The Starting Irish (Defense)

Part II of our evaluation of Notre Dame’s experience lost from ’15, players returning in ’16.

For our evaluation of Notre Dame’s offense, see The Starting Irish (Offense).

• Big end: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Isaac Rochell 26) – Some of Rochell’s starts have come on the inside where his country strength plays well. Regardless where Rochell lines up, he’s a significant asset for the Irish.

It will be interesting to see what Notre Dame does with players such as Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship, both of which could end up just about anywhere on the line other than nose tackle, particularly Bonner.

Now comes early-entry freshmen Daelin Hayes and Khalid Kareem, who also provide position flexibility at the end positions with Kareem flashing three-technique qualities if the Irish choose to get him on the field during his rookie season. Incoming freshman Jamir Jones is listed as a linebacker, but projects long-term along the defensive line

• Defensive tackle: Starts lost (Sheldon Day 32); starts returning (Jacob Matuska 1) – The fact that Jerry Tillery played nose tackle and cross-trained at the three-technique makes the experience factor here in terms of the numbers a bit deceiving. Isaac Rochell also could play this position effectively, and has in the past, as well as nose tackle.

In Day, the Irish had one of the most dynamic defensive tackles in the school’s history. There is no way the productivity at this position can go anywhere but down, at least in the short term.

Notre Dame preserved a year of eligibility for Jay Hayes, who will compete for playing time with Tillery. Youngsters Elijah Taylor and/or Micah Dew-Treadway will get reps in the spring at one or both of the inside positions. Jacob Matuska could move to tight end, which he played in high school. He won’t see playing time on the interior of the defensive line, so a move would appear to be in order.

• Nose tackle: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Jarron Jones 12, Daniel Cage 7, Jerry Tillery 3) – Technically, you could say that Tillery’s three starts at this position are lost because he likely becomes the leading candidate at the three-technique. The most important factor is that a healthy Jones once again makes this position a barrier at the point of attack.

After Cage, there are no clear-cut heirs apparent to the position, and he’s yet to reach a level of consistency. Junior-to-be Pete Mokwuah hasn’t made a dent. It would help long-term if sophomore-to-be Brandon Tiassum could show progress this spring.

• Rush end: Starts lost (Romeo Okwara 25); starts returning (Andrew Trumbetti 4) – Few could have expected Okwara to emerge as the pass rush threat that he did over the second half of the season, although it should be noted he did much of his damage against some bad offenses down the stretch. Still, Okwara’s experience will be missed, although Trumbetti had his finest overall game in a Notre Dame uniform in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.

Trumbetti will move from an uncomfortable fit – big end – back to the rush end spot where he showed real promise as a rookie in ’14. Senior-to-be Doug Randolph didn’t make a move up the depth chart during his first three years at the position.

A couple incoming freshmen could be factors at this position, including natural pass-rushing end Julian Okwara, little brother of Romeo. Early-entry freshman Daelin Hayes, listed as a linebacker during the recruiting process, probably is a better fit at the big end position, although that’s clearly the best spot for fellow frosh Khalid Kareem. A healthy Hayes could see early action at rush end; a red-shirt season might be the ideal with the shoulder issues he’s experienced. Incoming freshman Ade Ogundeji has great get-off skills, but probably needs a red-shirt year strength-wise.

• Sam linebacker: Starts lost (None); starts returning (James Onwualu 17) – Jarrett Grace started three games at inside linebacker in ’13 and bounced outside in ’15 when Onwualu went down with a November knee injury. Otherwise, this is a fairly experienced position with the rising Onwualu and Martini, the latter of which likely now factors again at inside linebacker, where he played as a freshman.

Sophomore-to-be Josh Barajas originally was projected at this position before preserving a year of eligibility in ’15. Five-star recruit Caleb Kelly would be a factor from the outset if the Irish land him down the stretch of recruiting.

• Mike linebacker: Starts lost (Joe Schmidt 21); starts returning (Nyles Morgan 4) – Careful what you wish for. The brains of the operation – Schmidt – lacked brawn, which, coupled with a shoulder issue that will require surgery after bouncing back from a broken leg, led to an inconsistent final season in a Notre Dame uniform.

Morgan has groomed at the Mike for two years now, where he was unable to make any headway versus Schmidt. Still, you have to look at this position in ’16 as promising with the physically-talented Morgan…provided he can find the run fits, which he couldn’t do when he filled in for Schmidt in ’14.

• Will linebacker: Starts lost (Jaylon Smith 39); starts returning (Greer Martini 6) – There’s no way to look at this as anything but a Himalayan-sized hole considering Smith’s skill set and productivity, particularly on third down, which is why Notre Dame’s numbers were so positive on the money down in ‘15.

It’s uncertain where Martini will end up, although this may be the best fit for his skill set. If Te’von Coney – in the midst of recovering from a significant shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl – is ready by this fall, then the Irish have options with Martini. If not at Sam, sophomore-to-be Asmar Bilal could be a factor here in the spring. If the Irish land freshman-to-be Jonathan Jones, he looks to project at the Will long-term.

• Cornerback (boundary): Starts lost (None); starts returning (Cole Luke 26, Devin Butler 3) – It’s uncertain whether Luke will move to the field cornerback spot to replace the loss of KeiVarae Russell or if he’ll stay where he’s developed a comfort zone. Either way, Luke – who had a more consistent ’14 season than ’15 – should be primed for a crescendo senior season.

Butler has physical shortcomings, but does return with experience, size and tackling ability. Sophomore-to-be Ashton White could factor in as well. Freshman Donte’ Vaughn – if he doesn’t end up at safety – projects well at the boundary cornerback spot where his length could be a real asset.

• Strong safety: Starts lost (Elijah Shumate 26); starts returning (Drue Tranquill 4) – Shumate caused as much hand-wringing as he did productivity over the course of four seasons, although the Irish clearly got the best of his abilities in his final season on the collegiate level.

Tranquill is a quality college football player when he’s healthy, but he’s at his best when he’s playing a nickel/dime position closer to the line of scrimmage. He was dominating the Navy game when he suffered his second season-ending ACL injury. Sixth-year/transfer candidate Avery Sebastian would be a frontrunner at this spot.

Early-entry freshman Spencer Perry has tremendous physical dimensions for strong safety, although he may ultimately project even better at Sam linebacker. Incoming freshman D.J. Morgan is a skilled athlete in need of technique reps.

• Free safety: Starts lost (Matthias Farley 26); starts returning (Max Redfield 22) – Farley was more of a strong safety/nickel-dime back, but his experience and heady play were extremely valuable to the Irish defense, particularly when Redfield went AWOL during Fiesta Bowl week.

Redfield is a gifted athlete, although his football skills and playmaking ability haven’t caught up to the promise. It’s still good to have that playing experience, which could be ready to come to fruition in ’16.

Sophomore-to-be Mykelti Williams – who preserved a year of eligibility in ’15 – is a talented football player who could end up at either safety position. Early-entry freshman Devin Studstill will get a jump on the young competition while another rookie, Jalen Elliott, has the skill set for free safety.

• Cornerback (field): Starts lost (KeiVarae Russell 37); starts returning (Nick Watkins 1) – Again, Cole Luke could slide to this spot with Watkins, a bigger corner, moving to the boundary. Nick Coleman showed promise as a freshman, but never could quite get on the field, including the Fiesta Bowl when Devin Butler’s injury opened up a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, which Watkins seized.

Watkins gave reason for optimism with a solid performance against Ohio State. Shaun Crawford is a candidate for a starting spot as well, which he’ll get at the nickel spot if not cornerback. The Irish have two talented cornerback prospects in Julian Love and Troy Pride, Jr., although the transition to the college game has a way of slowing down a freshman’s progress.

SPECIAL TEAMS
• Punter: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Tyler Newsome 13) – Of course, punters and kickers don’t “start” games per se. Suffice it to say the Irish have a brilliant punter in Newsome, who not only showed a potent leg with great hang time, but also displayed consistency.

• Kicker: Starts lost (None); starts returning (Justin Yoon 13) – Notre Dame will be among the nation’s leaders in punter/kicker combos with the talented, focused Yoon handling placekicks. Imagine having the Newsome-Yoon combo for two-three more seasons, although Newsome may be in a position to leave eligibility on the table after preserving his rookie season.


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