday, March 5, 2024
The Observer

Hoonhout: Notre Dame’s defense will anchor playoff aspirations

Offseason coaching changes are a staple in college football. But when a team has its fourth defensive coordinator in three years, usually there are question marks.

In Notre Dame’s case, however, there very well may be an exception.

As Brian Kelly heads into the much-anticipated revival of the Michigan rivalry to start the season, there are credible doubts about the offense’s ability to recreate its dynamic rushing attack and award-winning offensive line with the losses of two of the team’s top three rushers in Josh Adams and Deon McIntosh, not to mention All-Americans Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson going to the NFL. And while at the end of the day, the quarterback play may be the deciding factor in whether the Irish make the College Playoff, the Irish defense may be the engine that gets them there.

Irish junior linebacker Jonathan Jones takes down a USC running back during Notre Dame's 49-14 win on Oct. 21.
Irish junior linebacker Jonathan Jones takes down a USC running back during Notre Dame's 49-14 win on Oct. 21.

That’s because on paper, this might be one of Notre Dame’s best defenses in a long, long time.

Even though former Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko went south to Texas A&M for warmer weather — and a lot more money — after just one year at Notre Dame, his legacy is still intact. After a horrid 2016 campaign, Elko’s system helped right the ship in 2017, as the Irish improved dramatically in almost every major defensive category. Instead of starting from scratch, Brian Kelly elected to stick with the program and promoted linebackers coach Clark Lea — who came with Elko to Notre Dame from Wake Forest — in an attempt to establish some continuity. And for good reason.

Notre Dame is absolutely loaded on the defensive side of the ball.

The Irish return a whopping 10 starters after making tangible steps as a unit last season, and under Lea, there’s no reason the unit can’t take even greater strides.

From the front four to the secondary, the Irish have a wealth of upperclassmen experience. Only three sophomores are even projected to be backups in Notre Dame’s system, with every starter likely being a junior or senior.

On the defensive line, the return of graduate student nose tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery gives the unit a considerable boost, and Lea’s subsequent decision to switch the two between nose tackle and defensive tackle may prove to give the Irish the extra bit of disruption that they were missing last year. Notre Dame is incredibly athletic and deep at the ends, with juniors Daelin Hayes, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara all looking to play even bigger roles than last year after combining for 8.5 sacks.

While the Irish did lose Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini at linebacker, senior leading tackler Teyvon Coney and leader of the defense Drue Tranquill are both back to solidify the only “young” position group on this defense. Coney has the potential to be an All-American, and graduate student Tranquill should be even more comfortable with his second year of playing the rover position.

But in the secondary is where it gets really exciting. A year removed from being a relatively young unit, the Irish not only have a wealth of experience, but a ton of depth as well. Junior Julian Love looks to be the anchor at corner after a breakout sophomore campaign in which he finished second in the nation in passes defended, with senior Shaun Crawford and junior Troy Pride Jr. both slotted to be major contributors. And at safety, where the trio of senior Nick Coleman and juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill performed admirably last season but didn’t offer much disruption, the Irish now have junior and Navy transfer Alohi Gilman and stud freshman Houston Griffith to add to the mix, and there’s no reason the unit can’t be more of a game changer.

Top to bottom, this unit is loaded with experience, a factor that could play a major role when Notre Dame hits the road to play Virginia Tech and USC. If the offense struggles to come up with a consistent product, the Irish have enough talent on the depth chart on the other side of the ball to keep every game competitive.

Don’t be surprised to see a statement made Sept. 1.