The calendar has turned to March, and we are approaching the beginning of the Notre Dame spring football season. That means we get our first look at what the 2021 version of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will look like.
We won't have all the answers about this team until games start in the fall, but the spring provides us with a look at the foundation of what this team will look like.
Heading into spring ball there are five very important questions on both sides of the ball, and how those questions get answered will go a very, very long way towards determining just how good the Fighting Irish will be on 2021.
On defense, the Irish will have a new coordinator and must replace three of its four best players. There is also a lot of depth and talent coming back, and if the questions below get answered positively the Irish could be even better on defense next season.
1. How quickly does Marcus Freeman and the players connect
No matter how good a new coach was at his previous stop or how good the players he inherited are there is always an adjustment period. How quickly that adjustment period last varies, and we'll have to wait and see how quickly it goes with Freeman and the defensive players.
The faster this adjustment happens the faster this defense starts to take shape.
2. Can the cornerback position get back on track?
Getting grad transfer Nick McCloud helped salvage the cornerback position in 2020, but he is gone and the position is arguably the biggest question mark on the roster. The good news is there are plenty of bodies and at the very least good talent at the position, but will the talent turn into production this spring?
There are three questions within this question. The first is will Cam Hart, who has drawn plenty of praise behind the scenes for his talent, start to figure out the finer points of the game and seize hold of a starting role? Will sophomore Clarence Lewis see a jump after a strong freshman season. Will the deep group of young players grow up in a hurry and push the veterans, forcing their way onto the field?
Notre Dame needs this group to grow up in a hurry, and how well it develops this spring will go a long way towards giving the defense the production it needs outside for the unit as a whole to get better.
3. Who breaks out up front?
Notre Dame lost its two best defensive players from last season, with Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji now off to the NFL. In recent seasons the starters were replaced by more established veterans, but that won't necessarily be the case in 2021.
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is a veteran, but he's not established as an end. Isaiah Foskey was a key part of the rotation last season, but is he ready to become a full-time starter, and a difference maker? Those are two very important factors in the defensive line being good enough to carry the unit like it has in past seasons.
Foskey breaking out is a very important part to the defense remaining dominant.
Defensive tackles Jayson Ademilola and Rylie Mills are stepping into more prominent roles, at least they will if Notre Dame follows through with the MTA move to end. Will Ademilola be able to stay on the field and become a more consistently dominant player, moving past the flashy player he's been the last two years? Will Mills make a sophomore surge?
Notre Dame needs Foskey to break out this spring, and it needs Ademilola and Mills to form a potent one-two punch at the three technique. This is what's needed for the Notre Dame defensive line to turn its current potential into proven production.
4. Will the linebackers become more consistent and productive?
Notre Dame's best defender in 2020 was rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who had a brilliant final season in South Bend. After him the production and play at linebacker was inconsistent at best, and subpar at worst. That has to change in 2021, and there is simply too much talent and athleticism at the position for the inside linebacker spots to be as unproductive as they were last season.
Will the light go on for Shayne Simon? If it doesn't will players like Marist Liufau, Osita Ekwonu or JD Bertrand be able to push him out of the lineup? Or even better, will the light go on for Simon and at least one of those other linebackers be good enough to form a potent one-two punch at the Will spot?
Can Drew White get back on track after an up-and-down senior season? Better play at Will should help White, who often had to focus on covering for the man beside, and the result was his play, and tackling, being far too inconsistent. Is Bo Bauer capable of pushing White aside if the veteran doesn't get better? Or better yet, can they also form a potent one-two punch at Mike?
There are a lot of options, and plenty of talent, but right now there is nothing but questions at the position.
And we didn't even get into the giant question mark that is the Rover position.
5. Does anyone step up beside Kyle Hamilton?
Kyle Hamilton is Notre Dame's best returning defender, and possibly the team's best returning player regardless of position. He will be limited this spring, which means more opportunities for the rest of the depth chart, and those extra reps are needed.
The second safety position was shaky in 2020, and Notre Dame needs that position to get a lot better, especially in the pass game.
Getting Houston Griffith back certainly helps from a numbers and depth standpoint, but can Griffith finally fulfill his prep ranking and promise as a player? His emergence this spring is vitally important for the defense, and if he is the player I think he can be the back end of the defense could become a significant strength as a duo, and not a one-man show with Hamilton.
Even if Griffith breaks out the depth remains a question mark, and players like DJ Brown and Litchfield Ajavon will get a chance to secure roles in the rotation. But will they simply just be two-deep players, or will they be playmakers? How about freshman Justin Walters, who is an early enrollee?
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