The Defensive Line Drives The Notre Dame Defense

Under defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman the defensive line will be the foundation of the defense
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Notre Dame’s defense under Marcus Freeman is certainly coming into a clearer view, both by what we see in the highlights the program puts out and also by what we’ve heard from Freeman, who we’ve now had a chance to hear from on multiple occasions.

In his most recent conversation with the Notre Dame media, Freeman laid out what will be the foundation of his defensive philosophy. It’s simple, it all begins with the defensive line.

“We’ve always been and will always be a defensive line driven program,” Freeman explained. “That means that as our defensive line goes our defense will go.”

Anyone that has watched the spring highlights clips put out by the Notre Dame program has seen one constant in each session, and that is that the defensive line has been dominant. Notre Dame’s defensive linemen seem to spend as much time in the backfield as the Fighting Irish quarterbacks and running backs.

“They’ve done an excellent job, they’ve done an unbelievable job,” said the first-year Irish coordinator. “They are extremely deep at the position. As they continue to play well it makes our job (the linebackers) behind them that much easier. Coach [Mike] Elston has done an unbelievable job with those guys to get them to learn the scheme, get them to learn the things we want them to do. It’s made it easier for the linebackers and safeties and corners to make the transition in the new defense.”

Head coach Brian Kelly and Freeman have both talked about how the aggressiveness of the defense, and movement of the defensive line will impact the defense. Success, however, must be a combination of great scheme - which Freeman brings - and outstanding play from the individual players.

FOSKEY AND BOTELHO ARE KEY FOR NOTRE DAME

Two players that are essential to the Irish being a dominant front are young ends Isaiah Foskey and Jordan Botelho.

“I remember when I first got here everyone said he’s the potential first round pick of the future,” Freeman stated. “He’s done a great job, he’s working at it. Foskey hasn’t played a bunch of football, and that’s a point of emphasis that we continue to make. We need to continue to get his football intelligence up and get him reps and reps and reps. But he made a major stride from week two to three, I think last week he had a really, really good week and he put together three consistently good practices.”

Despite being just a redshirt freshman and a rotation player, Foskey finished second on the Irish defense with 4.5 sacks in 2020. He’s poised for a big jump in production if he continues to make strides, but he isn’t the only emerging young defensive lineman.

“[Foskey’s] a guy that’s continued to get better, as has Botelho,” noted Freeman. “Those two are guys that will push each other, that will make our defense better because of the challenges they’ll present to each other, to push each other and make each other better. The healthy competition that we talk about, it’s going to be really infectious to our whole defense.”

Botelho was a key special teams player for Notre Dame in 2020, and he scored a touchdown on a blocked punt in the team’s 52-0 victory over South Florida. The Hawaii native finished with three special teams tackles (according to Pro Football Focus) and he played 79 special teams snaps and 19 defensive snaps.

The former Top 100 recruit now is getting an opportunity to become a key part of the Irish pressure package.

“Jordan is one of the leaders of being disruptive,” Freeman said. “He’s playing extremely fast, he plays with a violence that at times you’ve got to tell him to slow down a little bit … That’s the way Jordan plays the game.

“If we can continue to get him lined up right, continue to get him to understand exactly what he has to do within each defense, he’s going to just get better and better, but he plays with the effort and attitude and reckless abandon that we need every member of our defense to play with,” continued Freeman. “That’s why you’ve seen him flash, that’s why you’ve seen him make some havoc plays in the [backfield] because he plays with an unbelievable motor.”

Botelho played on the edge at times in high school, but he also played - and thrived - as an off-ball linebacker. Notre Dame is using him to play all over the field, including as an off-back linebacker.

“He’s a guy that we’ll use at multiple different positions,” explained the Irish defensive coordinator. “We’ve experimented with him at linebacker at Vyper at Field end at times. He’s a guy that you can move all over the field.”

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