Seeing Red: Who plays on defense?

Notre Dame’s next batch of talent arrives in June. Which freshmen on defense will factor into Irish plans come fall? With spring practice in the books that answer should be straightforward.

Brian Kelly will probably get more questions about this than he should.

Every season local media (present company included) query Notre Dame’s head coach on who’s going to play and who’s going to red-shirt. We usually start in August. Then the subject gets picked back up around the bye week. We’ll put a bow on the whole thing in mid-November, at which point it’s painfully obvious who’s in the coaching staff’s plans that season and who’s not.

And yet, we keep asking.

Well, here’s a nugget worth remembering the next time the media jumps into the red shirt discussion: It matters way more on paper than it does in practice. Because among Kelly-era recruits there has been one consequential classic fifth-year senior on defense among prospects to sign with Notre Dame’s current head coach. And Jarron Jones just went undrafted into the NFL.

The other fifth-year seniors on defense among Kelly recruits (this excludes Kapron Lewis-Moore, who signed with Charlie Weis) are Justin Utupo and Jarrett Grace. That’s it. Some others could come down the pipe in Jay Hayes, Jonathan Bonner, Shaun Crawford and Asmar Bilal. But that’s not exactly a huge list.

It all gets back to the original point, that too much gets written about red shirts as a matter of serious consequence, even if Romeo Okwara and Kona Schwenke should have been part of the fifth-year haul.

With all that said, who plays on defense among this year’s incoming freshmen? Here’s the rundown, with the ins and outs of this class appearing straightforward at first glance.

Defensive Line: Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish, Jonathan MacCollister, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kofi Wardlow
Michael Clark/Scout

Notre Dame has been aggressive in playing freshman defensive linemen under Kelly, but the Irish have put a red shirt on at least one player at this position every season. Usually it’s a developmental prospect: Ade Ogundeji, Jhonny Williams or Jonathan Bonner. That’s probably a sign that Kofi Wardlow and Jonathan MacCollister will sit this season. Wardlow is new to the sport with his recruitment not taking off until very late in the game. MacCollister is more experienced but played on a smaller school level in Florida. He probably needs to bulk up after doubling as a high school tight end.

How much will the Irish red shirt at defensive tackle? It’s hard to imagine Darnell Ewell sitting based on past precedent. At No. 146 in the Scout rankings, Ewell trails only Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Sheldon Day, Louis Nix and Grant Blankenship in terms in rank. Only Nix took a red shirt from that group, but that was because he showed up overweight. Ewell won’t.

Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish should be wait-and-see prospects for Notre Dame in terms of a red shirt because how they fit will depend less on their off-seasons than the summer work of Brandon Tiassum, Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway. If Tiassum and Dew-Treadway build on their spring performances and Taylor returns from his foot injury, there’s little reason to play Tagovailoa-Amosa and Hinish. They’d likely be Notre Dame’s seventh and eighth defensive tackles at best. Better to extend their careers to a fifth season, even if there’s no guarantee they’ll be here.

Projection: Ewell plays, the rest red shirt

Linebacker: David Adams, Drew White, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (© Michael Clark/Scout)

If Owusu-Koramoah arrives with as much promise as the coaching staff expects, he’ll play. Not only are the Irish light at Rover, where it’s Drue Tranquill, Asmar Bilal and a cast of walk-ons, but Notre Dame is on the hunt for special teams help on its coverage teams. A hybrid safety/linebacker with good speed would be an upgrade physically over some of Notre Dame’s slower defenders that didn’t deliver much last season. Upgrading this department was a spring practice storyline that didn’t get enough coverage.

As for the traditional linebackers, it’s hard to figure where David Adams and Drew White would fit this year considering their profiles and Notre Dame’s needs. Adams is coming off surgery after playing through pain much of his senior year. A rehab year makes sense. White could use a full cycle with Matt Balis in the weight room to add mass. With Greer Martini, Te’von Coney and perhaps Jonathan Jones already on campus, there’s no need to get White on the field immediately.

Of the last five linebackers to enroll, Coney and Jamir Jones played in reserve roles while Josh Barajas, Jonathan Jones and Bilal all took red-shirts. That’s been the rough ratio for Notre Dame under Kelly, with 17 linebackers signed, three starting as freshman (only Jaylon Smith based on athleticism), five playing bit parts and nine taking red shirts.

Projection: Owusu-Koramaoh plays, Adams and White red shirt

Secondary: Jordan Genmark-Heath, Isaiah Robertson

Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Red shirts in the secondary have been much to do about nothing under Kelly.

For starters, there haven’t been many. Of the 28 defensive backs to sign with Notre Dame only nine took red shirts with eight of those based on the fact the player in question just wasn’t good enough to play. The only exception has been Shaun Crawford, who tore his ACL in training camp of his freshman year. These are the remaining red shirts in the secondary under Kelly: Jalen Brown, Rashad Kinlaw, Ashton White, Chris Badger, Eilar Hardy, Mykelti Williams, D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry.

Hardy also suffered an early injury in his career, but it’s not clear he would have gotten on the field. Regardless, he took his fifth year elsewhere.

What does this all mean? For starters, it’s hard to imagine Robertson not playing based on his early enrollment, spring performance and the fact the Irish are desperate for safety help. Genmark-Heath is less certain only based on his regular enrollment. But if he’s able to run fast and tackle people, he should factor on special teams. Past precedent doesn’t make a red shirt look like a straight path to a fifth year anyway.

Projection: Both play

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