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Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

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Entering spring, question marks riddled Notre Dame’s defense. What is a rover? Who will play on the defensive line? Do the Irish have enough big bodies to fill the defensive line? What about athletes at safety?

Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game (12:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network on the NBC Sports App) will provide fans a glimpse at some of those possible answers.

What four defensive players/positions should fans be most focused on? Let’s start with that much-discussed, about-to-finally-be-seen rover position, a focal point in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme.

ROVER: Drue Tranquill and Asmar Bilal
The lessons learned here this weekend should be applied more to the position than to the individual players. Senior Drue Tranquill and junior Asmar Bilal will both contribute at the safety-linebacker hybrid position, though it increasingly sounds like it is more linebacker than safety.

Theoretically, the rover provides the defense additional flexibility when compared to a traditional linebacker. Tranquill, for example, is plenty well-built at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, but he still provides better coverage abilities than a third linebacker such as junior Te’von Coney might. Bilal, at 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, offers a bit better coverage option than a Coney or sophomore linebacker Jonathan Jones would, and much better run-stopping tendencies than a safety such as sophomore Devin Studstill’s. At least, that is the theory.

In practice, what will the rover’s primary assignments be? Admittedly, this may change on a week-to-week basis depending on an opponent’s strengths, but Notre Dame’s offense should present many looks and opportunities for Tranquill and Bilal to showcase the position’s unique nature. When the Irish offense trots out three receivers and a tight end like graduate student Durham Smythe, the rover will need to either cover Smythe, sophomore “slot” receiver Chase Claypool or account for the possibility of a running back coming out of the backfield. One way or another, the rover will be tested.

In that hypothetical, it is more likely one of the senior linebackers—captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini—covers the running back, leaving the unenviable option of Claypool or Smythe (or any one of Notre Dame’s other tight end options) for the rover.

RELATED READING: Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow

For the sake of sample size, hopefully the Irish coaching staff puts one of the two in blue and the other in white, rather than symbolically designating them as 1A and 1B by keeping both in white. That roster alignment—usually seen as an “OR” on the depth chart in the fall—may be more accurate, but it would be more worthwhile to see a full set of snaps from each. Especially considering how Kelly has touted Bilal as the likely option against run-based teams, perhaps placing him on the second-unit defense this weekend could present a worthwhile experience, facing a solid backup offensive line blocking for either junior Dexter Williams or sophomore Tony Jones.

DEFENSIVE END DAELIN HAYES
Yes, the sophomore gets his own entry on this list looking at four positions. He has, after all, seemingly secured a starting position as the rush-side/weakside defensive end. Throughout the spring, only praise has followed Hayes’ name when mentioned by Kelly or any other coach, but they also caution with discussion of his need to understand more fundamentals.

“He’s a great example of him taking his level of focus and understanding of the position up a couple of levels,” Kelly said of Hayes on Wednesday. “The position is new to him this spring in the sense that he dabbled at it a little bit, but this is really a new position for him…

“Taking on blocks, dropping into coverage, paying attention to those details that go with the position so when he gets to that first game, I think you’re going to see a player that has improved dramatically because he’s really paid attention to those kinds of things.”

Hayes arrived at Notre Dame as a five-star recruit, according to rivals.com. The tools are there, but if Hayes does not utilize them, the Irish do not have much in the way of options behind him.

RELATED READING:Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

Saturday, he will face a stout challenge, one possibly tougher than most he will face in the 2017 season. Graduate student left tackle Mike McGlinchey is an NFL prospect. Some thought he could have, maybe should have, entered the NFL Draft this year. Hayes will need to excel to get around McGlinchey. If he doesn’t, the summer will need to be spent continuing to learn those techniques and fundamentals.

OPPOSITE DAELIN HAYES: Andrew Trumbetti or Jay Hayes?
Many neighbors and a number of “borrowed” cups of sugar would be necessary to sugarcoat the lack of depth on Notre Dame’s defensive line. Kelly may continue to laud the position group’s strengths and potential, but it is still spring and that is exactly what a head coach is supposed to do in the spring. The rest of us can wonder who will start at strongside defensive end.

Senior Andrew Trumbetti entered this spring as the frontrunner by default thanks to 26 tackles last season. From the first spring practice, Kelly praised Trumbetti, in part thanks to the revamped Irish weight room program.

“We think he’s in a stronger position to handle the rigors of that position, in particular the strongside,” Kelly said. “When he wasn’t holding his weight in the manner we needed him to, that would have been more of a concern, but we feel really good about where he is right now.”

RELATED READING: Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

Classmate Jay Hayes was certainly in the mix, but he had not made enough of past opportunities (10 tackles in 2016) to warrant more chances. This spring, however, Kelly has mentioned Hayes (no relation to the aforementioned sophomore) with greater frequency. If he makes an impression Saturday, suddenly Notre Dame may have more of a defensive line presence than figured all spring.

For that matter, if senior tackle Daniel Cage can log a notable number of snaps with genuine productivity, it would be an excellent indicator moving forward. Cage has struggled to return to form following a concussion last season, but a return to full-strength would bring not only another body but also experience to the defensive line.

Two-thirds of the Irish defense could be considered strengths. Starting two senior captains at linebacker—three if you count Tranquill at rover—bodes well. There might be too many quality cornerbacks, believe it or not.  Safety has some question marks (see the next section), but overall could contain some unexpected quality play. Up front, though, remains shallow and unproven. If Trumbetti and/or Hayes manages to perform well Saturday, that greatest concern may be mitigated by half.

THE SECOND SAFETY: Elliott or Studstill?
Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman seems to have claimed the starting position at field safety, but who will line up with him, Jalen Elliott or Devin Studstill? The two rising sophomores both saw playing time in all 12 games last season, but neither played so well as to stake a claim to a first-team role this year. Per Kelly on Wednesday, only those three are currently operating at a level which he would feel comfortable playing, adding Tranquill could fit that distinction in “certain situations.”

Junior Nicco Fertitta is playing with an injured left wrist, and would be the next one in at the position. After him, sophomore D.J. Morgan and early enrollee freshman Isaiah Robertson round out the group.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: Four Defensive Questions (March 31)

If neither Elliott nor Studstill impresses Saturday, Kelly may further ponder the possibility of moving a cornerback to safety. He initiated the thought Wednesday, emphasizing right now it would be only a situational ploy.

“We’ve got some flexibility with maybe another corner giving us down-and-distance work back in the safety position, as well,” Kelly said. “If it’s third down, we’ve got five corners and we like our corners. We can insert a corner and maybe one of those corners can go back and play half. Not a run-fit guy, but maybe a half-fit player.

“When we’re talking about those situations, we’re talking about maybe playing two-man and playing half over the top, a ball hawk.”

Aside from those specific spots, though, either Elliott or Studstill will need to join Coleman.

HOW TO WATCH
As a recurring reminder, the Blue-Gold Game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday and will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network, as well as streamed online: ndstream.nbcsports.com and on the NBC Sports app.