A year ago, Notre Dame returned two of its top 10 tacklers from the previous season. Defensive end Isaac Rochell finished fifth on the team in 2015 with 63 tackles, and cornerback Cole Luke rounded out the listing with 41.
This season, the Irish return four of their top five and six of the top 10, led by senior Nyles Morgan and his 94 tackles—including six tackles for loss and four sacks. The exception within the top five is linebacker James Onwualu and his 75 tackles, including 11.5 for loss and three sacks.
Onwualu’s departure will be noticed, but Morgan makes this first part easy: He will not only start but also lead the Notre Dame defense.
Rounding out last season’s top-five, junior Te’von Coney (62 tackles) and senior Greer Martini (55, with seven for loss and three sacks) make this second part simple: One of them will line up alongside Morgan.
This third part is neither easy nor simple. It is, in fact, one large question only to be answered by time observing new defensive coordinator Mike Elko: Who will start at his rover position, and what will that role entail? The best bet is last year’s second-leading tackler, senior Drue Tranquill (79 tackles). Any answer to the question of his role hinges largely on conjecture at this point.
In Elko’s past, the rover has aligned more with the linebackers than with the safeties, though its entire premise is to be a hybrid of the two. When Elko’s defense is described as a 4-2-5, the rover is among those 5, so it really is a 4-3-4. At times, however, the rover can slot in among the front line, either as an additional pass-rush threat or in place of one. This theoretical flexibility is the rover’s chief allure, somewhat diminishing the adverse effect an up-tempo offense hopes to garner by minimizing defensive substitutions. If one player can be effective at all three levels, the defense can adjust to the offense’s personnel without relying on players racing in from the sideline.
At 6-foot-1.5 and 225 pounds, Tranquill plays physically enough to fill this role, hence the presupposition he will get the first crack at it. After him, junior Asmar Bilal and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan figure to at least study the position.
Freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah will join those ranks come summer and fall.
Bilal will also provide depth at the linebacker position behind Morgan, Martini and Coney. To a lesser extent, junior Josh Barajas will, as well, while sophomores Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation) represent unknowns to date. Jamir saw action in 10 games last season, recording eight tackles. New linebackers coach Clark Lea may find unknown capabilities in either or both of the two, always an ideal possibility with a new coach and defensive scheme.
Freshmen David Adams and Drew White will further the depth at linebacker, though not this spring.
As was noted in regards to 2015’s passing statistics, a football season’s small sample size makes any even smaller grouping of games ripe for manipulation to prove any preferred point. Nevertheless … last year the Irish gave up 2,189 rushing yards at a 4.14 yards per carry and 182.4 yards per game clip, good for the No. 72-ranked rushing defense in the country.
After defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s firing four games into the season, Notre Dame allowed 173.1 yards per game over eight games, which would have ranked No. 66 in the NCAA over a full season. Among those final eight games, the Irish played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane and faced two option-dependent offenses in Navy and Army. The game against the Wolfpack would not usually find itself in this disclaimer, but the weather forced State to run the ball 51 times, compared to its average of 37.75 times across its other 12 games.
Remove those three games and their combined total of 706 rushing yards, not to mention five touchdowns on the ground, and the post-BVG rushing yards allowed per game falls to 135.8, akin to the No. 30-best rushing defense in the nation. Perhaps just as impressively, in that five-game sample, Notre Dame allowed only five rushing touchdowns.
Lastly, just as a note to fill out the earlier listing regarding returning tacklers: Of 2015’s top 10, Notre Dame also returns sophomore cornerback Julian Love (45 tackles) and sophomore safety Devin Studstill (38). They finished ninth and 10, respectively.