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Monday, May 20, 2024
The Observer

Week 1 Notre Dame football grades: Defense and special teams get it done

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The Irish defense makes a tackle during Notre Dame's 42-3 win over Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 26.
The Irish defense makes a tackle during Notre Dame's 42-3 win over Navy at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland, on Aug. 26.


On Monday, we graded the Notre Dame offense and its 2023 debut in Dublin. The 42-point thrashing of Navy was met with high marks nearly all across the board. On the flip side, the Irish were up to the task against the Midshipmen’s unique offensive game plan. Limiting the opposition to just three points, which were not scored until the fourth quarter, Notre Dame controlled the game defensively, taking loads of pressure off the many new faces in the Irish offense. Here’s a deep dive into what Al Golden’s units — plus special teams — showed us in the season opener.

Defensive Line

As one of Notre Dame’s biggest gray areas, the defensive line has room to grow and shoes to fill. Immediately thrust into battling the triple option, this unit largely performed very well. Though Navy won at the line of scrimmage and ran for big chunks on the opening drive, the Irish buckled down and limited the Midshipmen to 2.6 yards per carry in total. 

The big men up front were at their best every time Navy dropped back to pass. Twice, when the Irish secondary let a receiver break free downfield, pressure forced the ball out quicker, resulting in incompletions. And in the final quarter, Notre Dame successfully rushed Navy on a pair of trick plays. Senior Rylie Mills and sophomore Joshua Burnham came alive late, each recording a sack.

Against the run, Notre Dame’s edge players were most proficient in limiting the Midshipmen. Graduate student Javontae Jean-Baptiste flashed in his first game with Notre Dame, using his 6-foot-4 frame to shed blocks and vacuum up draw plays. Senior Jordan Botelho was rangy and quick to the ball, also factoring in on the pass rush.

Short-yardage situations emerged as the defensive line’s only true blemish. In several fourth-and-short situations, Navy ran its quarterback behind its slot backs and fullbacks. Such a play design forces the signal-caller to retreat from under center to behind his backfield after the snap, adding time for the defensive line to penetrate. However, the Irish were mauled on the interior on those plays, allowing the Midshipmen to convert each time.

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: A-

Linebackers

The best weapons a group can wield against the triple options are experience and discipline. Time and time again, those two characteristics shined through in the Irish linebacker room. Graduate students JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau had all seen Navy before. And despite cheating inside and losing contain a few times early, the trio was close to perfect after the Midshipmen’s opening drive.

Among Irish fans and head coach Marcus Freeman, Liufau earned defensive MVP status with his performance. The Hawaiian notched a near-career-high seven tackles, second only to his eight against the Midshipmen in 2022. With a strong display of lateral speed and awareness, Liufau made several key hits just before the sticks on third down. He also forced a fumble and improvised to cover the quarterback on Navy’s first trick play.

While Kiser didn’t capture attention like Liufau did, he pieced together a solid effort in his own right. He finished with a team-high eight tackles from the rover position, rushing the passer effectively as well. Bertrand struggled a bit more, missing a few tackles and shooting the wrong gaps early. Still, he and sophomore Jaylen Sneed made a couple of key stops later in the game.

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: A-

Secondary

It’s Navy, so take this evaluation with a grain of salt. On each play, including the Midshipmen’s few passing attempts, the Irish were geared up to stop the run. As a result, all defensive backs played within about 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. Still, Notre Dame has plenty to iron out in its downfield coverage.

On three occasions, a Navy receiver (or two) ran past the Irish backs into space — twice against zone, once against man. During play one, Navy’s fourth-down incompletion on the opening drive, graduate cornerback Cam Hart, responsible for the outer third of the field, seemed to expect a flat route that never came as two men ran by him.

Hart later bounced back with air-tight press coverage on an incompletion. Negative play two saw the safeties, graduate student DJ Brown and senior Ramon Henderson, cover the same shallow receiver and leave no high safety. On the third, graduate safety Thomas Harper was simply beat in the cornerback position.

Notre Dame’s secondary was far better in run pursuit. Though he didn’t see many snaps, sophomore corner Jaden Mickey made two terrific stops on the perimeter. Henderson and fellow senior safety Xavier Watts displayed superb play recognition at times, which led to the aforementioned fumble. As quarterback Tai Lavatai pitched the ball, Watts screamed down from his safety spot, occupying a blocker. That freed up Brown to make a low hit, which placed the ball carrier in a vulnerable spot.

Weekly Grade: C+; Season Grade: C+

Special Teams

Unless the unit is blocking a punt per game, it’s never a bad thing when special teams fail to make headlines. So it went on Saturday. Graduate student kicker Spencer Shrader made all six extra-point attempts and consistently booted touchbacks. But he also missed a 42-yard field goal, albeit while the Irish led 35-0. On the punt return side, senior wideout Chris Tyree only had one true opportunity, which he took for 11 yards.

Weekly Grade: A-; Season Grade: A-

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