I like handing out awards after all the games have been played, and the Notre Dame 2019 season is now officially over. Part one of my season awards handed out honors to the offense, and now it’s time to talk about the Irish defense.
TOP ROLE PLAYER
DE Ade Ogundeji, Senior and DE Jamir Jones, Senior
2019 Stats - Ogundeji: 34 tackles, 7.0 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks, 1 fumble return for a TD
2019 Stats - Jones: 26 tackles, 6.5 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Seniors Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem were the big names at end, and prior to his injury in the fourth game of the year, fellow senior Daelin Hayes was playing the best football. But Notre Dame had one of the nation’s best defensive lines because its depth players - especially at end - were often as good, if not better, than the starters.
Ogundeji was solid all season, but in November he took his game to a whole new level. He was downright dominant late in the fall, registering 5.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks in the final three games. His raw potential finally became top-level production, which puts Ogundeji in position to emerge as a top player nationally in 2020.
When the season started the plan was for Jones to play in no more than four games in order to save a season of eligibility, but when Hayes went down for the season the veteran end was thrust into a more prominent role. Like Ogundeji, Jones played every bit as well as the starters for much of the season, doing a little bit of everything for the defense.
Without the outstanding play from Ogundeji and Jones I’m not sure the Irish defense would have been as good as it was.
CB Troy Pride Jr., Senior
2019 Stats: 40 tackles, 6 pass breakups, 1 INT
Pride caught a lot of flak from fans and analysts, and I’m not quite sure why. Yes, he did not play downfield throws as well as should have, but he also did a lot of really good things for the Irish defense.
For all the talk about Pride’s disappointing play this season, the reality is he held opponents to 12 fewer completions, a lower completion rate and 120 fewer yards than he did in 2018. He also held opponents to fewer catches (32 to 42), fewer yards (337 to 413) and an almost identical completion rate (54.2% to 53.2%) than All-American cornerback Julian Love allowed in 2018.
Pride did not play like an All-American this fall, that’s not the argument I am making, but he certainly played better than he is given credit for. His downfield coverage was outstanding all season, and part of the reason the throws that were made against him stood out so much might be because he allowed so few. Notre Dame does not finish the season as a Top 5 passing defense without Pride playing as well as he did this fall.
A case could be made for junior linebacker Drew White to be the most under-appreciated player on the Irish defense, but I’m going with Pride.
TOP NEWCOMER (Freshman or Redshirt Freshman)
S Kyle Hamilton, Freshman
2019 Stats: 41 tackles, 6 pass break ups, 4 INT, 1 TD
I graded Hamilton as a five-star recruit, so I always felt he would end up as a star at Notre Dame, but I honestly felt he’d need a season of physical development before he became a difference maker. Hamilton quickly proved me wrong, earning a nickel role from day one, and his early season play was outstanding. Hamilton was outstanding in coverage all season, and he continued to build on deficiencies while enhancing his strengths.
The Irish staff did a great job not putting him in too many challenging positions and allowing Hamilton to play comfortably, and the talented freshman became a top playmaker for the defense. Hamilton showed exceptional range and instincts this season, but the biggest surprise for me was how physical Hamilton played. He needs to get stronger moving forward, but right away the talented first-year safety showed a willingness to deliver punishment.
LB Asmar Bilal, Senior
2019 Stats: 79 tackles, 10.0 TFL’s, 2 pass breakups
During the offseason I said on several podcasts and wrote in multiple articles that Notre Dame would have a hard time repeating last season’s defensive success with Bilal starting at linebacker. Not only was the defense as good, in most ways it was actually better in 2019, and Bilal played a major role in that. It seemed Bilal made proving me wrong his life mission this season.
Bilal was always known as an athletic and tough player, but his lack of instincts and feel for the game were often lacking, but that is not what we saw from Bilal in 2019. After a spotty performance in the opener against Louisville, Bilal went on to play outstanding football for much of the season. His athleticism allowed him to make a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage and on the perimeter, but it was his ability to make good reads, be decisive and play the instinctive football I felt he lacked that truly allowed him to be a difference maker for the Irish defense.
The fifth-year senior was a solid all-around player, handling the pass game as well as he did the run game, and his athleticism played a role in the Irish defense being as disruptive as it was this season.
S Alohi Gilman, Senior and S Jalen Elliott, Senior
In order to play the aggressive style we saw from the defense this season, the veteran safeties were put in a lot of tough spots, and both Gilman and Elliott handled the difficult roles well. Neither was perfect, but both showed playmaking ability and production.
Just as important, however, was the leadership both displayed. After Notre Dame’s embarrassing loss to Michigan, the Irish defense had every reason to tank, or at least have a hard time recovering from the loss. The unit had not played up to its potential in the first half of the season, but thanks to the leadership showed by Gilman, Elliott and Kareem, the defense bounced back from that loss and played brilliant football the rest of the season.
Notre Dame gave up just 13.3 points and 274.8 yards per game in the final six contests of the season despite playing three Top 40 offenses. Teams don’t make turnarounds like that unless there is great leadership, and that is where Gilman and Elliott made their greatest impact this season.
Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Junior
2019 Stats: 80 tackles, 13.5 TFL’s, 5.5 sacks, 4 pass breakups
Owusu-Koramoah did not play a single snap of defensive football during his first two seasons at Notre Dame, but that did not keep him from putting together an outstanding first season in the starting lineup. Owusu-Koramoah tied for the team lead in tackles, led the defense in solo tackles, led the defense in tackles for loss and tied for the team lead in sacks. Owusu-Koramoah also finished third on the defense in run stops.
There were some ups and downs throughout the season as Owusu-Koramoah tried to overcome his lack of experience, which led to assignment mistakes and technique miscues. But the deeper we got into the season the mistakes became less frequent and the playmaking became a much bigger part of Owusu-Koramoah’s game. The junior made at least one tackle for loss in just three of his first eight games, but in the final five contests he made at least one tackle for loss in all but one game.
Owusu-Koramoah did a little bit of everything for the Irish. He was good in coverage, was great in space, made plays off the edge, made plays behind the line and when asked to play inside against Boston College he had an outstanding performance. Of course, he saved his best for last, putting together a truly brilliant performance in the bowl win over Iowa State.
DE Khalid Kareem, Senior
2019 Stats: 46 tackles, 10.0 TFL’s, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Kareem did not have the dominant season I thought he could, or should, have had. His numbers were good, but he didn’t really build on his junior season, at least from a production standpoint. What made Kareem so valuable this season was not just his production, but his leadership. Kareem battled all season, and although his overall numbers weren’t great, the plays he did make were impactful.
It seemed when the defense needed a play to be made you could find Kareem somewhere around the football. His play in the first half against Navy was brilliant, and after Hayes and Okwara were both lost for the season, Kareem took his game to a higher level, giving the defense the emotional and physical boost it needed to finish on such a high note.
There were more impactful players on the defense from a pure production standpoint, the V in MVP stands for valuable, and there wasn’t a more valuable player on the defense than Kareem. He did what you expect a captain to do, which is lead by example and when things got tight, he stepped up and did what needed to be done.