ND’s Most Productive Players (Defense)

Defense will build around four players with at least 20 career starts. It’s going to take several others, however, to improve upon the 26.6 points allowed per game in 2014-15.

In terms of starting assignments, Notre Dame’s most experienced players on offense heading into the 2016 season are left tackle Mike McGlinchey (14 starts), running back Tarean Folston (13), left guard Quenton Nelson (11) and quarterback DeShone Kizer (11).

That pales in comparison to the defensive side of the football where the Irish have four players with at least 20 career starts: cornerback Cole Luke (26), defensive end Isaac Rochell (25), free safety Max Redfield (23), and Sam linebacker James Onwualu (21).

But as has been the case in the first two years of the Brian VanGorder defensive regime, every positive is tempered by a cautionary tale. Gone is a whole crew of veteran defensive players on a unit that struggled a large portion of the 2014-15 seasons.

Linebacker Jaylon Smith and cornerback KeiVarae Russell each had 26 starts heading into last year. Safety Matthias Farley had 23 while defensive tackle Sheldon Day had 19. Defensive end Romeo Okwara, strong safety Elijah Shumate and Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt combined for another 35 starts prior to the 2015 season.

Now, after allowing 26.6 points per game over the last two seasons combined, including at least 27 points in 14 of those games (53.8 percent), it will be up to a semi-experienced defense under VanGorder to help out an offense that averaged 32.8 and 34.2 points respectively in 2014-15.

Fortunately, the Irish have some defensive players, albeit with minimal starting experience, who clearly project as frontline players in ’16, led by Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan (25 games, 4 starts), strong safety Drue Tranquill (14 games, 4 starts), defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (24 games, 4 starts) and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (12 games, 3 starts).

Two projected starters – cornerback Shaun Crawford and Will linebacker Te’von Coney – have zero playing experience (Crawford) and minimal downs (Coney).

It’s going to take much better performances than the Irish have shown the last two years to get the defense into double-digit wins for the second year in a row.

Here are Notre Dame’s five most productive defensive players entering the 2016 season.

5) NT-Jarron Jones
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It’s a bit surprising to see that Jones, who missed all but the Fiesta Bowl last season after suffering foot and knee injuries, has just 12 career starts, 60 tackles and one sack. Of his 8.5 career tackles for loss, 7.5 of them came in 2014.

Jones still wasn’t at full speed this spring, which was expected. The Irish are going to need a well-conditioned, well-focused Jones in the middle of the defensive line if they are to improve upon the seven of 11 non-option-based offenses that rushed for at least 148 yards against the Irish in ’15.

4) OLB-James Onwualu
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One of the leaders of the defense heading in ‘16 is treasured more by VanGorder than Irish minions who haven’t seen productivity commensurate to the devotion his defensive coordinator gives him. Onwualu is the equivalent of former Mike linebacker/captain Joe Schmidt in terms of field presence if not final results.

It should be noted that Onwualu’s six tackles for loss in ’15 are second among returning defensive players behind Isaac Rochell while his three sacks are the most. The Irish need Onwualu’s productivity to come at crucial intervals, as they frequently did for Jaylon Smith on third down.

3) FS-Max Redfield
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

There’s a natural inclination to cringe a bit when the up-and-down Redfield is cited this high in returning defensive productivity.

Redfield’s 144 career tackles are the most among returning players, but his six passes defensed in 23 starts doesn’t seem like a whole lot for a free safety. He has two career interceptions, one of which came last year late in the USC game on a gifted tipped pass by KeiVarae Russell.

Redfield has his hands full holding off early-entry freshman Devin Studstill. Notre Dame needs him to maximize his playing experience, win the starting job, and play the game commensurate to his playing time accrued/skillset.

2) CB-Cole Luke
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

As a sophomore in 2014, Luke had an eye-opening 15 passes defensed to go along with four interceptions and 48 tackles. His debut season as a first-time starter was an unquestioned success.

Luke’s numbers fell off in ‘15, as did his overall effectiveness. His passes defensed dropped by eight down to seven. After the fifth game of the season, he had no interceptions and just three passes broken up over the final eight games. Luke simply wasn’t around the football with the regularity he had shown in ’14.

Now the Irish need him to reestablish the lockdown tendencies he flashed as a sophomore. He showed a more physical nature in the Blue-Gold Game. Notre Dame needs him to be a difference-maker on the back end of the ’16 defense.

1) DE-Isaac Rochell
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

This is the rock upon which the Irish defensive line will be built in 2016. An unexpected starter as a sophomore in ’14 when Ishaq Williams was sidelined for the season, Rochell instantly became a point-of-attack barrier for the Irish.

He enters his final year of eligibility with 37 games, 25 starts, 112 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. Half of the stops behind the line of scrimmage came in ’15, equaling his total from ’14. He has just 3.5 career sacks, which is a number Notre Dame probably needs him to double if they’re going to put forth an acceptable pass rush.

Regardless of Rochell’s statistics, he is the unquestioned anchor of the 2016 defensive line and perhaps the most indispensible player on the entire defense.

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