The praises of Notre Dame’s defense in the next five-plus months will be two-fold: its starting safeties and its excellent defensive ends, all four of the senior ends, two of which already considered the NFL.
Notice, depth is not included in the safety bit. There was hardly any before spring practice began and when Devin Studstill did not take part in the first practice because he intends to transfer upon graduation this May, the semblance of known depth dissipated entirely. Without Studstill, and rising senior Alohi Gilman limited both by minor injury and by load management, the Irish currently have rising senior Jalen Elliott (pictured at top) and rising sophomores Derrik Allen and Paul Moala available at the position.
In other words, Elliott and not much else beyond theoretical potential, which is partly the reason rising sophomore cornerback DJ Brown cross-trained at safety in Studstill’s absence. The three youngsters have this spring to establish themselves behind Gilman and Elliott before reinforcements arrive in the form of incoming freshmen Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon.
“They’re certainly going to get an opportunity,” head coach Brian Kelly said March 1. “You’re going to see a lot of them. We’ve got guys coming in the fall that we’re really high on, too. Some of this will be their opportunity to get ahead of the competition that’s coming in, and they know there’s competition coming in.”
Moala played in seven games as a freshman, but that was largely in a special teams role. Allen did not make it onto the field for a Saturday. Even Studstill and Nicco Fertitta made only spot appearances in support of Gilman and Elliott, combining for 16 tackles. That led to Gilman and Elliott playing nearly every snap.
When pondering that now, defensive coordinator Clark Lea only thinks of the coming development from the unproven duo — trio, if including Brown.
“Part of this spring is patience and developing depth,” Lea said last week. “For both [Allen and Moala], they are in a position now where they are getting a ton of reps and they’re making mistakes, but they’re learning from them.”
The chance to learn from those mistakes is presumably part of the reason Kelly indicated Gilman will not get a full snap load this spring. His physical playing style in the fall not only yielded two forced fumbles among 94 tackles, but also a particular amount of wear-and-tear.
But he is not the only two-year starter at the position. Elliott works with Allen and Moala through each snap. It fits Elliott’s feelings about the position, which derive from his high school experience on the opposite of the ball. Elliott was not intercepting passes back then as much as he was trying to avoid interceptions.
“I always say safety is like the quarterback of the defense, so being able to elaborate what I wanted to say and be able to put guys in the right places was something I did at quarterback and I think it translated to safety,” Elliott said following his first day tutoring the reserves this spring. “… We have a younger secondary, so making sure I’m leading by example every day, making sure that I’m pushing those young guys and making sure that I’m also not losing myself while doing that, making sure I’m pushing myself in every aspect of the game.”
Elliott’s development in every aspect of the game — from reliable at best, suspect at worst in 2017 to durable mainstay in 2018 to defensive leader in 2019 — makes this shallow depth chart tolerable for Notre Dame and the position a strength as a whole. When Gilman transferred from Navy, his success was presumed, at least once eligible. Elliott’s first two seasons did not inspire such confidence.
Of course, between those two years came a system change, and Elliott now enters his third season in Lea’s design.
“Every year you’re in the system, it gets a little easier, because expectations are understood, performance standards are understood,” Lea said. “We’re in search of that bar right now. We haven’t found it, but that’s what we’re doing every day.”
If nothing else, Elliott and Gilman are that bar for the foreseeable future.