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Notre Dame Notebook: Al Golden Talks Tar Heels, Howard Cross, Irish Linebackers

Fighting Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden discusses the North Carolina offense as well as his defensive line and linebackers.
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Al Golden knows he has a formidable challenge ahead of him this weekend. The Notre Dame defensive coordinator is prepping his squad for one of the top offenses in the nation when the Fighting Irish visit North Carolina Saturday.

The No. 6 scoring offense in the country is led by redshirt freshman Drake Maye, who has thrown for 930 yards and 11 touchdowns and has also rushed for 146 yards and another score. Maye will be the top dual threat quarterback Golden’s defense has faced to date.

"Rush lane discipline,” Golden stated as the key to containing Maye. "Don't be behind the quarterback. It’s even more important when you have a guy that can run like the kid at North Carolina. They’ve had a great tradition of guys that can scramble — not just to scramble, but the quarterback run game (as well). Maye is the next guy there in terms of that. He does a great job with the ball.”

Does Experience Matter?

Maye is also the least experienced quarterback the Irish have seen so far. Cal’s Jack Plummer and Marshall’s Henry Columbi are both fifth-year players, while Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud is a junior who is in his second season as a starter. Saturday’s game against Notre Dame will be just the fourth game of Maye’s career and his first ever against a Power 5 opponent. Does that favor the Irish?

"I don't know,” Golden responded. "I think he's really talented. He's a perfect fit for the system that they're employing, and I think he's done a great job. Can’t ask him to do much more. They scored a heck of a lot of points, and he's doing a great job distributing the ball and he can beat you with his arm or his legs.

“I would say that's not normal,” Golden said of the poise Maye plays with, despite his inexperience. "I think he's doing a good job in terms of that, just playing with a lot of poise and not forcing the ball, putting the ball where it needs to be, and obviously making plays with his feet, too. So, he can scramble the run or he can scramble and get the ball down the field. So, you’ve got to be really careful.”

Howard Cross III, Leading Tackler

Senior defensive lineman Howard Cross III has been one of the more pleasant surprises for Notre Dame through three games. The senior defensive tackle had 22 tackles in 11 games last year, but he currently leads the team with 21 tackles in just three games this season. Golden discussed the reasons for his emergence.

"(He) beats blocks, gets off blocks and knows how to finish,” Golden explained. "He’s got strong hands. So, he can corral a running back and get him on the ground. The running back just doesn't run through him. I think those are the things — he's tenacious, strong hands, and doesn't stay blocked for very long. He can beat a block. So those are the three things I think that allow him to make plays, no doubt.”

It’s extremely rare that an interior defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald would be a team’s leading tackler. The position typically eats up blocks and allows linebackers to make plays. That has not been the case so far. Last year’s leading tackler, JD Bertrand, is the team’s No. 3 tackler with 17, which is also tied with Jack Kiser. Can that be seen as a negative for the team?

"I don't think it's a negative at all,” Golden remarked. "Again, for me — I've said this a bunch to you guys — you know, win the game, outplay the other team's defense in total points and then that's the game. It's not always going to be pretty. Yes, we definitely have to get turnovers to help our offense. But at the end of the day, that's what it's all about. Keeping them out of the end zone, giving our offense a chance to score in a win, and I'm not disappointed with the production of any of those linebackers right now.”

Can The D-line Keep Rolling?

The Irish defensive line feasted on Cal quarterback Jack Plummer in the second half of Saturday’s win. The unit accounted for all six sacks on Plummer and also tallied 24 of the team’s 64 tackles (37%) in the game. How can they now keep that momentum going forward?

"It's a good question,” Golden responded. "I think they got home more, because they maintained their rush lanes better. We didn't have guys behind the quarterback. I thought really our defensive tackles inside — Howard, Jayson (Ademilola), all those guys, Jacob (Lacey)— did a good job of countering. So, they kept the quarterback in front and then the coverage — obviously the marriage of front and coverage.

"We were able to get home and get some of those sacks, so I think that would be the biggest thing,” he continued. "We let them out too many times early in the game, and that hurt us. It was a lot of rushing yards for nothing. We had good coverage on. All we have to do is keep them in the pocket. So. good learning lesson for everybody. And obviously the stakes are higher this week. Now we’ve got a guy that truly is a runner.”

Assessing The Linebackers

With the returning experience of players like Bertrand and Jack Kiser, the linebacking unit was supposed to be a strength of the defense, but it’s been a mixed bag, so far. The unit has tallied just 3.5 of the team’s 18 tackles for loss and one of 10 team sacks.

“Each game the challenges have been different, as they will be this week,” responded Golden when asked to evaluate his linebackers’ performance. “That's college defense these days. Every week is a different bingo board, if you will, how people attack you. So, a lot of West Coast orientation last week. This is a little bit different, now. So, those challenges each week is to let the last game plan go, understand exactly what we’ve got to get done, fit the runs really well and in this case, we're going to have to cover the running backs really well or tight ends. 

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"Our underneath coverage is going to have to be really good. So, again, they do they do a really, really good job systematically there on offense, challenge a lot of different facets of your defense, and linebackers will be a big part of that.”

JD Bertrand With An Interesting Week

Senior linebacker JD Bertrand must sit the first half of Saturday’s game because he was ejected when he was flagged for targeting in the fourth quarter of the Cal game. So, what has the captain’s week been like?

"(He) just takes some of the reps off him to make sure everybody else is ready,” Golden noted. “He's a smart guy who did a foolish thing. I mean, that's it. Guys like that who play hard, make good decisions all the time, try to do the right thing — when something like that happens, they feel worse than anything. So, it doesn't do you any good to beat ‘em up. I just think he's got to get himself ready to go, and this week he'll come out of the bullpen. So, some of those reps are going to other guys right now. And we get to halftime, he'll be back into rotation.”

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