Depth and multiplicity remain the pillars of Notre Dame’s defense under Al Golden

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One of Marcus Freeman’s first descriptions of his defensive plans at Notre Dame in 2021 was “Front multiplicity, coverage consistency.” New Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden seems to have taken a page out of his boss’ playbook, emphasizing an ability to trot out multiple defenses with the same personnel this spring.

Of course, the next step to that approach is to have enough depth to sustain it, Golden’s other point of emphasis when talking to the media Thursday, already his second meeting with the media in less than two months on the job.

“We’re trying to build depth,” Golden said. “That’s going to be a strength for us because we have guys that are really intelligent and can learn. They’re going to be able to play multiple roles for us.”

Depth is an obvious necessity. The injury bug has already sapped Notre Dame’s defensive interior of rising junior Aidan Keanaaina thanks to a torn ACL. But Freeman’s, and now Golden’s premise of multiple-look fronts requires versatility as much as depth. As the then-defensive coordinator, Freeman said 11 months ago …

“Within each package, four d-linemen, three d-linemen, we still have to be multiple up front. That’s something we’ll spend time trying to continue to develop and expand the package. We want to continue to be multiple in the fronts, multiple in the movements up front, multiple in the ways we blitz linebackers to create four- or five-man fronts.”

Golden did not get as exact in his descriptions this week, a difference perhaps in generation as much as anything else, but his broad strokes echoed Freeman’s concepts. When asked about cross-training some players across multiple positions, Golden said such was occurring at all three levels of the defense.

“We’re trying to cross-train a bunch of different guys in multiple roles, and that’s going to make us stronger in the long-term,” he said. “It helps them develop a conceptual mindset of what’s going on around them, which is important. …

“That’s what we’re trying to do, make sure we have a group that can play multiple positions. From that standpoint, this group has really evolved, and they’re going to keep evolving.”

It also helps confound an offense, when a linebacker is well-versed in all three roles of his position group, not to mention some of the duties of the defensive ends. And again, that will only help with depth.

“You never know what’s going to happen on game day or throughout the season,” Golden said, sounding every bit like someone who has coached football for nearly three decades.

In that sense, Golden is not ruling out situational players.

“There’s going to be a lot of guys that earn roles, not just starters, but earn roles,” he said. “If you’re defending 85 plays, you need a lot of guys playing.”

“Front multiplicity,” as Freeman once described it, began with defensive ends Isaiah Foskey and Jordan Botelho a year ago, to such an extent that Foskey spent preseason practices focused on psas defending as well as pass rushing while Botelho eventually spent as much time at linebacker as he did at end. Fittingly, Golden has already been asked specifically about Botelho’s role in the defense.

“I love the versatility of Jordan,” Golden said. “I really do. He is a tough kid. He’s a very smart kid. … Guys that are versatile can do many things for you.

“In his case, he’s got enough length to play on the edge, play inside and he’s played Rover. He could play Vyper (end) for us. That’s tough to identify if you’re on the other side.”

In a moment proving the more things change, the more things stay the same, Golden finished his Botelho response with the same words of caution that have surrounded the dynamic Hawaiian since his recruitment.

“I’m going to keep working with him to try to get him to slow down a little bit and let him sepeed his game up because he’s playing with a little more poise,” Golden said.

If Botelho adds poise to his broad skill set, that alone could add both depth and varied looks to Golden’s first Irish defense.