Notre Dame has been a strong defense in recent seasons, and first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is tasked with not only keeping that going, but to make it even better.
Freeman's defense will look a lot different than the one we saw over the past decade. At times it will look similar from a structural standpoint, as Notre Dame will continue running a 4-2-5 in many instances. Among the changes, however, is the implementation of a far more versatile and aggressive defensive line.
DEFENSIVE LINE IS GOING TO MOVE AROUND .... A LOT
Notre Dame will move between a four-down and three-down front, that much we already knew, and you can read about that HERE. What we are now learning is how that will look from a personnel standpoint.
At Cincinnati, Freeman used his linebackers to create those multiple fronts, often taking out a defensive lineman in order to add a linebacker or defensive back. At Notre Dame, it would seem like the Irish are going to do a lot of three-down looks while keeping with its four-down personnel.
"We're able to get in and out of different fronts more than we did a year ago, more than we did the last four years,” explained defensive line coach Mike Elston. “The other cool thing is that Isaiah Foskey, we can move him all over the field now and put him at our Vyper position, we can play him at the boundary end position, we can play him to the field, play him inside at three-technique.
“We can do that with quite a few guys,” continued Elston. “We're moving Jordan Botelho around, Justin Ademilola is having a great spring, so we're moving him around. The multiple front and the fluidness of Coach Freeman's packages is really fun to work with and add to. We've added some things to it and it's been really fun.”
We've seen this in practice highlights, and it's been impressive. Foskey and Botelho have been impactful coming off the edge, but we've also seen both playing almost an off-ball linebacker position. This allows Freeman and Elston to move them around a lot more, it allows them to blitz them into different gaps and it also allows the coaches to get players like Jayson Ademilola and Rylie Mills playing on the edge a bit more when they kick Foskey or Botelho out, or drop them to the second level.
Botelho played a lot of linebacker in high school, to the point I felt he could actually play Mike linebacker in college if the need arose. This flexibility and versatility allows Freeman and Elston to make perfect use of his unique skillset.
I have yet to see Justin Ademilola playing in an off-ball position, but in videos we've seen him lining up all over the place up front, often in a stand up position, and he's also making a lot of plays this spring.
From an offensive standpoint this can be extremely difficult to prepare for. It's one thing to have to prepare to face a player of Foskey or Botelho's skill, but not knowing where they are going to line up from snap to snap makes it even more challenging.
EXPECT MORE PLAYMAKING UP FRONT
The line won't be different just from the standpoint of where it lines up. Freeman will use the defensive line in a much different manner, and you can expect the front to be asked to make a lot more plays moving forward.
The ends were playmakers the last three years, at times, but we didn't see as much from the interior players. When the front did produce it was often a result of the superior talent of the players to win one-on-one battles. Although no longer a gap-eating front like we saw from the 3-4 defense of Bob Diaco (which was also highly successful), the Clark Lea defense asked its front four players to be very gap conscious, which at times limited their playmaking.
That will change under Freeman, and we are already seeing it, even in the three-down looks.
"We haven't the moved the front as much in my time here as much as we move it now," head coach Brian Kelly said in a recent interview. "... We're moving the front so aggressively, so those [linebackers] become single gap players again, much like out of a four-down front. It doesn't matter whether its three-down or four-down because we're moving the front and manipulating it up front so much. With that kind of movement those backers can be single gap players."
We've heard a lot from players about how this defense is "simplified," and how it allows them to play more freely. Kelly is explaining what that means. Essentially, what Kelly is saying is that each defender will be tasked with fewer responsibilities on each play, and that means being allowed to play more aggressively. That can be challenging in a three-down front, but Freeman's defense almost always ends up with a fourth defender inserted after the snap, even when in a three-down look.
This was expressed recently by Jayson Ademilola.
"This new defense, Coach Freeman and Coach Elston, he wants us to go eat," Ademilola said earlier in the spring. "He wants us to go out there and make plays, have fun with the unit and that's what the whole defensive scheme is all really about, guys just flying around. I feel like this year, this upcoming season, you're going to see a lot of us getting out there, getting after it. There's going to be some changes but we're all going to be out there making plays this year."
Despite not having close to the talent level Notre Dame possessed, the Cincinnati front produced more tackles for loss than the Irish in both 2019 and 2018, and the Irish had more sacks in 2019 with just four fewer sacks in 2018. This coming from a defense that based itself out of a three-down alignment.
Combine the Notre Dame talent with Freeman's scheme and there's no wonder there's growing excitement about what the Irish front will produce this season.
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