Practice Report: Irish Defense

Nyles Morgan rose to the occasion while Isaac Rochell led the line. But at safety the Irish continue to face serious questions. Here’s an inside look at Notre Dame’s defense from Saturday’s open practice.

Defensive End

Notre Dame drilled a lot of nickel and dime sets on Saturday, which created some interesting alignments at the rush end positions. On paper, it would seem that Andrew Trumbetti would be a natural weak side rush end in those situations, but those reps went to Jay Hayes, working opposite Isaac Rochell and sometimes lining up so wide he nearly was on the slot receiver. Trumbetti spent more time working with the second team, which might have been a byproduct of a heavy workload last week. Regardless, if Hayes is challenging for more work that’s a good thing for the position developing depth. The Irish don’t have much of it.

Rochell was outstanding as a pass rusher on Saturday, going against some combination of left tackle Alex Bars and left guard Hunter Bivin. I’m not comparing Rochell to Sheldon Day in his ability to disrupt a protection scheme, but the fact that could even cross your mind is a positive for the position. For all the talk about Rochell improving his pass rush in his fourth and final year – this reporter had a wait-and-see approach to that – it seems like it’s actually happening.

Khalid Kareem got plenty of work in the second-team nickel defense and crashed the edge on one rep enough that it stopped Malik Zaire from reading much of the play before it was whistled dead.

Beyond Rochell, Hayes, Trumbetti and Kareem, the end position didn’t show much on Saturday, meaning Grant Blankenship has fallen off the pace and Daelin Hayes isn’t physically ready for a scrimmage. However, Hayes continues to look like a star in the making in terms of his build, length and burst. I’ll stand by what I said after the first practice, that if Hayes is healthy he’s Kolin Hill-plus (that’s a compliment) as a situational pass rusher this fall. Jonathan Bonner did get some work but didn’t stand out.

Defensive Tackle

Jarron Jones got banged up early in practice after getting driven into the ground by mid-year enrollee and Holy Cross transfer Logan Plantz. It wasn’t a cheap shot or late hit, Plantz just beat Jones on the play. Jones missed a few periods of practice after the hit but returned for the scrimmage with the first-team defense, paired with Jerry Tillery on the inside. Jones also worked with the second-team nickel in practice, which included an impressive TFL.

Daniel Cage also rotated through the first-team defensive line on the interior, offering the Irish what should be a very stout threesome with Jones and Tillery. Again, there’s no Sheldon Day in that group, but there should be three quality players difficult to move off the ball. And when Jones turns it on, he can still be an NFL quality player.

At the moment, Elijah Taylor is the most productive of the three red-shirt freshman defensive linemen, followed by Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum, in that order. Taylor took one rep where he used a strong inside move on Trevor Ruhland to blow up the pocket instantly. Maybe Taylor doesn’t have great size, but he appears quick in small spaces with good strength. If he can be Notre Dame’s fourth defensive tackle this season, that could be a valuable 10-to-12 reps per game.

Overall, this position should be a strength if it can stay healthy. Stock up.


Congratulations to the Church of Why Isn’t Nyles Morgan Playing More. This was your day. Morgan was outstanding on Saturday in every facet and looked like the five-star prospect rated him to be out of high school. Cover Alizé Jones all the way down the field on a go route? No problem. Take away slot receiver Corey Holmes at the line of scrimmage? You got it. Shoot the gap and sack Brandon Wimbush? Consider it done.

After practice I asked Brian Kelly if Morgan’s weekend performance was more exception than rule. Kelly strongly voted for rule and mentioned – somewhat sarcastically – how strange it is that there’s not more talk about Morgan now that he’s getting Brian VanGorder’s defense down. VanGorder himself said the magic happens for a middle linebacker in the third year of his system. Well, here we are in the third year. It looks like it’s happening. So for those wondering how a defense could be better after losing Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt? Here’s part of the solution: Develop Morgan into the terror he was on Saturday.

Interesting to watch James Onwualu play as much Will linebacker as Sam on Saturday, especially when the Irish went into the nickel. I asked Kelly about that change and he downplayed it, noting the Irish don’t have much linebacker depth and they don’t want to overload Asmar Bilal. Still, wouldn’t it make sense to leave your most/only experienced linebacker on the field in nickel? In the past Notre Dame subbed out the Sam in nickel, but it could leave Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt on the field. Leaving Morgan and Bilal out there over Onwualu doesn’t make as much sense. Of course if Greer Martini wins the Will linebacker job when he returns, maybe this is a moot point.

Bilal is very impressive physically although mentally he has a ways to go. That showed when Bilal completely lost Justin Brent on a wheel route down the sideline, leaving him open by at least 20 yards. The bust was so bad that VanGorder couldn’t even be heard yelling at Bilal after the fact. Save that for the film room. Won’t be pretty.

Josh Barajas continues to back up Morgan at the Mike position, but there’s no real opportunity there to win a job if Morgan keeps playing like this. Martini and Te’von Coney were both out of uniform recovering from off-season shoulder injuries. That meant Notre Dame continues to work with just four healthy scholarship linebackers.


Could Shaun Crawford be Notre Dame’s best cornerback? Don’t dismiss the notion even with all Cole Luke’s experience. Crawford makes plays at almost every opportunity and had an interception of Malik Zaire that was helped by an Isaac Rochell pressure up the middle. The best way to describe Crawford is he’s a player who affects the play every time there’s a snap to his side. Some defensive backs can go entire games without being around the ball. Crawford can barely go a series of downs. There’s something unique about this kid and we’ve been talking about it since his senior year in high school.

Tough day for Devin Butler, who might have a hard time getting work if Nick Watkins gets healthy for training camp. There’s a lack of speed there that Alizé Jones exploited for a long touchdown early in practice. Todd Lyght jumped all over Butler after the play. Based on how reps went, it seems the staff is more interested in learning about Ashton White and Nick Coleman. White is an intriguing prospect for the long haul. Great compete level, raw technique, decent size. Got beat on a few plays but made a bunch too. That included a nice cover of Torii Hunter Jr. that left DeShone Kizer no chance to make a throw. White also had a strong PBU against Alizé Jones in the scrimmage when Malik Zaire was rushed into a throw.

In terms of alignments, Crawford is the starter opposite Luke in the base defense and then starts at nickel when the Irish get into their sub packages. That’s when Coleman takes over at the outside corner position, where Watkins would have played.

During the one-on-one portion Coleman broke up a Zaire pass to Alizé Jones, and later covered up the tight end to force a late throw that fell incomplete. Coleman also had a strong PBU against Miles Boykin, who was impressive on Saturday. Butler had a nice PBU against Torii Hunter Jr.


Credit to Max Redfield, who made a few plays on Saturday and took the majority of first-team reps at free safety over freshman Devin Studstill. Of course, this was also the first chance for the media to see any parts of practice beyond the opening periods. When it got down to an actual scrimmage, the coaches went with Redfield and he delivered.

Here’s the best anecdote on Redfield today. During a team period, meaning when the  defense worked against the scout team, VanGorder talked about how the first responsibility on 1st-and-Goal from the four-yard line has to be the quarterback. About an hour later when the defense faced that scenario against the starting offense, Redfield blew up the quarterback to stop the play.

Does Redfield still get beat too much in coverage? Yes. Does he have a world of athletic ability and a functional knowledge of the defense? Also yes.

Drue Tranquill is a heck of a player in the box and moving forward. He absolutely demolished Durham Smythe and Corey Holmes on short passes over the middle. But he also got beat badly in coverage by Alizé Jones and Holmes as well. Can Notre Dame mask a starting strong safety’s coverage and highlight his in-the-box talents? That’s the challenge for the coaching staff. Tranquill is too good not to have on the field at all times, but he’s not so good that opponents won’t pick on him regularly in coverage. He could be an All-American dime back if that was an actual thing.

Avery Sebastian and Spencer Perry both have a long way to go. That’s not a surprise for Perry considering he might be a future linebacker, but Sebastian really struggled on Saturday. Both Josh Adams and Dexter Williams had him chasing ghosts in one-on-one drills. The coaching staff suggested Sebastian is still coming back from last year’s foot injury. Yet in bowl prep last December, Brian Kelly said Sebastian could have played in the national title game. That was three months ago.

Bottom line, the safety position will be in development for the rest of spring, then all of summer, then all of training camp and perhaps during the year too. It’s impossible to know what the Irish have there in terms of game day quality.

Special Teams

With Notre Dame stuck indoors the specialists were somewhat limited, but Justin Yoon took the usual field goal work pre-practice with a rep thrown into the scrimmage portion. Kelly actually “froze” Yoon on that 47-yard try that broke up an 11-on-11 period of practice. Yoon pushed the field goal wide right.

As for the kicks Yoon took before practice got rolling, which are more routine, he connected from 45 yards, 40 yards and 28 yards while missing from 49 yards, 50 yards and 52 yards. None of the three misses were “bad misses” in the sense they didn’t have a chance. The 50-yarder actually hit the right upright. The other two misses missed right. It’s notable (maybe) that Yoon’s four misses were all right, but it’s also notable (definitely) that all his kicks continue to have good distance and height. Notre Dame owns one of the nation’s better kickers, no question.

Montgomery VanGorder continues as the holder. Not much in the punt or return games today. Notre Dame did drill some coverage and return setup techniques with Chris Finke serving as the scout team returner. His feet are incredibly quick in short spaces. There’s got to be a role for him on the field this year. He’s too athletic to just sick on the scout team.  Liked what I saw from Asmar Bilal as a coverage option on kickoffs.

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