The Fighting Irish defense has carried Notre Dame the last three seasons, and that will likely continue in 2021. We saw that side of the ball continue its outstanding play in the spring despite not having All-American safety Kyle Hamilton.
First-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman seems poised to keep the strong play going, and he could possibly take it to the next level. Despite the strong play this spring there are still questions that we don't quite know the answer to, and we won't until the fall.
1. Cornerbacks improved, but more work is needed
Cornerback was certainly the biggest question mark on the defense heading into the spring, and it's still arguably the biggest question mark coming out of the spring. The good news, however, is that we saw a lot of growth and improvement from that unit.
Cam Hart played well in the Blue-Gold Game and grew his game all spring, and sophomore Clarence Lewis has made obvious strides. Senior TaRiq Bracy was praised by Freeman for his consistency, which is a great sign. Freshman Ryan Barnes played really good football in the Blue-Gold Game and Brian Kelly praised sophomore Ramon Henderson.
Position coach Mike Mickens did a great job developing the unit during the spring, but he'll need to keep the group moving forward in the fall. We saw a lot of growth, but across the board a lot more work is needed. How much growth the unit makes could ultimately be what determines if this defense is really good, or if it develops into an elite unit.
2. Safety depth is still a concern
Notre Dame's best defensive player is safety Kyle Hamilton, and senior Houston Griffith had a strong spring. If Hamilton stays healthy he'll be one of the best defensive players in the country, but for the safety position as a whole to become a strength Griffith needs to keep on his current track and become the high quality starter I've always thought he could be.
Griffith is still a question mark because he needs to prove on Saturdays that he can be the player he showed himself to be this spring. Assuming he does there are still questions at the safety position. Notre Dame has front seven depth that should allow it to sustain an injury or two, or someone not meeting expectations, but that is not the case at safety.
Veteran DJ Brown is a solid downhill player, but he's better suited as a rotation player due to his coverage limitations. We don't know what KJ Wallace or Litchfield Ajavon can do yet, and freshmen Justin Walters and Khari Gee are obviously unproven as rookies.
If Hamilton and Griffith are healthy and play to their potential it would make Brown better because he can be a rotation player. After that the Irish need one of Wallace, Ajavon, Walters or Gee to seize hold of a rotation spot. There are simply too many "ifs" at the position behind Hamilton for me to have the kind of confidence at safety as I have at other positions, but there is certainly potential.
3. How much growth have the linebackers made?
From what we could see this spring the linebackers improved across the board, even with veteran Drew White banged up for much of the spring. I certainly expect the inside linebackers to be improved upon what we saw in 2020, but there's still a lot that unit must prove.
Shayne Simon made strides this spring, showing better coverage instincts and a bit more of an aggressive style of play. Simon started to show off his athleticism more this spring, both in the practice clips and in the Blue-Gold Game. Now he needs to carry that into the fall, and even then there is still another level of production and speed that Simon must get to.
Marist Liufau showed more discipline in the Blue-Gold Game, but is he ready to become a disciplined, every down player? We don't yet know. Bo Bauer was impressive as a blitzer and run defender this spring, but he also showed himself to still be a bit of a liability in the pass game. He must continue to improve that part of his game. White has been a productive player, but can he be more consistent making plays on the ball? Him being out much of this spring makes that still a question mark.
One young player that caught my eye all spring was JD Bertrand, and I'm curious to see if he can force his way into a role in the fall.
The unit certainly improved, but we don't yet know if its ready to provide the consistent impact play this defense needs.
4. Will there be stars up front?
I expect the defensive line to be the strength of the defense, if not the entire team. The unit has exceptional depth and it will be a productive unit. My question question about the unit is about whether or not a star or two will emerge.
A deep, balanced unit can dominate the majority of the teams on Notre Dame's schedule, and I expect this unit to do just that during the regular season. My question with the line is can it carry the defense on the big stage, both in the big games in the regular season, but more importantly if the Irish are to get back to the College Football Playoff, or in a big bowl against a big opponent.
Who are the players that take over the big games the way Christian Barmore (Alabama) did against Notre Dame in the Rose Bowl? That remains to be seen. If we see a player or two develop into that kind of player this defense will have the kind of front four needed for a defense to carry a team to postseason success.
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