Mailbag: All about the defense

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If we spent a little bit too much time discussing the quarterback position last mailbag, let’s take aim at one of the other massively important questions heading into the summer.

As always, thanks for the questions. (And for the improvements in the comments section.)

Now, to perhaps the defining question of the offseason:

 

kiopta1: We all talk about the O and the QBs but what are your thoughts on the D? Where do you see them improving and what more is needed if health isn’t an issue this season?

While Zaire and Golson took over our brains, the performance of Brian VanGorder’s defense is likely the difference between Notre Dame going to the College Football Playoff and having an underwhelming season.

Year One of Brian VanGorder was perhaps the wildest variance we’ve seen in Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. When the going was good, it was melt-the-internet-with-a-meme good. When it was bad? It was a horror show of Tenutian proportions, with overwhelmed and underprepared kids running around like John Ryan and Paddy Mullen.

What do we make of the defense? What was a fair evaluation of last season’s meltdown? The same coach that had a young, inexperienced defense looking like world beaters against Stanford and Michigan was also the guy who let Northwestern turn from beyond mediocre to high powered.

Because this answer could take months to fully dig in, let’s focus on four keys:

1)  Be dominant stopping the run. 

This shouldn’t be all that hard. The Irish have an experienced, veteran and talented front seven. With Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones back at defensive tackle, that’s two seniors who are NFL caliber talents, who also showed the ability to dominate at times. That’s a great start.

The linebackers will only help the cause. Joe Schmidt may not be perfectly sized, but he was mighty productive. Add in Nyles Morgan ascension, Jarrett Grace’s steely resolve and some field-ready depth behind them, and we’re talking about the linebackers being good before  we get to perhaps the most talented athlete on the team in Jaylon Smith.

Smith should turn into an eraser this season. While it’s still being determined where on the field he’ll be doing said erasing, it’s with confidence that we can just about guarantee a statistically unique season for a linebacker who managed to crack 100 tackles last season even as he was learning on the go.

2) Find some consistency in the secondary. 

While there were some nice individual efforts last season, advanced statistics give you an idea of just how horrific the Irish were stopping the pass, especially on downs where everybody in the stadium knew the ball was going in the air.

The S&P+ Ratings are the creation of Bill Connelly, using opponent-adjusted components that take four key factors into play: efficiency, explosiveness, field position and finishing drives. While trying any harder to explain it would make my brain explode, in Connelly’s early preview of the 2015 Irish, this little bit stuck out to me like a sore thumb:

When you look at the individual stats of the players listed above — Cole Luke with his 15 passes defensed, Matthias Farley with his 6.5 tackles for loss, etc. — you get the impression of an aggressive Notre Dame secondary. It had potential, but it ranked an inexcusable 96th in Passing S&P+, 88th on passing downs. The complete lack of an effective blitz played a role, but … 96th!

For perspective, here are the defenses that ranked 91st through 95th: Kentucky, UL-Lafayette, UConn, Kent State, Ohio. Notre Dame, with its four- and five-stars and play-makers, ranked below them. The Irish allowed a 60.3 percent completion rate (86th in the country) and allowed 43 completions of at least 20 yards (85th). Awful.

Now, it bears mentioning that there was quite a bit of turnover. Russell was lost pretty close to the season, and safeties Austin Collinsworth and Eliar Hardy missed eight games each. With a nonexistent pass rush and understudies playing a larger role than expected, Notre Dame wasn’t going to post a top-20 or top-30 pass defense. But top-60 shouldn’t have been too much to ask.

Sometimes an outsider’s perspective can lay things out far clearer than anything done by someone covering and writing about the team on a daily basis. And in this case, Connelly’s 30,000-foot view of the secondary and pass defense lays things out pretty succinctly.

“Inexcusably bad.”

3) Rush the passer and get off the field. 

It’s not fair to blame the secondary for everything in the passing game, especially with the front-seven’s inability to get a pass rush. But somebody on the Irish roster needs to step forward and rush the passer, because reinforcements aren’t coming in 2015.

That’s not to say that Bo Wallace’s departure is going to ruin Notre Dame’s defense. Nor is it to completely lay blame on the Irish staff’s inability to find themselves a “pure pass rusher.” The staff isn’t unicorn hunting. Besides, they’ve already proven the ability to land some elite defensive linemen.

But getting pressure on the quarterback and getting off the field will go a long way towards turning this defense into an elite unit. And whether it’s coming from seniors like Day and Romeo Okwara, or young players like Andrew Trumbetti, Jerry Tillery, Jhonny Williams or Kolin Hill, finding the pieces to do the job is vital, especially when it doesn’t look like there’s one guy who is going to produce.

4) Slow down the up-tempo offenses. 

No team is going to look at Notre Dame’s second-half and not see that North Carolina’s use of tempo served as a partial blueprint for the rest of the season. So until VanGorder and company figure out how to make plays and slow down the pace by getting stops, opponents are going to move as quickly as possible to attack the Irish defense.

Last season, Notre Dame didn’t have a base defense to hang its hat. And after applauding the multiplicity of the defense and the plethora of sub-packages the Irish used to confuse and confound Michigan and Stanford, all those moving parts felt a lot like smoke and mirrors after it became clear that the group may have been fairly adept at doing a ton of little things well, but ultimately mastered none.

Kelly spent the offseason analyzing the problem. While you’d expect him to say nothing differently this spring, he believes they’ve found some answers. But until the Irish make it out of September and find a way to slow down an offense like Paul Johnson’s Georgia Tech attack, it’ll be up to VanGorder to prove it with game film or be prepared to face an up tempo attack all season.

Ultimately, Kelly is betting his legacy on one of his oldest coaching allies in VanGorder. But while Mike Sanford’s addition to the staff feels a little like Kelly acknowledging he needed to infuse some new ideas into the room, it’s worth noting that he also brought in Todd Lyght and Keith Gilmore this offseason.

While it necessitated moving Bob Elliot into an off-field role (likely heavy on R&D), it’s a fresh start for a defense that only has Mike Elston remaining from the original defensive staff, and he’s now coaching linebackers.  Perhaps it’s Elston that’ll remind everybody how Kelly rebuilt the Irish defense under Bob Diaco: by taking the emphasis off of scheme and putting it on individual responsibility.

With a season of game tape now in the hands of opponents, VanGorder would be well-served to find a way to get his guys to simply do it better. Because daring the opposition to go toe-to-toe when you believe you’ll win even if you take scheme away is the best way for the Irish to win.

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame did not get there in any way expected, but the Irish season ended about where anticipated in the preseason. Psychological studies could spend hours disagreeing if it would have been better for Notre Dame to go 10-3 with its three losses coming to three top-10 teams or if a 9-4 season with a top-10 upset is better for Marcus Freeman’s program in the long-term.

But either scenario was going to end with the Irish in the Gator Bowl, a likelihood as far back as August.

To finish this recap of 40 preseason predictions

32) “A freshman defensive back will intercept a pass this season, becoming just the second freshman to do so” since 2017. Notre Dame’s defensive backfields have been far from liabilities during this resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, but they have lacked young playmakers, Kyle Hamilton aside.

Enter Benjamin Morrison and not one, not two, not three … but six interceptions in his freshman season. Unfortunately for your prognosticator, that does not equal six correct predictions. (15.5/32)

33) “The spread when the Irish visit the Trojans will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown.” And indeed, USC was favored by four when Notre Dame visited the weekend after Thanksgiving, in what may have been the last visit the weekend after Thanksgiving. Logic says the Irish and Trojans will continue playing regularly, but USC’s joining the Big Ten in 2024 could change the timing of the meetings, and NCAA rule changes have removed Notre Dame’s want to be on the West Coast that particular week.

The Irish used to disperse their coaches from Washington to Arizona to recruit the Pacific time zone immediately after the season-ending game in California. In a literal sense, it saved those coaches 12-24 hours to not have to travel to Seattle or Phoenix from South Bend, particularly vital in a crucial recruiting window.

But now, the days after Thanksgiving are a dead period, so the coaches cannot make those visits. They flew back with the team this year.

Combine that with the Big Ten flux and perhaps Notre Dame starts heading to USC at a different point in the calendar in 2024. (16.5/33)

34) “USC will not make the College Football Playoff.”

Between this, suggesting Ohio State would make the Playoff and mistakenly thinking Clemson would, as well, these preseason predictions accurately predicted the season conclusions for two of the three biggest Irish opponents in 2022. Already suspect the 2023 version will include none of the three making the Playoff. (17.5/34)

35) Sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles’ disappointing 2022 — 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown — cost him any semblance of NFL draft buzz a year before he is eligible for the draft. A breakout 2023 would obviously change that, but that was not the prediction. (17.5/35)

36) Blake Grupe fell two makes short of the predicted 80 percent field-goal rate, finishing at 73.7 percent on 14-of-19. A career 74.4 percent kicker before he arrived at Notre Dame, the Arkansas State graduate transfer’s 2022 fell in line with his career. (17.5/36)

37) Arguing Notre Dame would score fewer than 32.8 points per game in 2022 was based on the lack of depth at receiver, subsequently underscored by Styles’ struggles. Expecting the Irish to slow things down made a lower-scoring season a strong thought, though perhaps not as low as the 31.4 scored per game in 2018, the low of the last six years.

Notre Dame threaded that needle with 31.8 points per game, a number buoyed, though not shockingly, by the punt-block unit and Morrison’s contributions. (18.5/37)

38) The Irish had gone 54-10 in Brian Kelly’s final five years in South Bend, winning at least 10 games each year. Predicting a sixth season of double-digit wins was a mistake largely thanks to Audric Estimé’s fumble in the fourth quarter against Stanford. (18.5/38)

39) This final stretch of predictions focused on hitting a few tight windows. The spread against USC, the exact scoring average and … where Notre Dame would play in a bowl game.

“Notre Dame will play in Florida before New Year’s.”

As complicated as bowl scenarios get during the season and then even the week of selections with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego reportedly campaigning hard for the Irish, sticking with initial expectations would have been a smart travel-planning strategy. (19.5/39)

40) 

(20.5/40)

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

Clemson v Notre Dame
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Recapping these preseason predictions bit by bit has emphasized how much of a see-saw Notre Dame’s 2022 was. They expected decent Irish success at Ohio State to open the season, which was realized. They then plainly assumed Notre Dame would continue to wallop overmatched opponents as Brian Kelly made the default.

Instead, Marcus Freeman stubbed his toe twice as first-year head coaches are wont to do, rendering that stretch of predictions largely flawed.

Now, the predictions tilt into early November, expecting little from the Irish. Of course, that was exactly when Freeman delivered the defining moment of his debut campaign.

21) “Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks.”

The first part of that fell inarguably short, 38 clearly less than 41. But the next sentence held more merit. Defensive end Justin Ademiloa and twin brother tackle Jayson Ademilola each had three sacks while Mills added 3.5. No linebacker reached three unless willing to still count Jordan Botelho as a linebacker with his 4.5 sacks. Given two of those came in the Gator Bowl when Botelho was clearly a defensive end, that would be generous grading. Instead, this entire prediction should be considered wrong, alas. (12/21)

22) Did this space continue publishing as planned after the Minnesota Timberwolves home opener? The running content calendar says a “Leftovers & Links” column ran on Oct. 20, the day after. Take the wins where you can find them, especially as a Timberwolves fan. (13/22)

23) The Irish had won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents entering the season. Predicting that would reach 27 meant predicting Notre Dame would beat North Carolina and Syracuse. Check and check. (14/23)

24) That did not push the Irish into the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, as predicted, thanks to the mishaps against Marshall and Stanford. (14/24)

25) And here comes a stretch of predictions predicated in pessimism, focused on how Notre Dame would fare against Clemson. The Irish had won 16 straight games in November entering the 2022 season. Suggesting that would end at 16 was suggesting Notre Dame would lose to Clemson on the first weekend of November.

Rather, that was the win in Freeman’s first season that will be long remembered. (14/25)

26) That expected loss was based on Clemson’s defensive front holding Notre Dame’s ground game in check. There was no expectation the Irish would dominate there with 264 rushing yards on 46 carries after adjusting for a single one-yard sack. Logan Diggs ran for 114 yards on 17 carries while Audric Estimé took 18 rushes for 104 yards. (14/26)

27) That loss did not knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers messing around and finding out against South Carolina did that. But regardless, predicting Clemson would return to the Playoff was ill-fated. (14/27)

28) Notre Dame was 30-1 in its last 31 home games entering the season. Predicting that would reach 35-2 in step with suggesting the Irish would lose to the Tigers was wrong in all sorts of ways, most notably in that the stretch is now 34-3 after Notre Dame went just 4-2 at home last season. Again, Marshall and Stanford. (14/28)

29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers did not have the predicted 40-yard catch on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. He had a long of 39 yards on a snow-covered field playing with a backup quarterback.

The spirit of the prognostication was valid, but alas. (14/29)

30) Former Irish tight end George Takacs did not catch a touchdown in his return with the Eagles. No one did. (14/30)

31) And former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec did not have a “perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day.”

Jurkovec did not play at all, so let’s call this wager a push. He did, however, make some headlines from the sideline.

There is a strong chance this prediction is rerun in its entirety in 2023 with Jurkovec and Pittsburgh heading to South Bend on Oct. 28. (14.5/31)

Leftovers & Links: Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 03 Notre Dame at Ohio State
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The first two notable dates of college football’s offseason passed last week, the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal before the spring semester and the deadline to enter the NFL draft. The former hardly warranted much notice at Notre Dame, only three players entering the portal after the 2022 season. While plenty did transfer from other programs, a mid-May look at that movement may better serve Irish purposes, as plenty of names will eventually leave Notre Dame.

The NFL deadline has no second passing. Players are either headed toward the NFL draft by now or they are not.

The Irish lost five players to early entry to the NFL, though two of those instances were offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and defensive end Justin Ademilola, both of whom would have been returning for sixth collegiate seasons in 2023. So in a more genuine sense, Notre Dame lost only three players early to the NFL draft: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey and safety Brandon Joseph.

All five would have started for the Irish next season, obviously. But at most, Ademilola’s and Joseph’s declarations were surprises, and even those were only mild at most.

College football will slowly churn back toward college careers following “normal” timelines and more tenable roster management the further it gets from the universal pandemic eligibility waiver from 2020. That will not take all the way until the 2025 season. Coaches are already leaning toward it.

While Notre Dame would have gladly welcomed back Patterson and/or Ademilola, it also knew two realities.

1) Patterson should be a second- or third-round draft pick who could have gone to the NFL a year ago. His time is now.
2) A year of Ademilola’s production would come at the expense of the development of younger players that may already be on the verge, somewhat deflating the value of his return.

In a parallel way, coaching staffs fall into two categories.

1) Either they are doing well and trust they can recruit better players than any draft debaters now. Leaning into continued successful recruiting lengthens the timeline these coaches expect to continue to succeed.
2) Or they are failing and soon fired. A new coach would rather bring in new players, “his players,” to reboot the program.

In both scenarios, fewer and fewer sixth-year players will be seen around college football long before the 2025 season rules them out entirely.

All of that is to say, when discussing entrants into the NFL draft, it is more and more accurate to focus on the juniors (like Mayer) and the seniors (Foskey, Joseph) rather than the half-decade veterans. Those losses from Notre Dame’s 2023 opponents, in order of most severe to least …

Ohio State: Losing quarterback C.J. Stroud would top this list no matter who else was on it. Stroud alone would have made the Buckeyes the title favorites next season. Receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba also jumped to the NFL, though his final collegiate season was effectively nullified when a Joseph tackle in the season opener injured Smith-Njigba’s hamstring to an extent he never genuinely returned in 2022.

Center Luke Wypler and offensive tackle Paris Johnson Jr. headed to the next level, as well, along with defensive tackle Dawand Jones and defensive back Ronnie Hickman.

But those latter losses are anticipated at elite programs. Ohio State has recruited to replace most of these players. The Buckeyes barely missed Smith-Njigba in 2022, and he may be the best receiver in the draft. Stroud, however, is a loss that will throw the early part of Ohio State’s 2023 into some question.

Clemson: Similarly, the Tigers losing three defensive linemen in Myles Murphy, Bryan Bresee and K.J. Henry along with linebacker Trenton Simpson may be too much to overcome in stride. As Clemson has so terribly struggled — throw some sarcasm on that phrasing — to just 10 and 11 wins the last two season, it has leaned on its defensive front.

The Tigers gave up only 102.7 rushing yards per game in 2022, No. 13 in the country, and 20.9 points per game, No. 22 in the country. A year ago, Clemson ranked No. 7 and No. 2 in the respective categories.

Replacing 29.5 tackles for loss from the 2022 season including 16 sacks will be a difficult task. Perhaps “terribly struggled” will no longer warrant sarcasm.

Pittsburgh: Not many programs saw two All-Americans jump to the NFL, but the Panthers did in running back Israel Abanikanda (1,431 yards on 5.99 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns) and defensive lineman Calijah Kancey (14 tackles for loss with 7 sacks in 11 games). Safety Brandon Hill also provided Pittsburgh’s defense some versatility.

USC: The Trojans also lost two All-Americans to the NFL — which, come to think of it, Notre Dame did, as well, in Mayer and Foskey — in receiver Jordan Addison and defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu. To be more clear, Addison was not a 2022 All-American, but one at Pittsburgh back in 2021. Injuries slowed him a touch in 2022, but overall, his talent is All-American in caliber.

Stanford: The Cardinal’s talent drain this offseason will warrant a deep dive. It is one to behold. The first line on it is quarterback Tanner McKee heading to the NFL with some draftniks thinking he should be an early-round pick.

When Stanford upset Notre Dame in October, McKee led the way with 288 yards on an impressive 26-of-38 completion rate. Losing him will drastically change the Cardinal ceiling in 2023, which is saying something considering how low that ceiling already was.

Central Michigan: Running back Lew Nicholls III did not have the statistical profile of someone who should head to the NFL already, with all of 616 rushing yards and six touchdowns in 2022, but look back to 2021 and his choice makes more sense. He ran for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns with another 338 receiving yards and two touchdowns through the air.

Navy, Tennessee State, North Carolina State, Duke, Louisville and Wake Forest did not lose players to any early NFL decisions.

If this list seems abbreviated, that’s because it is throughout college football. Name, image and likeness rights have made it more enticing for players to return to school Reportedly, fewer players entered this draft early than at any time in the last decade.

To think, so many people insisted NIL rights would ruin college football. Here is hard evidence it has upgraded the talent in the sport.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Trio of early-enrolling Notre Dame receivers most likely of dozen arrivals to impact 2023
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: ND’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

OUTSIDE READING
2023 NFL Draft Big Board: PFF’s top 100 prospects
‘Everything’s on fire’: NIL collectives are the latest patchwork solution for college athlete pay
Numbers show NIL benefits college football
Has legalized betting led to more hurtful social media actions? Some admins think so.
Best college football games of 2022 season
Blazers’ Justise Winslow’s ‘giant, little steps’ out of the darkness

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach

Marshall v Notre Dame
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To continue a final look back at Notre Dame’s 2022 season through the lens of preseason predictions and the expectations they framed …

11) The most underappreciated part of the Irish resurgence since 2017 and thus Brian Kelly’s final years coaching in South Bend was that Notre Dame won 42 straight games against unranked opponents, the longest streak in the country. It was so taken for granted, this prediction thought the Irish would run that to 50 games in 2023.

Instead, Marcus Freeman lost his very first game against an unranked opponent. (8 correct predictions out of 11.)

12) A few predictions always delve out of college football, for variety’s sake. Maybe that should be forgotten moving forward, considering the Packers neither beat the Vikings to open the season nor won the NFC North. To make matters even worse for this scribe of a lapsed Packers fan, they also were not bad enough to draft a good quarterback in 2023. (8 out of 12.)

13) North Carolina leaned on dynamic receiver Josh Downs to prodigious amounts in 2021. An early-season injury slowed him this year, thus ruining any chance of him having “the most catches in a game against the Irish this season, though not the most yards.”

He caught five passes for 32 yards.

Ohio State receiver Emeka Egbuka set the catches mark with nine for 90 yards to open the season, while BYU’s Kody Epps caught four passes for 100 yards, the season high in yardage against Notre Dame. (8/13)

14) Notre Dame played a multiple-look defense this season, a layup of a prediction given the linebacker depth and versatility led by Jack Kiser and (eventually injured) Bo Bauer. That was emphasized at USC when the Irish leaned into a 3-3-5 look without both cornerback Cam Hart and nickel back Tariq Bracy. Kiser’s speed became the defense’s best chance.

It was not enough, but it was a valiant effort, and one to keep in mind in 2023. (9/14)

15) “The math says at least one Irish player will be ejected for targeting in 2022.”

Enter JD Bertrand, twice. (10/15)

16) “Notre Dame will beat BYU in Las Vegas.”

Despite a lackluster second-half, check.

“… This space will miss at least one day of publishing the following week. Who can say why.”

Let’s check the running content calendar. For Tuesday, Oct. 11, it reads, “Vegas won this round.” Sometimes it is best to foresee your own personal failures. (11/16)

17) Marcus Freeman’s recruiting emphasis never waned, underscored by the last two years of recruiting topping anything the Irish have ever done. (12/17)

18) The only area in which Michael Mayer fell short in his Notre Dame career was of this prediction, one saying he would casually break two of his own three Irish single-season records. To do so, he needed to exceed 71 catches, 840 receiving yards and/or seven touchdowns.

The surefire first-round draft pick merely caught 67 passes for 809 yards and nine scores.

Would he have reached all three metrics if he played in the Gator Bowl? Almost assuredly. But then again, he played in only 12 games in 2021, too. The prediction was wrong, regardless. (12/18)

19) Another thought about an individual record, defensive end Isaiah Foskey did not exceed Justin Tuck’s record of 13.5 sacks in a season. He did take down the quarterback 11 times, reaching double digits for a second consecutive season while setting the Notre Dame career mark. (12/19)

20) Similar to prediction No. 11, an underappreciated part of Kelly’s final five years in South Bend were that the Irish won 39 straight games when favored at kickoff, covering all of the 2018-21 seasons.

Both to suggest that would continue and to guess how many times Notre Dame would be favored in 2022, arguing that streak would reach 48 was right in that the Irish were favored in nine of 13 games. They just happened to lose the first of those (and then again against Stanford, the fourth time they would be favored this season).

Such blunders should have been expected from a first-year head coach. Those missteps seem to catch just about every such rookie. But forgetting or overlooking that led to dashed expectations in 2022. (12/20)