To hear Daelin Hayes explain it, Notre Dame’s best defensive package is a rather simple formula. What the No. 7 Irish (2-0) may lack in trusted interior linebackers and experienced defensive tackles, they boast even more of an abundance of threatening pass-rushers and talented cover men.
“We got dominant pass-rushers and dominant cover guys on the back,” the senior defensive end said after Notre Dame’s 66-14 victory against New Mexico on Saturday. “One’s gotta give.”
Indeed, when the Irish resort to their dime package, the opposing offense typically yields to one of those worries. The Lobos, as the latest example, threw three interceptions against Notre Dame’s passing-specific look.
On the first of those, the Irish front took an approach seen often in dime situations last year, with junior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa now filling the role formerly handled by first-round draft pick Jerry Tillery as a big body still agile enough to slip into the backfield. That prevents the opposing offensive line from diverting a blocker elsewhere. With senior Khalid Kareem moved inward to the other tackle spot, from his usual role on the end, and Hayes and senior Julian Okwara flanking them, Notre Dame can almost always conjure up pressure by rushing only four.
That defensive line look worked wonders last year, but now it has the added perk of a deep and varied secondary behind it. While both starting Irish safeties are captains and one cornerback entered the season with All-America hopes, the star of the dime package is freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. The Notre Dame coaching staff recognized that early in the preseason, focusing the heralded recruit on this niche role before exposing him to the entire playbook. Using Hamilton effectively in a dozen high-leverage moments each week would be an efficient means of getting his feet wet.
Hamilton has proven that logic sound. That is in part due to the result of scoring a touchdown on his first snap at Notre Dame Stadium, but it is also in part due to the versatility he brings the look. With him on hand, senior safety Jalen Elliott can slide into more of a coverage role and/or senior safety Alohi Gilman can feint a blitz. Neither wrinkle leaves the secondary exposed.
“He’s done a really nice job for us, especially in passing situations,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “He’s a presence for us on the back end of the defense. He’s tall, rangy. He has really good instincts, see things, reacts really quick. He’s around the football, he just has a nose for the ball.”
That nose for the ball was the beneficiary of Hayes not rushing in the first quarter Saturday.
“Teams are very scared of our pass rush,” Hayes said. “So a lot of times, they don’t give us a lot of drop-back opportunities. They get the ball out quick. … I knew the ball was coming out quick. I got my hand up and the young bull brought it down and scored.”
Hayes tipped the pass, Hamilton corralled it, and yes, the young bull scored.
And Kelly agrees with Hayes’ assessment, saying Monday that opposing quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball within two seconds because of Notre Dame’s pass-rushers. More pertinently, evidence agrees as well.
The effects of worrying about Hayes, Okwara, Kareem & Co. are clear: Throwing the ball before a receiver has run far enough into a route can be especially costly on a 3rd-and-long.
Consider the second interception Saturday. Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, Okwara came off the line unblocked. Lobos quarterback Sheriron Jones had little-to-no choice but to throw the ball before was prudent. Jones’ target had not even turned his head yet when Elliott stepped into the pass. Elliott made the play and was in the right position, but Jones probably would not have short-circuited the play if not for Okwara’s pressure.
The same can be said for fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford’s interception. Gilman threatened a blitz before dropping into coverage; both Irish ends then quickly closed in on Jones, one possibly making contact with him before he released the pass. As a result, it was underthrown, right where Crawford could slide in.
“If we get them to 3rd-and-long, the odds are in our favor,” Crawford said. “So every time we come out there, our main focus is to stop the run. If we can stop the run on first and second down or eliminate yards after the catch on first and second down, then we’re looking at manageable third downs.
“As long as we continue to just do our jobs on first and second, third down will be no problem.”
Sure enough, New Mexico started 2-of-3 on third downs on Saturday, The initial failure? Hamilton’s interception courtesy of Hayes’ tip on a 3rd-and-8. The two conversions? A 3rd-and-2 and a 3rd-and-5.
The Lobos then failed on 13 of their 15 third downs. The two that converted sought just two yards and one yard. Only one other attempt qualified as 3rd-and-short, a goal-to-go situation from the three-yard-line. The other dozen New Mexico needed an average of 8.25 yards. They were, as Crawford said, no problem.
In the opener at Louisville, the Irish dime defense had a similarly slow start, gifting the Cardinals two third-down conversions with offside penalties on Okwara and Kareem turning 3rd-and-longs into manageable situations. Senior end Ade Ogundeji did the same toward the end of the game. But remove those three over-eager moments, and Notre Dame held Louisville to 2-of-11 on 3rd-and-more than 2, including a fumble recovery.
With Hamilton, Elliott, Gilman, Crawford and cornerbacks senior Troy Pride and sophomore TaRiq Bracy, the six defensive backs can cover just about any route combination. One of the first three can handle any tight end duties, and Elliott or Crawford ably defends the quickest receivers. Sophomore linebacker Jack Lamb serves as the only linebacker, quick enough to cover a running back in the flat and apt enough in coverage to handle a downfield route from that same back. All the while, the defensive line puts pressure on the quarterback.
“It’s a very special group we have on the back end this year,” Crawford said. “We’re all capable of playing many different positions. With our versatility, we’re able to throw different looks at a team and just move people around. When the offense doesn’t know what’s coming, when we have 3rd-and-long, we’re able to hide coverages, show different coverages, things like that pre-snap.
“With the versatility we have, we’re going to be able to make a lot of plays this year.”
They already have, and they will look to continue doing so Saturday at No. 3 Georgia (8 ET; CBS). Even against a veteran quarterback like Jake Fromm, 3rd-and-long situations should shift decidedly in Irish favor.