Defense

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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

Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

“The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

“I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

Monday’s Leftovers: Notre Dame lands second cornerback commitment

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Hardly a week shy of the early signing period, Notre Dame doubled its cornerback haul in the class of 2018 with Tariq Bracy’s commitment Sunday night.

A rivals.com three-star recruit, Bracy (Milpitas High School, Calif.) had long said the Irish led in his recruitment, having visited campus for Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Oct. 21. Rivals rates Bracy as the No. 65 overall prospect in California.

“The coaches, they made me feel welcome,” Bracy said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “They really wanted me to go down there. They like my skillset. The players, they were welcoming, too. It’s really the whole atmosphere about Notre Dame, and the academics, too.”

Bracy opted for the Irish over a number of schools on the west coast, including Utah, Cal and Washington State.

Notre Dame now has 18 commitments in the class, including consensus-three star cornerback Joseph Wilkins (North Fort Myers H.S., Fla.). All 18 are expected to sign National Letters of Intent during the inaugural early signing period Dec. 20-22. For that matter, it remains possible an additional commitment or two could join those ranks either before the three-day stretch or in the midst of it.

Irish coach Brian Kelly has said he would evaluate any commitment not signing during the December dates as not being genuinely committed to Notre Dame, still needing further recruitment.

— Bracy’s, and Wilkins’, commitment holds more value for the Irish than many of the other 16 in the class thus far. In the last recruiting cycle, Notre Dame failed to sign so much as one cornerback.

Neither Bracy nor Wilkins may start in 2018. They, in fact, almost certainly will not, but they will provide both depth and a possibility of a future at the position.

— Just as another reminder — it is listed twice on the legal pad providing today’s outline, after all — the early signing period runs from Dec. 20 to Dec. 22. There will still be a nationwide focus on National Signing Day, Feb. 7, as any recruits not yet signed will have even more of a share of the spotlight.

— Bowl games have little long-term evaluatory value. They do, however, provide a delightful stretch of mid-day and/or mid-week December distractions. As an example, consider the game-a-day outlook on the horizon …

Sat., Dec. 16: Middle Tennessee St. v. Arkansas State; 8 p.m. ET; a high-scoring affair, if nothing else.
Tues., Dec. 19: Akron vs. FAU; 7 p.m. ET; Lane Kiffin with a nation’s lonely eyes turned to him.
Wed., Dec. 20: Louisiana Tech vs. Southern Methodist; 8 p.m. ET.
Thurs., Dec. 21: Temple vs. Florida International; 8 p.m. ET; Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent is favored by seven.
Fri., Dec. 22: Central Michigan vs. Wyoming; 4 p.m. ET; Josh Allen’s farewell to college football.
Sat., Dec. 23: Texas Tech vs. South Florida; 12 p.m. ET; This very well may end up being the most-dramatic bowl game.
Sun., Dec. 24: Houston vs. Fresno St.; 8:30 p.m. ET.
Tues., Dec. 26: Kansas State vs. UCLA; 9 p.m. ET.
Wed., Dec. 27: Boston College vs. Iowa; 5:15 p.m. ET; Of the 10 Irish foes in bowl games, six are like the Eagles, underdogs.
Thurs., Dec. 28: Stanford vs. TCU; 9 p.m. ET; A healthy Bryce Love could erase the 2.5-point spread in the Horned Frogs favor.
Fri., Dec. 29: USC vs. Ohio State; 8:30 p.m. ET; As strongly as the Trojans finished the season, they are still touchdown underdogs in the Cotton Bowl.
Sat., Dec. 30: Wisconsin vs. Miami, 8 p.m. ET; Despite playing at home, literally so, the Hurricanes are nearly touchdown underdogs.
Mon., Jan. 1: Georgia vs. Oklahoma; 5 p.m. ET; Frankly, Notre Dame vs. LSU in the Citrus Bowl will be but an appetizer for an evening of outstanding college football.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers

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This may seem an odd Notre Dame position group to include second in this series, when clarity should be abundant. That’s the thing — the uncertainty about the future of the linebacker corps is so prevalent it borders on certainty. It is very clear, moving forward there will be a lot of questions in the defense’s second unit, with up to three senior starters and captains leaving. Those questions are obvious, themselves. This is not going to be an instance of one or the other. Rather, it will be a “Who?” aimed at the entire positional meeting room.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Seniors and captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini gave defensive coordinator Mike Elko two established starters in the middle of his first Irish defense. It is a good position to be in when senior Drue Tranquill is the biggest question mark of a group.

Tranquill hardly was a doubt entering 2017, but his fit in the new role of rover was an unknown, albeit a promising unknown. To pull from his summary in the summer’s “Counting Down the Irish” series as the No. 7 entry, “Tranquill will now find himself in the middle of the defense. Already a vocal leader as a captain, this will give him a chance to also lead in action.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Morgan and Martini lived up to expectations, at least as much as they could while playing through injuries for much of the season. A shoulder issue plagued Morgan while a torn meniscus cost Martini the USC game.

Including this one of Heisman Trophy-finalist Bryce Love, Irish junior linebacker Te’von Coney made 99 tackles this season to lead the Notre Dame defense. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In his place that mid-October day and alongside both the senior captains throughout the year, junior Te’von Coney more than stepped forward. When looking to 2018, Coney’s emergence this year could set up for a star turn next fall.

Throughout much of the season, Coney and Tranquill were the best two linebackers on the field for Notre Dame. This was always expected to be a strong unit, and neither of its presumed leaders disappointed, which just goes to show how much Coney and Tranquill progressed in one season under Elko.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
The entire first paragraph of this section from last week’s defensive line entry is still applicable here: In 2016, Notre Dame allowed 182.4 rushing yards per game (No. 72 in the country), 378.8 total yards per game (No. 42) and 39.0 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 60). This season, the Irish have given up 153.2 rushing yards per game (No. 48), 366.7 total yards per game (No. 44) and successful third downs only 33.5 percent of the time (No. 28). Clearly, each metric improved in Elko’s first season with the Irish.

Clearly, senior captain and former safety Drue Tranquill put together the most-complete of the linebackers’ stat lines. (Getty Images)

Jr. Te’von Coney: 99 tackles; 13.0 tackles for loss; 3.0 sacks; one fumble forced; one fumble recovered.
Sr. Nyles Morgan: 83 tackles; 6.5 TFLs; 1.0 sacks; one fumble forced.
Sr. Drue Tranquill: 74; 8.5; 1.5; one interception; three fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Greer Martini: 70; 3.0; 0; one interception; two fumbles forced.
Jr. Asmar Bilal: 16; 1.5; 0.
So. Jonathan Jones: 9; 1.0; 0.
So. Jamir Jones: 3; 0.0; 0.

COMING QUESTIONS
The first item to be settled is Tranquill’s decision between heading to the NFL Draft or returning for a fifth year. He will have an engineering degree and two surgically-repaired knees. Taking a shot at a professional career as soon as possible would be a decision no one could argue with.

However, Elko and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would jump at the chance to welcome back Tranquill. He excelled in the rover position this year, not needing to worry about getting burned by speedy receivers running deep and instead focusing on running downhill and attacking the football.

Regardless of Tranquill’s choice, his heir apparent is not exactly, well, apparent. If needed in 2018, Bilal would seem the most logical candidate, but freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah was recruited with this exact assignment in mind. If he is not ready by September, then Elko and Kelly will hope Tranquill is around to man the position until Owusu-Koromoah is raring to go in 2019.

Beyond the rover, one most wonder who lines up alongside Coney. To be clear, Coney will start, he will presumably once again lead the Irish in tackles, and he will be the binding force of the front-seven. His 2017 arrival was that impressive.

Kelly’s coaching staff has been sure to pursue linebackers in the class of 2018, now with four commitments, including three consensus four-stars. It may be a position where depth is a noted asset, but this would be the most linebackers signed in one class since the 2014 class of … Martini, Morgan, Nile Sykes and Kolin Hill. Sykes did not reach his freshman year and Hill transferred to Texas Tech after his first season. Recruited as a defensive back, Tranquill was also in that class. (Perhaps an added wrinkle to adding to the position in the class, it has been one of quick attrition in the recent past. In 2015, Notre Dame signed four linebackers — Bo Wallace never enrolled and Josh Barajas transferred this past summer, leaving only Coney and Bilal.)

The grouping of Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon, Matthew Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo could speak to some doubt of the current freshmen linebackers, Drew White and David Adams. If so, then the Coney’s compatriot query becomes even more convoluted. Could one of the current high school seniors make that jump from the outset? Such seems unlikely.

At that point, turn toward Jonathan Jones, at least for a short-term fix. Or, just to really throw a wrench into these ponderings, perhaps Bilal steps in at a traditional linebacker position and Owusu-Koromoah is counted on in place of or backing up Tranquill at the rover.

This lack of both depth and experience is reminiscent of the state of the Irish defensive line just a few months ago. Expecting such a reclamation again might be asking a bit much of Elko.

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Notre Dame to the Citrus Bowl to face LSU, with some numbers

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Falling two spots shy of making a Playoff-eligible bowl, No. 14 Notre Dame will face No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day (1 p.m. ET; ABC). Both teams will be looking for their 10th wins of the season, and, as has been the story for the Irish throughout the year, it will be a focus of strength versus strength, dangerous rushing offenses against stout rushing defenses.

“We’re thrilled with the opportunity and excited about the challenge that awaits us with LSU — one of the premier programs in all of college football,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “We had quite a battle with the Tigers a few years ago in a bowl game, and I’d expect a similar contest this time around.

“Our University has never participated in the Citrus Bowl, one of the longest-standing bowl games in the nation, and we’re delighted to play in a bowl game on Jan. 1 for the second time in three years.”

Sophomore linebacker Devin White led LSU’s stout defense in tackles this season. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Led by sophomore linebacker Devin White (3.5 sacks, 127 tackles, one interception) and senior defensive tackle Greg Gilmore (51 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks), the Tigers held opponents to 3.80 yards per carry, No. 38 in the country.

Other defensive statistics of quick note:
— No. 17 in scoring defense at 18.8 points per game.
— No. 9 in passing efficiency defense.
— No. 13 in total defense by allowing 311.7 yards per game.

That stingy rushing defense came despite a schedule featuring four of the top-37 ground attacks in the country, although three of those four contests resulted in LSU’s three losses.

— Mississippi State averages 5.17 yards per rush (No. 24) and in beating the Tigers 37-7 way back on Sept. 6, the Bulldogs rushed for 285 yards on 48 carries, a 5.94 average per attempt.
— Troy averages 4.83 yards per rush (No. 37), using 206 yards on 42 carries and a 4.90 average to spark perhaps the season’s biggest upset, a 24-21 win at LSU on Sept. 30.
— Two games later, LSU’s young defense finally started to mature, leading to a 27-23 win against Auburn, holding the No. 33 rushing attack (4.96 yards per carry season-long average) to 189 yards on 44 carries, a 4.30 average.
— To finish this train of thought, the Tigers’ third loss came two weeks ago at Alabama, despite holding the Tide to 116 yards on 36 carries, a 3.22 average, well below the Tide’s No. 7 average of 6.00 yards per rush.

For comparison’s sake, Notre Dame faced four defenses in the top 50 of the country in yards allowed per rush, going 2-2 in those contests, on its way to averaging 6.37 yards per carry on the season.

— Michigan State allows 3.38 yards per rush, No. 13 in the country. The Irish gained 182 yards on 40 carries, a 4.55 average.
— Georgia allows 3.47 yards per rush, No. 17 in the country. Notre Dame ran for 55 yards on 37 carries, a 1.49 average.
— Miami allows 3.68 yards per rush, No. 31. The Irish rushed for 109 yards on 36 carries, a 3.03 average.
— North Carolina State’s 3.92 yards allowed per rush rated No. 42 in the country. Notre Dame used 318 yards on 54 carries, a 5.89 average, to trounce the Wolfpack.

Somewhat below the national radar thanks to LSU’s disappointing start to the season, junior Derrius Guice is one of the more dangerous running backs in the country, averaging 5.34 yards per rush and 104.82 yards per game. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Flipping sides of the ball, LSU junior running back Derrius Guice ran for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games on 216 attempts, a 5.34 yards per carry average. Guice led the way for a rushing attack that averaged 210.8 yards per game, No. 31 in the country. It set up an efficient passing attack, No. 18 in that regard.

The Irish defense gives up 3.96 yards per rush, No. 43 in the country, having faced four offenses more dangerous than LSU’s on the ground and two more worthy of comparison.

— Stanford averages 6.00 yards per rush, but gained only 152 yards on 38 carries a week ago, a 4.00 average.
— Georgia averages 5.8 yards per rush, but gained only 185 yards on 43 carries in the season’s second week at Notre Dame, a 4.30 average.
— Navy’s triple-option yields 5.46 yards per carry, but the Midshipmen managed just 277 yards on 72 carries against the Irish, a 3.85 average.
— Miami averages 5.11 yards per rush, exceeding that against Notre Dame with 237 yards on 42 carries, a 5.64 average.
— North Carolina State gains 4.70 yards per carry, yet the Irish held the Wolfpack to 50 yards on 24 carries, a 2.08 average.
— Boston College used a late-season surge to gain 4.68 yards per rush, better than the 185 yards on 44 rushes allowed by Notre Dame, a 4.20 average.


The overwrought storyline of this matchup will deem it a rematch of the 2014 Music City Bowl, a contest Notre Dame won 31-28. This is a vastly different LSU team, now led by Ed Orgeron.

The more worthwhile topic will be how a finally-healthy Josh Adams and Dexter Williams can lead the Irish ground game against a proven and still-improving defense in the season finale. They have done it before, but it has not been since mid-October. Hence, a full month to get healthy may prove to be a difference-maker.

(Note: As always when discussing national ranks amid statistics, these rushing figures are not sacks adjusted.)