Midweek Musings: Notre Dame Defense Is Very Close

Thoughts on Notre Dame football, Irish recruiting and college football
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Thoughts on Notre Dame football, Irish recruiting and college football.

NOTRE DAME DEFENSE IS VERY CLOSE

The start to the 2021 season is certainly not what defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman wanted. Notre Dame is giving up 30.0 defensive points per game and ranks 62nd in passing yards allowed per game, 88th in yards allowed per game, 90th in yards per play and 108th in rushing yards allowed per game.

Many of the same people who were talking about Freeman being Notre Dame's next head coach are now his most vocal critics. There are certainly things Freeman and the defense must improve, from tackling, execution from an assignment standpoint and the defense is giving up way too many big plays. The Irish have already allowed four plays over 60 yards in just two games.

But when I break down the film I see a unit that is very, very close to becoming the unit I expected it to be. Notre Dame must quickly make changes, including properly using Isaiah Foskey, being a bit more sound with its coverage schemes and making sure everyone is on the same page snap-after-snap. But those are all correctable issues, and we already saw Notre Dame make a good jump from week one to week two.

Here's why I'm quite confident in the defense getting right, and getting right in a hurry.

1) This defense is incredibly disruptive - Notre Dame has racked up 19 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in just two games. Here are Notre Dame's sack numbers through two games during Kelly's tenure:

2021: 10 sacks
2020: 5 sacks 
2019: 4 sacks
2018: 4 sacks
2017: 5 sacks
2016: 0 sacks
2015: 5 sacks
2014: 5 sacks
2013: 2 sacks
2012: 7 sacks
2011: 3 sacks
2010: 4 sacks

Notre Dame is currently on pace for 123.5 tackles for loss and 65 sacks. Those are monster numbers. If Notre Dame finishes with that number of TFLs it would have ranked in the Top 3 nationally in each year under Kelly and would have led the nation five times. The 65 sacks would have led the nation every single year of the last decade by at least 8 sacks.

For context, Notre Dame's highest totals in those two areas under Kelly are 92 TFLs (2019) and 34 sacks (2018, 2019).

2) The defensive line is playing at a high level - A driving force behind the disruptive play has been the defensive line. Edge player Isaiah Foskey and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola have been outstanding through the first two games. Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is coming off a two-sack game, Kurt Hinish has been steady and Justin Ademilola has provided some really good moments. Notre Dame is also slated to get Jordan Botelho back very soon, if not this weekend.

There have been some assignment mistakes and the line wore down a bit in the fourth quarter against Florida State, but the unit has been really, really good so far.

3) JD Bertrand has been a pleasant surprise - Losing Marist Liufau was certainly a blow, but JD Bertrand has taken advantage of the opportunity that injury presented him. Bertrand already has 23 tackles through two games, including 16 solo stops. His 23 tackles is already more than Liufau (22 tackles) had in 10 games last season and far beyond what Shayne Simon (14 tackles) had in 11 games last season.

Bertrand already has 3.5 tackles for loss, which is already more than what Liufau (1.5) and Simon (1.0) had combined during the entire 2020 season.

Bertrand has been very, very good so far.

4) The corners have been good - The cornerbacks have some things they need to clean up, no question about it. Both Cam Hart and Clarence Lewis had clingy pass inference penalties on Saturday against Toledo, and neither were necessary. They were both in good position and in place to finish off the plays but they didn't trust their technique and got grabby.

They need to close better in zone coverage but both have been very good defending against the deep ball and Hart has been quite good against the run and screen game. They aren't lighting the world on fire but they have been solid thus far.

There are still a few areas that need to get fixed in a hurry, and if they don't you can expect elite play-caller Jeff Brohm (Purdue) to take full advantage.

1) Adjust the three-down looks - Using Foskey as an off-ball linebacker isn't necessarily a bad thing, but asking him to read, react and flow over top is not the right way to use him. When he's playing off-ball he needs to be used to attack hard downhill, and when he does that he's very disruptive and has blown up multiple guards.

I think the linebacker play has been a question mark on third down as well and trying to figure out the right third-down personnel is part of Freeman learning more about his players.

Getting more pass rushers in the game up front is also a must, but until Botelho comes back that will be harder to do. I'm very much looking forward to seeing Foskey, Botelho and Jayson Ademilola together on third downs once the Hawaii native comes back.

2) Simplify coverage schemes for now - Notre Dame has run some pretty exotic coverages so far, especially with the safeties and linebackers. That is leading to a lot more pre-snap communication than this unit should have to handle this early in the season, and could be leading to some of the pass game mistakes.

3) Be better in the fourth quarter - Notre Dame had a 38-20 lead on Florida State heading into the fourth quarter in the opener and had allowed just nine offensive points to Toledo heading into the fourth quarter this past weekend. Notre Dame was on the verge of running both teams off the field but the defense was not able to make the plays needed to put the opponent away.

In both games it seemed that Freeman went away from the aggressive schemes and calls that got him into those situations, and that was especially true in the opener. Freeman and the defensive staff need to figure out a way to get that unit to really up their game in the fourth quarter and develop a killer instinct. Do that and this defense will become very, very good.

OFFENSIVE LINE RECRUITING IS BECOMING A PROBLEM

Notre Dame had a quality start to the 2022 offensive line class when it landed four-star blockers Joey Tanona and Ty Chan. It was similar, but not quite as good as the start to the 2021 class that had Top 100 recruits Blake Fisher and Rocco Spindler in the class before the season started.

Unfortunately, Notre Dame's finish in 2021 was not what you'd expect from a program known as O-Line U. The 2020 finish was even worse, as the Irish landed just two recruits in the class and missed out on most of its remaining top targets.

That is what is happening in the 2022 class as well. Notre Dame continues to miss out on its top targets, with players like Jake Taylor (Oklahoma), Joe Brunner (Wisconsin), Drew Shelton (Penn State) and Jacob Sexton (Oklahoma) choosing other schools. Notre Dame also is likely to lose out on Billy Schrauth to Wisconsin. Schrauth of course, was once all but committed to Notre Dame.

Notre Dame is also not trending in the right direction for five-star Zach Rice, and for some strange reason they stopped recruiting talented interior blocker Carson Hinzman despite being either at or near the top of his list.

The Irish staff is now looking to expand its offer list in hopes of filling out the class.

Notre Dame's inability to finish off its recent classes, and having the same issue in the 2022 class, is something that Brian Kelly absolutely must immediately address.

BIG WEEKEND FOR THE BIG TEN

Week two of the college football season was a good one for the Big Ten, with two exceptions. Ohio State's home loss to Oregon was a black eye for the league that otherwise had a good weekend. Iowa beat Iowa State on the road, Michigan pounded Washington and the rest of the league dominated its MAC/FCS matchups. Illinois got crushed by Virginia, but Rutgers beat Syracuse.

Week three has a chance to be huge for the Big Ten.

Indiana hosts #8 Cincinnati on Saturday at noon in a game that could either give the Bearcats a much-needed Power 5 victory or it could be a chance for the Hoosiers to get their season back on track.

Minnesota travels to Colorado with a chance to give the league another win over the Pac 12. 

There are two more Big Ten teams that travel to ACC squads, with Michigan State headed to #24 Miami and Northwestern heading to Duke. 

#10 Penn State hosts #22 Auburn, and any chance to beat a ranked SEC team is a big one for any league.

Purdue also travels to #12 Notre Dame, and a road win over a ranked Irish squad would be huge for the league. Another interesting matchup is Nebraska at Oklahoma, which is likely going to get very, very ugly for the Cornhuskers. 

TWEET OF THE WEEK

It looks like former Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool has picked up where he left off in 2021.

VIDEO OF THE WEEK

The Notre Dame offense must improve this weekend in its matchup against Purdue. We broke down how the offense stacks up against the Purdue defense.

Be sure to check out the Irish Breakdown message board, the Champions Lounge

Irish Breakdown Content

Notre Dame 2021 Roster
Notre Dame 2021 Schedule

Notre Dame 2022 Commits Big Board: Offense
Notre Dame 2022 Commits Big Board: Defense

Notre Dame 2022 Scholarship Offers

Notre Dame 2022 Class Big Board
Notre Dame 2023 Class Big Board

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