Notre Dame is just two days away from kicking off the 2020 football season, and they will do it with the school’s first-ever official ACC game. The Irish are expected to make a run to the ACC championship game, and a second College Football Playoff berth.
In order to make that happen the Fighting Irish defense will need to be at its best. Heading into the season there are five key questions that could determine whether or not the defense is good enough to compete for a national title.
1. Will The Run Defense Improve?
Stopping the run has been the achilles heel for Notre Dame the last three seasons. Ever since the post-2016 makeover, Notre Dame has racked up an impressive 33-6 record. In those six losses the Irish defense gave up an average of 206.7 rushing yards.
Notre Dame ranked 59th, 36th and 51st in run defense the last three seasons. Even if you take out the Navy performances the run defense has just not been good enough to really take the unit to the next level. Even LSU’s defense in 2019 - which was not an elite unit by any means - ranked 21st in run defense.
The defense started to show that kind of dominance on the ground late last season, with the Irish holding its final five Power 5 opponents to just 96.4 rushing yards per game, and three of those opponents were held to under 100 yards.
Can Notre Dame make a big leap with its ground defense and carry its late-season surge into 2020? Doing so will be a vital piece to a title run, and not doing so could ultimately be the biggest factor in the defense being not quite good enough to beat the big boys.
2. Where Will The Pass Rush Come From?
Notre Dame lost its best pass rushers from last season, with Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones all exhausting their eligibility. Getting after the quarterback has been a strength for the Irish the last two seasons, and while there is certainly plenty of pass rushing talent returning, right now no one is proven.
Kareem, Okwara and Jones combined for 27.5 sacks the last three seasons. The entire returning defensive end depth chart has a combined 13 career sacks, which means the pass rush depends on thus far unproven pass rushers becoming impact players against the pass.
Adetokunbo Ogundeji’s late-season surge is certainly a reason for optimism. He registered 4.5 sacks in the final three games, and if his strong play to end the season carries into his final campaign he’ll finish his career with a monster final season.
Fifth-year senior Daelin Hayes has the talent to be an effective pass rusher, but he must learn to turn to loose. Sophomore end Isaiah Foskey is a player to keep an eye on. He might be the most naturally gifted edge player on the roster, and it would behoove the staff to force the issue with Foskey and get him going early in the season. Maybe it doesn’t click early, but it would certainly pay off later in the season.
Getting more pass rush production from the interior would be a big help. The defensive tackles had just three sacks last season, and they need to be more disruptive against the pass.
If the front four doesn’t step it up it will force defensive coordinator Clark Lea to turn up the heat with his linebackers. That might work against most of the teams on the schedule, but it could expose the secondary against the better teams on the schedule, and certainly against offenses that Notre Dame would face in the playoff.
3. Can The Safety Position Hold Up?
Sophomore Kyle Hamilton is being asked to develop into a difference maker in his second season, which is a tall task even for a player with his immense physical tools. He’s joined on the back end by sixth year senior Shaun Crawford.
If that duo stays healthy it should be able to provide the defense with playmaking ability. Hamilton is a legit five-star talent and Crawford has proven to be a clutch player throughout his career. That came at the nickel and cornerback positions, but Crawford is a smart player that has always shown the ability to adapt and be versatile.
Crawford’s injury history is problematic, as is the depth chart behind those two and junior Houston Griffith. Notre Dame needs to work hard to get Griffith going, and he could very well hold the key to the position group. If the staff can’t get Griffith up to speed after he missed time in fall camp it could prove to be a major problem. That cannot happen.
Safety is an incredibly important position in this defense, and while there is potential for the group to play at a high level, the margin for error this season is much thinner.
4. How Will The Young Cornerbacks Develop?
Cornerback is arguably the biggest question mark on the roster. Grad transfer Nick McCloud should be good, assuming he can stay healthy. It seems that junior TaRiq Bracy hasn’t taken the leap forward that was expected, at least not in fall camp. If he progresses this could be a strength, but right now he’s still a question mark.
Behind that duo is a deep roster of inexperienced players. Sophomore Cam Hart has been a player that I’ve heard a lot of good things about during fall camp, but now he needs to show it on the game field. Freshman Clarence Lewis has worked his way into the two deep. Notre Dame also has sophomore Isaiah Rutherford and freshman Ramon Henderson.
There’s talent on the roster, but its without question the least proven unit on the roster. Notre Dame needs that unit to play well in the big games, and if they don’t the Irish will once again struggle to play like a championship defense when it matters most.
5. Will The Red Zone Defense Get Better?
Notre Dame ranked 129th out of 130 teams in red zone defense last season, and it ranked 45th in touchdown percentage allowed in the red zone.
The good news is that Notre Dame ranked fourth in fewest red zone trips allowed, but the defense will face better offenses this season than it did in 2019. Notre Dame will need to show dramatic improvement with its red zone defense in 2020.
Getting back to the 2018 levels when the Irish ranked 11th in red zone defense and 27th in red zone touchdown defense would be ideal.
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