Four Camp Questions For The Notre Dame Defense

Bryan Driskell

Notre Dame kicked off fall camp Wednesday, officially starting their campaign for another College Football Playoff berth. It will also be the program’s first in a conference, as Notre Dame will be playing in the ACC this fall.

With camp kicking off there are a number of key questions that I will be keeping my eye on. How those questions get answered will have a significant impact on how the 2020 season will play out on the field.

We already broke down the top questions on offense, so now let’s focus on the defense.

Question #1 — How will the cornerback position shake out, and can it stay healthy?

Notre Dame had one of the nation’s best cornerback tandems in 2018, but now that group must be completely replaced. Two of the players in contention to fill those big shoes have missed full seasons with injuries, another is talented but thus far inconsistent player that lacks ideal size, and the rest of the depth chart is highly inexperienced.

That’s the glass half empty view.

There’s a glass half full version too, and that view is that Notre Dame has an experienced, physical and productive veteran arriving in Nick McCloud, a fast and high upside player with quite a bit of experience in TaRiq Bracy, a veteran player with a knack for making big plays in Shaun Crawford, and a talented group of sophomores and freshmen.

If the conversation at the end of fall camp looks more like the glass half full view the cornerback position could be a strength. The only thing that could make things better is if one or two of the young players are standing out, like Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace, Cam Hart or Clarence Lewis.

Question #2 — Where will the pass rush come from?

Notre Dame lost Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Jamir Jones from its 2019 defensive line rotation. That trio combined for 15.5 sacks last season, and had 33 combined sacks during their careers.

The top three edge rushers returning to the 2020 defensive line have a combined 13 career sacks.

There is talent coming back, but the proven production certainly raises questions about Notre Dame being able to rush the quarterback with four-man pressures this season, which is key to being an elite defense. Senior Daelin Hayes needs to turn his unique size/athleticism combination into far more pass rushing production, and veteran Adetokunbo Ogundeji needs to show his late-season surge (4.5 sacks in the final three games) wasn't a fluke and turn that into 2020 production.

Depth must emerge as well, and a player to keep an eye on is rising sophomore Isaiah Foskey. I am also curious to see how Justin Ademilola, a player that has proven to be a potent run defender, develops as a pass rusher with more snaps.

Question #3 — Who steps into the third starting linebacker spot?

Notre Dame returns two starting linebackers, and the duo of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White is expected to shine in 2020. They showed flashes of brilliance in their first seasons in the lineup, and with a year under their belt the expectations are sky high for the pair.

The third linebacker position is a major question mark, and whoever steps into that role will need to grow up in a hurry. Notre Dame is not without talented options, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see multiple players find roles in the defense this season, but Notre Dame needs at least one player to force himself into the starting rotation.

Juniors Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer enter a crucial season. Sophomores Marist Liufau and Osita Ekwonu have shown early promise and could make a surge. Notre Dame doesn’t need all of those players to two up, they just need one or two to really turn their potential into production. If more beyond that have strong fall camps the linebacker position could become an incredibly long, athletic and productive group that anchors the defense.

Question #4 — Will the young safeties step into the spotlight and shine?

Notre Dame lost a great deal of experience and leadership when Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott departed for the NFL. The Irish will no problem putting talented players on the field at safety this fall, but replacing the experience and leadership they lost will be a far greater challenge.

Camp will be an important period for the players competing to replace the departed veterans. Sophomore Kyle Hamilton is an incredible talent, both physically and mentally, but there is a lot being placed on his talented, but young shoulders. Last season he showed the ability to make a mistake, learn from it and not repeat it. Now he must do that not only from an assignment standpoint, but also from a leadership and playmaking standpoint as a starter.

This is a big camp for junior Houston Griffith. He is finally settled in at safety after moving back and forth from the back end to corner his first two seasons. Griffith has shown impressive instincts at safety in the past, and he has the physical tools to cover, play the alleys and tackle. But can he limit mistakes, show a firm grasp of the defense and start making plays? If he can finally tap into his potential the safety position could be outstanding.

Grad transfer Isaiah Pryor is more of an alley player, and Griffith emerging could be the key to Pryor being a standout for Notre Dame. If Griffith plays to his potential it allows the Irish coaches to use Pryor as more of a niche player, and if he can be in that role he’ll shine. If Griffith fails to step up and Pryor is thrust into more of an every-down role it would limit his effectiveness.

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Comments (3)
No. 1-3

I always get giddy when I hear about Marist Liufau developing. Love the kid and his reckless talent. The day that his brain matches his physical talent, watch out.
I like Bauer being the 3rd LB, with Lamb and Simon getting their reps as well. Lea has always done a good job of putting the right kids on the field at the right time.
My biggest concern is still CB this year. I'm optimistic that our CBs will be solid. I do like the leadership that Crawford and McCloud brings for that unit. If Mickens can leave his mark this preseason, I think we see a different mentality at the CB position.
Safety position is an exciting position. Exciting guys with great heads on their shoulders. As you said, we never saw the same mistake happen twice with Hamilton. I think we may be able to say the same about Griffith if they can lock in to each other.
Defensive line play could potentially be the best we have seen in a couple of years IF we see the talent that we've seen glimpses of in the past. Especially from Foskey and Hayes. I think that Ogundeji will pick up where he left off.

All in all, I'm very optimistic about our defense this year. We went from what looked like a lack of experience to a well oiled, experienced group of guys


I trust Lea as a DC in terms of putting guys in position to really succeed, minimize their weaknesses, develop a game plan, and make adjustments. All that said, Mickens will have to earn every dime of his salary to give Lea the CBs he'll need for the defense to be as good as it's been for the last three seasons. He has the resume, for sure.


Good defensive coaching---good depth---stiff competition to play---variety of rotations to balance out the snaps---and S&C by Balis to sharpen the players stamina and power. We saw ND's defense wear down ISU in the Bowl game---playing hard every snap.

I think the secondary will get better as the games roll along---need to play and trust each other with the new combinations back there and Mickens sounds like a great teacher and motivator.