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Notre Dame’s defensive reload in 2019 perhaps more daunting than realized

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Notre Dame’s 2018 success came upon the back of a defense that proved itself in 2017. Nearly all of that unit returned, and it showed. As the Irish offense struggled out of the gate, the defense returning nine starters — and arguably more than that, considering the time seen by defensive end Khalid Kareem a year ago — held its own and carried Notre Dame to an ugly 3-0 start.

Expecting such again in 2019 would be ambitious. Specifically, the Irish will lose much of their penetrative force up front and the support immediately behind it. While defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was held without a tackle in the Cotton Bowl, his 10.5 tackles for loss with eight sacks during the regular season will be a noticeable absence moving forward. No such exit occurred along the defensive line a year ago, an anomaly nearly unprecedented.

2017 tackling stats by the defensive line: 223 tackles with 38 for loss including 16.5 sacks.
Stats returning for 2018: 168 tackles with 30.5 for loss including 15 sacks.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 75.34 percent of tackles with 80.26 percent of tackles for loss and 90.91 percent of sacks.

2018 tackling stats by the defensive line: 242 tackles with 34.5 for loss including 26.5 sacks.
Stats currently returning for 2019: 187 tackles with 24 for loss including 18.5 sacks.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 77.27 percent of tackles with 69.57 percent of tackles for loss and 69.81 percent of sacks.

Those returning numbers largely derive from Notre Dame’s defensive ends, led by Kareem. Of course, Tillery’s success up front made life easier for linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill.

When both opted to come back in 2018, they put off a pending vacuum by a year. Defensive coordinator, and linebackers coach, Clark Lea will not have that luxury to rely upon again next season. Without those two, the Irish have essentially no proven linebackers, with the exception of fifth-year Asmar Bilal, who is expected to move inside, a new position for him.

Asmar Bilal will be needed to be a focal point in Notre Dame’s 2019 defense, though replacing both Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill will certainly not be a one-man job. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

2017 total stats by linebackers: 426 tackles with 36 for loss including six sacks and 10 turnovers involved in.
Stats returning for 2018: 259 tackles with 26 for loss including 4.5 sacks and six turnovers involved in.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 60.80 percent of tackles with 72.22 percent of tackles for loss and three-quarters of sacks with 60 percent of turnovers involved in.

2018 total stats by linebackers: 303 tackles with 22 for loss including 7.5 sacks and four turnovers involved in.
Stats currently returning for 2019: 94 tackles with 3.5 for loss including no sacks and one turnover involved in.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 31.02 percent of tackles with 15.91 percent of tackles for loss including zero percent of sacks and one-quarter of turnovers involved in.

The tackles made by Coney and Tranquill were obvious and many, but it may be their knack for making plays that Lea actually struggles to replace most. Across the last two seasons, the two combined to have their hands in 11 turnovers.

The numbers at defensive back listed as returning for 2018 here do include nickel back Shaun Crawford’s, though he tore his ACL in August. Some injury will befall the defense at some point, hence some of the need for taking a big-picture view. For context’s sake: In 2017, Crawford had two interceptions and five pass breakups.

2017 pass defense stats by defensive backs: Seven interceptions and 40 pass breakups.
Stats returning for 2018: Six interceptions and 32 pass breakups.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 85.71 percent of interceptions and 80 percent of pass breakups.

2018 pass defense stats by defensive backs: 10 interceptions and 39 pass breakups.
Stats currently returning for 2019: Eight interceptions and 20 pass breakups.
Those latter numbers by percentages: 80 percent of interceptions and 51.28 percent of pass breakups.

Looking at those pass breakup numbers, it may be hard to believe only two pieces of the secondary depart, with only one of them a regular contributor (no offense, Nick Coleman).

Such an offseason concern is to be expected when up to four NFL draft picks move on. In mid-April, the point will resonant again as Tillery, Coney, Tranquill and cornerback Julian Love hear their names called. It will almost certainly prove a bit poignant come September.