Practice Report: Defense

Notre Dame's remaining 77 scholarship players took to their new FieldTurf surface Saturday with a horde of media gathered in the stadium's gold seats, and a collection of faculty and their families conveniently placed opposite.

In addition to somewhat-suspended defenders Keivarae Russell, Ishaq Wiliams, and Kendall Moore, the defense was without the services of a pair of redshirt-freshmen, linebacker Doug Randolph and defensive lineman Jacob Matuska, both were wearing jerseys, shorts, but had no discernible limp or ailment. Both took to the huddle with their respective position groups.

Of immediate, albeit premature, concern: when leaving practice sessions that included KeiVarae Russell, I often thought his of his understudy on the right side, Devin Butler.

"Butler might be the most talented No. 4 cornerback in the nation."

Today, without Russell, and with Butler working as the No. 3 overall corner, my lasting impression was: "Notre Dame could be vulnerable, at least until he gets his feet wet.

Reviewing my notes, there were three instances in which I wrote, "Butler holds…"

He's physical and athletic, but he needs to learn when to lay off the receiver, or at least become more adept at disguising his use of hands.

The domino effect of Russell's absence was immediate: Cole Luke went to the right side in his stead and Riggs, already the starter on the left, was beaten early by Amir Carlisle and again

Riggs won more than he lost though, and he is a very physical football player that must impart his ability to get away with contact to his young teammates.

Defensive Depth Chart

One notable change, though head coach Brian Kelly hinted at it during his Wednesday press conference: sophomore James Onwualu worked with the first unit linebackers on the strong side today. He was backed up by junior John Turner and senior Ben Councell in a rotation. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith long ago cemented starting roles and it appears their backups are freshman Nyles Morgan at the mike behind Schmidt and his classmate, Greer Martini, behind Smith at the will.

The first unit defensive front showed Isaac Rochell as the strong side defensive end replacing Ishaq Williams with Jarron Jones (NT), Sheldon Day (three-technique DT) and freshman Andrew Trumbetti still ahead of junior Romeo Okwara on the weak side. Rochell was backed by freshman Grant Blankenship with fellow frosh Daniel Cage at nose tackle and 5th-year senior Justin Utupo at DT.

First-unit secondary today showed Luke (RCB), Riggs (LCB), Austin Collinsworth (SS) and Max Redfield (FS) backed by senior Jalen Brown, the aforementioned Butler, Elijah Shumate, and Nicky Baratti, respectively. Senior safety Eilar Hardy though rotated regularly with both Shumate and Baratti and arguably looked the best of the three today in total.

The Irish front practiced a few three-down alignments today with their second unit, using Okwara as a stand up outside 'backer.

An updated depth chart can be found on the Football Forum message board. It will be adjusted August 19 for the final time before Notre Dame releases a (semi) official chart prior to the Rice contest.

Pass-Rushing Drills

Old habits die hard and I caught myself watching the receivers and defensive backs for far too long but eventually heard pads popping down in the north end zone and as a result, worked my way over to watch one-on-one and two-on-two pass-rushing drills.

Of note: The entire offensive line sets up going against one player to lend a realistic look for the defender who then ultimately faces off against just one OL.

About six reps in, I scored the remainder of the matchups as follows:

-- NT/DT Justin Utupo muscled through Center Nick Martin
-- NT Daniel Cage did the same to center Mark Harrell
-- Jarron Jones won with a rip move past guard Matt Hegarty
-- LT Mike McGlinchey absorbed the rush of DE Jhonathan Williams
-- DE Romeo Okwara attacked and blew past McGlinchey
-- Williams returned to get the best of redshirt-freshman guard Colin McGovern
-- Freshman Jay Hayes beat redshirt-frosh guard John Montelus to the outside
-- Freshman rush end Kolin Hill ripped past classmate Quenton Nelson at RT
-- Nelson bounced back to stone fellow rookie Andrew Trumbetti
-- Montelus earned a draw with a hardworking Isaac Rochell inside
-- Jones won again against Harrell inside. A colleague informed me Jones also beat (unnamed) earlier prior to my arrival, so he was 3 for 3.
-- Great battle between McGovern and an inside pass rush attempt from Jonathan Bonner, ultimately won by McGovern
-- McGlinchey withstood Williams' initial rush but Williams won late
-- Combo work now, and Day/Okwara worked in unison to free Day against Hegarty (and I think McGlinchey, not sure). -- Rochell and Day working together to free Day against Hegarty and Harrell
-- Steve Elmer and Hunter Bivin won by decision (mine) against Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo

And yes, if you read that and got the impression the defense won today, you're right. But that's likely the nature of the drill when gap integrity isn't included.

Field Goals

Kelly offered that one of the situations they worked on today was "icing the kicker." What he didn't add was, it worked. After Kyle Brindza banged home five consecutive field goals between 20 and 39 yards from various angles, Kelly interrupted the senior's final rep with a timeout.

Immediately following, senior Matthias Farley began chiming in from afar. "We're in your head, Kyle! We in your head, boy!"

Brindza missed his subsequent 44-yard offering wide right.

Freshman P/K Tyler Newsome worked a the No. 2 kicker rather than sophomore preferred walk-on John Chereson. Newsome hit from 20, 24, and 32 yards -- although the latter offering had a sideways rotation to it -- then missed from 35 on a kick blocked at the line and from 39. Brindza likewise had a kick blocked, his by 6'5" nose tackle Jarron Jones, but the 24-yarder split the uprights, regardless.

Backup long-snapper Hunter Smith continues to hold, this time for both kickers while junior long-snapper Scott Daly handled the snapping duties for both units.

Punt Coverage and Return

Notre Dame's trio of Floridian punt returners appears down to a trio, with Tarean Folston removed from the equation. Fifth-year senior Cody Riggs and redshirt-freshman Greg Bryant handled every practice rep as the return men -- both muffed one wobbly offering from the leg of backup Tyler Newsome but were others perfect. (Newsome, was anything but, shanking multiple offerings with no rush and no long snap.)

The first string punt return team (blockers) included sam linebackers James Onwualu and John Turner, safeties Elijah Shumate, Eilar Hardy, Matthias Farley and Drue Tranquil, cornerback Devin Butler, and inside linebackers Michael Deeb (mike) and Greer Martini (will), as well as running back Cam McDaniel.

The second unit showed a mixture of front-line players and backups: RB Tarean Folston, cornerbacks Cole Luke and Nick Watkins, linebackers Ben Councell and Nyles Morgan, wide receivers Corey Holmes, C.J. Prosise and Amir Carlisle, and walk-on safety Connor Cavalaris. McDaniel joined this group as well.

Technically, Cody Riggs took the first official punt, but that's likely just part of the rotation following their practice reps.

Odds and Ends

Anna Hickey's practice report covering the offense has more 1-on-1 and 7-on7 action covered.

-- Senior Josh Atkinson wasn't as heavily involved today, and as noted Jalen Brown worked with the second unit though the opportunities to see first- and second-string work was brief. Brown intercepted a poorly thrown pass by freshman QB DeShone Kizer intended for walk-on receiver Omar Hunter.

-- Matthias Farley most often served as the nickel back today…

-- Joe Schmidt looked good breaking up a pass intended for Ben Koyack but defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder called the senior linebacker out for holding. Schmidt previously broke up a pass to Koyack that should not have been thrown (perfect short coverage).

-- Okwara was put in a less-than-advantageous matchup against freshman tight end Nic Weishar who beat the larger defender on a corner route. Okwara held to deny the reception.

-- Witnessed nice hands by Elijah Shumate in an interceptions drill but the junior got turned around by a combination route in 7-on-7 thereafter (literally a 180). Shumate though was tight with his coverage of a few short routes…

-- Max Redfield blew a coverage on No. 2 receiver (his position among three to the right side, not his status) C.J. Prosise for an uncontested post touchdown from Everett Golson. Redfield ran with the third man, doubling Austin Collinsworth's assignment…

-- Farley was beaten by 2-3 yards by Amir Carlisle but the senior slot dropped a Golson bullet (it was his second and final drop, not a third, if your'e reading chronologically)…

-- Carlisle shook Collinsworth in space to create separation on an out-route…

-- Chris Brown beat Cole Luke on a well-run dig (in-route) though Luke closed fast and might have had a chance had it been fully live…

-- Riggs will cause 1-2 fumbles this season after the catch. He's also in line for a few ill-timed holding calls.

Line of day: Informed (facetiously) that there's "No cheering in the gold seats" (a reference to the rule of "no cheering in the press box") when we entered our designated area, one media member retorted, "There never is…"

Catch of the day: A sliding Amir Carlisle on a diving corner route that just beat Cody Riggs. Carlisle dropped two passes (and I was watching the defense) and was scolded after one, "They won't all be perfect passes, Amir."

Three Quick Thoughts

-- Notre Dame is down from 10 to six healthy bodies at wide receiver pending the return of Justin Brent (injury not-yet-disclosed). Will Mahone (dismissed), DaVaris Daniels (pending), Torii Hunter (severe groin injury) and Brent represent a quartet of presently unavailable bodies at the position.

-- Riggs, Luke, Butler, Watkins, and perhaps Atkinson. Depth is essential in a modern day secondary and the Irish were blessed with it at cornerback heading into camp. Losing Riggs or Luke would now be a devastating blow.

-- I'm confident Notre Dame will manufacture a pass rush far more effective than last year's sorry attempt at the same. I'm not, however, confident the Irish rush defense can hold up over the long haul. An injury to Sheldon Day or Jarron Jones will cripple this defense, and Jones is wholly unproven in his own right.


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