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Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

COMING QUESTIONS
Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

OUTSIDE READING
ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame needs Terry Joseph to develop DBs … and recruit them

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Terry Joseph’s past work in developing players presumably was the single-biggest reason behind Notre Dame reportedly hiring the North Carolina defensive backs coach to work with the Irish safeties. The likes of current sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, freshmen Jorden Genmark-Heath and Isaiah Robertson, and incoming freshmen Houston Griffith and Derrik Allen all should benefit from Joseph’s past successes in taking unexpected defensive backs and creating future NFL players.

Nonetheless, recruiting is always a necessary piece of the collegiate coaching puzzle, and Joseph has had his strong showings there, as well. That focus should still narrow on defensive backs, where Notre Dame yet needs to make the most progress. Signing five defensive backs in the class of 2018 does only so much for the lacking in previous cycles, most notably the literal dearth of cornerbacks signed last year.

Obviously, Joseph as a position coach would be a mere piece of any recruitment, at Notre Dame or at his previous stops, including Texas A&M, Nebraska and Tennessee. There is the rest of the program to consider, overall success and any possibly other primary recruiter.

All those qualifiers aside, Joseph landed some notable defensive back prospects in his three seasons with the Aggies, preceding his one-and-done pause with the Tar Heels. (All recruiting rankings in this piece are via rivals.com simply to have a standard barometer.)

Recruiting class of 2015: Four-star Larry Pryor; four-star Justin Dunning; four-star Roney Elam; three-star Justin Evans; three-star Deshawn Capers-Smith.
Recruiting class of 2016: Four-star Ikewa Okeke; three-star Charles Oliver; three-star Travon Fuller.
Recruiting class of 2017: Four-star Myles Jones; three-star Debione Renfro; three-star Devin Morris

In 2017, Pryor, Oliver and Jones all started for the Aggies, with Capers-Smith and Renfro also appearing in the two-deep and seeing regular playing time. Evans has already headed to the NFL as a second-round pick.

That makes six of 11 defensive backs becoming viable contributors relatively quickly upon their arrivals, with time for a few more to add to that tally.

Aggies freshman Debione Renfro became a defensive contributor from day one, indicating Terry Joseph may have identified a recruit a bit better than the three-star rankings belied. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

While Evans is clearly the greatest example of development in this sampling — going from junior college recruit to second-round pick is a jump — both Renfro and Jones are examples of good, if not great, recruits immediately standing out. As a freshman, Renfro made 54 tackles, including two for loss, while breaking up five passes. Similarly, Jones made 35 tackles, picked off one pass and broke up eight more. Along with Oliver’s eight pass breakups, the three led a secondary that made consistent plays on the ball.

For context’s sake, sophomore cornerback Julian Love led Notre Dame with a record-setting 20 pass breakups this year. Behind him came senior cornerback Nick Watkins with eight and junior cornerback Shaun Crawford with five.

Looking directly at safety, Pryor started the final three games of his sophomore year and five as a junior, making 34 and 44 tackles, respectively.

Joseph’s moments of player development are what the Irish need most desperately right now, but finding recruits such as Renfro, Jones and Evans will be vital in years to come, as well.

Stanford will NOT have a quarterback controversy
It would have been nominal, at the most, anyway. Sophomore quarterback K.J. Costello established himself as the Cardinal’s best option at quarterback in the season’s second half. Senior Keller Chryst would have likely been given a supposed chance in the spring, somewhat out of deference to his four years in the program, but Costello would have assuredly walked away with the job.

Now, Stanford head coach David Shaw will not have to even consider that lip service. Chryst will head elsewhere for his final season of eligibility.

No Irish in the Super Bowl
With the Minnesota Vikings losing Sunday night, the three final Notre Dame football alums in the playoffs bowed out. No former Irish player will have a chance to win a Super Bowl ring this year, a la Michael Floyd in 2017, David Bruton in 2016 and Jonas Gray in 2015.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?
Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns
Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?
Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision
Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster
Stepherson may get the headlines, but loss of two RBs will cost Notre Dame most
A quick breakdown of Notre Dame’s defensive roster
Notre Dame’s opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL
Friday at 4: What a difference two weeks makes
Notre Dame taps North Carolina’s Terry Joseph as safeties coach

HAPPY ONE-YEAR, Y’ALL

Reports: Notre Dame taps North Carolina’s Terry Joseph as safeties coach

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Notre Dame will hire North Carolina defensive backs coach Terry Joseph to lead the Irish safeties, per reports. Irish Illustrated’s Tom Loy first reported the staff addition. Sports Illustrated‘s Bruce Feldman confirmed the report.

Joseph has been with the Tar Heels for just one season, spending the three prior in the same role at Texas A&M. He will take over the positional duties once held by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko who, coincidentally enough, took the same position at Texas A&M. Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea was promoted to the defensive coordinator slot.

Joseph’s résumé includes stops at Nebraska, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, with the latter two stints including recruiting coordinator duties. Joseph’s rise up the collegiate coaching ranks began 12 years ago as a defensive graduate assistant at LSU. Before that, he worked as a high school assistant in the New Orleans area for seven years.

Any passing defense certainly includes contributions from many aspects aside from the defensive backs — pass rush, intended defensive scheme, a rash of injuries etc. That said, North Carolina finished with the country’s No. 80 pass efficiency defense this season. Notre Dame, though, did not much test that unit in its 33-10 victory this past October. With sophomore quarterback Ian Book starting in place of an injured junior Brandon Wimbush, the Irish gained only 146 yards on 17-of-31 passing. The Tar Heels picked off Book twice, both via the playmaking of sophomore safety Myles Dorn.

Dorn finished the 2017 season with 71 tackles, the third-most on North Carolina’s defense, including 2.5 for loss. He added five pass breakups. Dorn’s freshman season, without Joseph’s tutelage, featured 32 tackles, one for loss and one pass breakup.

Dorn’s positional partner, sophomore Myles Wolfolk, made 32 tackles with 4.5 for loss and another five quarterback hurries.

Continuing with a micro look at players from his past, Joseph played a role in the development of three eventual NFL players while at Texas A&M. In two seasons, safety Justin Evans went from a junior college transfer to a second-round draft pick, making 165 tackles in the span with six for loss, five interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

Cornerback Brandon Williams spent one season in the defensive backfield at A&M, previously spending his time in the offensive backfield as a running back. That one season saw him make 37 tackles, including one for loss, and break up seven passes. The Arizona Cardinals then drafted him in the third round in 2015.

Cornerback De’Vante Harris, a four-year contributor for the Aggies, became an undrafted free agent signed by the New Orleans Saints in 2015 after playing two seasons under Joseph. In those two seasons, Joseph broke up 13 passes.

Developing players such as Dorn, Evans and Williams undoubtedly elevated Joseph’s profile during Notre Dame’s search, more than high-profile experience, recruiting bona fides or personality. The Irish safeties need to make great leaps forward to complete what could be, perhaps should be, a promising 2018 defense.

Friday at 4: What a defensive difference two weeks makes

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The college football offseason is approximately 33 weeks long, from the national championship game to Labor Day Weekend. Obviously, for 127 teams each year, that stretch is at least one week longer.

It is vital to remember how interminably it lasts when overreacting to each and every personnel development. Consider just two weeks ago, the sky seemed to be falling in on Notre Dame’s defense. Coordinator Mike Elko had left for the same position at Texas A&M. The odds were, at least, 50/50 he would take linebackers coach Clark Lea with him. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery had not yet declared for the NFL draft, but the coaching change made both departures appear more likely.

The news cycle moved so quickly, this weekly spot published 12 hours early so as not to risk a development usurping the intended premise.

Now, that defense returns 10 starters and stability in coaching. Its reserves show such promise, those 10 will not all start against Michigan on Sept. 1. The only position group with depth concerns is also the one bringing in four highly-touted linebackers as freshmen.

What a difference two weeks makes.

That “Friday at 4 a.m.” included quick mention of the concern regarding Coney and Tillery.

“Like Tillery, [Coney] is considering heading to the NFL. If he does so specifically because of Elko’s exit, that may be the costliest result of this coaching carousel for the Irish.”

Just a week ago, it was possible, even likely, only defensive end Jay Hayes (93) would return from this trio, but defensive tackles Jonathan Bonner (left) and Jerry Tillery (99) burgeoned the Irish interior depth by returning for one more season at Notre Dame. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It is unlikely Coney and Tillery both returned only because head coach Brian Kelly promoted Lea to defensive coordinator and retained Mike Elston as defensive line coach. What matters is they did. It is also unlikely any of those factors were the deciding aspect for senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner opting to reverse course and enjoy a fifth year at Notre Dame. What matters is Bonner did.

With those luxuries, Lea will have eight players who started all 13 games this season to steer his way as a first-time coordinator. He will also have current senior cornerback Nick Watkins and sophomore Troy Pride, who combined for 13 starts as Pride filled in for an injured Watkins in the final month, and Coney, who technically started only seven games, though he split time with graduating senior Greer Martini all season.

That makes 10 veritable returning starters. If nothing else, sophomore safety Alohi Gilman will force his way into that mix now that he’s eligible following his transfer from Navy.

Compare those 10 to the recent past. Heading into 2017, the Irish returned two 12-game starters, Nyles Morgan and Drue Tranquill. Seven total returning defenders had started at least seven games in the dismal 2016 season.

Speaking of that 4-8 debacle, Notre Dame started that year with even less experience. Cornerback Cole Luke had started 13 games in the Fiesta Bowl-concluding 2015 campaign; defensive end Isaac Rochell claimed 12. After them, linebacker James Onwualu had started nine games and defensive tackle Daniel Cage had notched seven. That was it for playing time worth acknowledging.

Starts are somewhat arbitrary, though, as perhaps best illustrated by Coney technically having only seven to his name despite finishing as the defense’s leading tackler this season.

How vital were his, Tillery’s and Bonner’s return to Lea’s future? With the three of them, 10 of the leading 12 tacklers will be back in 2018. Looking backward once more, the Irish returned four of their eight leading tacklers entering the season opener against Temple. Want the quickest summary of the 2016 failure? Realize Notre Dame had only one of its top-five tacklers from the College Football Playoff contender the year before, and two of the top 10. NFL dreams, suspensions and injuries left that defense with neither experience nor production.

To anyone wondering if these statistics diminish a secondary’s impact — considering most defensive backs do not rack up tackle totals — the trends all apply there, as well. The Irish return six defensive backs who saw genuine playing time this season, plus Gilman. The safety play was inarguably disappointing, but that position will presumably not get worse. For thoroughness’ sake: Only two defensive backs had seen notable playing time heading into 2017, and only Cole Luke could claim such entering 2016.

Barring a rash of injuries or suspensions, this defense will be better in 2018. It returns too many pieces to propose otherwise, and experience this broad benefits all involved.

The easily-tracked indicators for coming success hardly even factor in the likes of freshman defensive tackle Kurt Hinish and his development. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

That can be said before even expecting increased contributions from current freshmen defensive tackles Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish, without pinning hopes to the quartet of incoming linebackers, including three who enrolled early, and without projecting further development from sophomore defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Two weeks ago, this defense faced the prospect of learning a new scheme with only two of its top-six tacklers returning. It may have needed to claim the secondary as its most-experienced position group, the only position group ever lampooned in 2017. Resetting despite a strong defensive season highlighted by back-to-back weeks of stymying top-flight offenses in mid-October was a disappointing prospect, to put it mildly.

Now, this defense has a chance to enjoy growth in consistency and excel at every level. Performances like those seen against USC and North Carolina State could conceivably become the norm.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: USC and Stanford lost the most in early departures to NFL

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Notre Dame’s roster fared better than was anticipated when it came to players entering the NFL draft with remaining collegiate eligibility. Left guard Quenton Nelson was always expected to take the leap, as any possible top-five pick should. Running back Josh Adams may have considered returning to the Irish, but logic sent him to the pros, as well. Receiver Equanimeous St. Brown long seemed to be leaning that way.

Those were not surprises.

Getting both linebacker Te’von Coney and Jerry Tillery to return was a bit of a shock, and a welcome one for head coach Brian Kelly and his staff.

Of Notre Dame’s 2018 opponents, a few saw top-flight talent depart. Their coaches had assuredly hoped, with varying degrees of reasonability, such players would stay. These losses lower a team’s ceiling, but it does not necessarily spell trouble. USC will not altogether mind quarterback Sam Darnold hearing his name called early in the first round if incoming freshman — and reclassified recruit, at that, having actually been only a junior in high school this fall — J.T. Daniels proves to be the better coming of Matt Barkley.

Speaking of the Trojans, they lead a listing ordered by obvious impact lost:

USC: Not much more really needs to be said about Darnold. His 2017 was filled with stellar comebacks necessitated by poor decisions.
— Receiver Deontay Burnett: With 86 catches for 1,114 yards and nine touchdowns in 2017, it made sense for Burnett to test the next level. Eight of those catches went for 113 yards and a touchdown against the Irish. He had 56 catches for 622 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago.

Ronald Jones (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

— Running back Ronald Jones: Finishing his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and 39 career rushing touchdowns, Jones proved plenty at the college level. Notre Dame bottled him up this October, but he gashed the defense for 134 yards and a score on only 16 carries in 2016.
— Defensive end Rasheem Green: His final season with the Trojans featured 12.5 tackles for loss, including 10 sacks, amid 43 tackles.

Stanford: The Cardinal lost the core of its defense, but the early departure cost could have been much worse. Junior running back Bryce Love returned for another season, waiting until after the declaration deadline to make his decision public.

— Defensive tackle Harrison Phillips: Rarely does a defensive tackle lead his team in tackles, and rarely does a defensive tackle total more than 100 tackles. Phillips led the Cardinal with 103 tackles including 17 tackles for loss with 7.5 sacks. Stanford genuinely loses a force with his exit.
— Safety Justin Reid: Only Phillips made more tackles for the Cardinal than Reid’s 99. He added five interceptions and six more pass breakups. Against the Irish in November, Reid managed nine tackles, one sack and one pass breakup.
— Cornerback Quenton Meeks: Stanford lost its fifth-leading tackler, as well, with Meeks taking his 65 tackles away, along with two interceptions and eight pass breakups.
— Tight end Dalton Schultz: He could be a physical presence in the NFL, although he also displayed strong hands throughout his career, finishing 2017 with 22 catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns.

Florida State: The Seminoles may have had a disappointing season, but there was still plenty of talent on the roster. The defense, especially, held up its end of the bargain. Some of that left, but keep the talent pool in mind when Florida State is undoubtedly hyped in August.
— Safety Derwin James: The Seminoles’ No. 2 tackler with 84, including 5.5 for loss, James also tallied two interceptions with 11 pass breakups.
— Defensive end Josh Sweat: Trailing James, Sweat made 56 tackles, highlighted by 12.5 for loss with 5.5 sacks, adding 3 pass breakups to the slate.

Auden Tate. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

— Defensive end Jalen Wilkerson: Only 19 tackles may not jump off the page, but six of them were for loss.
— Cornerback Tarvarus McFadden: Providing strong coverage no matter whom Florida State faced, McFadden complemented 30 tackles with 10 pass breakups.
— Receiver Auden Tate: At 6-foot-5, Tate turned a quarter of his 40 catches into touchdowns. His 548 receiving yards were second on the team.
— Tight end Ryan Izzo: His 20 catches were not necessarily that many, but Izzo’s 317 receiving yards and three touchdowns were each third on the team.

Virginia Tech: If noticing an imbalance tilted toward defensive players heading to the NFL throughout this list, that reflects football as a whole. The League is willing to invest in defenders. Most offensive playmakers are seen as a bit more replaceable. On the college level, the best defenses carry teams to the College Football Playoff (see: Clemson), thus getting those individual stars more attention and raising their draft prospects.
— Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds: The Hokies’ leading tackler with 109, Edmunds also managed 14 for loss while notching 5.5 sacks.
— Safety Terrell Edmunds: Virginia Tech’s No. 5 tackler with 59, Edmunds added two interceptions and four pass breakups.
— Defensive tackle Tim Settle: 36 tackles with 12.5 for loss and four sacks this year.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers have made a habit of tripping up a top-ranked team each fall. Losing three contributors will not help that cause, but head coach Pat Narduzzi will certainly have Pittsburgh ready to go Oct. 13.
— Offensive tackle Brian O’Neill: After starting 13 games at right tackle a year ago, O’Neill moved to left tackle with little trouble in making 12 starts this season.
— Safety Jordan Whitehead: The Panthers’ No. 3 tackler, Whitehead added four pass breakups and an interception to his 60 tackles.
— Receiver Quadree Henderson: Only 17 catches for 186 yards is hardly something to speak of, but Henderson did return two punts for touchdowns this season and averaged 20.96 yards per kick return.

Jessie Bates (Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images)

Wake Forest: Wherever safety Jessie Bates goes in the draft, Irish fans should take note. His development under former Demon Deacons and then Notre Dame and now Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko was exceptional. Elko may be gone, but his scheme remains. Any version of such development at safety could be the final piece to the Irish defense in the fall.

Healthy throughout 2016, Bates made 100 tackles with seven for loss and picked off five passes. Injuries slowed him toward the end of 2017.

Michigan: None of the other 2018 opponents had players head to the NFL before they had to, but it warrants mentioning the Wolverines didn’t in part because they had 11 drafted in 2017.