Notre Dame will have a new look on defense in 2021 thanks to the arrival of defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, the loss of five starters and several potential position changes.
With spring practice about a month away Irish Breakdown takes its first crack at the Notre Dame depth chart.
STRONGSIDE END DEPTH CHART
As we've noted multiple times, including in an article yesterday, our sources tell us that former defensive tackle starter Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will get a crack at playing the big end position this spring. If this plan works out he could form a quality one-two punch at the position with Justin Ademilola.
This is a big spring for rising junior NaNa Osafo-Mensah and sophomore Alexander Ehrensberger. Both are way behind the first two ends, and the Irish have landed some talented younger players (Jason Onye, Tyson Ford), and they'll need strong springs to put themselves in the mix for playing time over the next couple of seasons.
DEFENSIVE TACKLE DEPTH CHART
Notre Dame won't move a starter (Tagovailoa-Amosa) without having a great deal of confidence in the rest of the players on the depth chart. If the move happens as we expect it opens up a great opportunity for Jayson Ademilola to become a starter and difference maker up the middle, assuming he can stay healthy and continue improving his game.
The move also opens up an opportunity for Rylie Mills to become much more involved in the defense. A combination of Ademilola, Mills and early enrollee freshman Gabriel Rubio has a chance to become a disruptive, impactful tandem at the three-technique position.
NOSE GUARD DEPTH CHART
Veteran Kurt Hinish took advantage of the additional year of eligibility granted by the NCAA, and he'll be part of a loaded interior. Hinish had seven combined tackles for loss from 2017-19, but that number jumped up to 7.5 in 2020. If he can replicate his strong play from this past season the nose guard position should be quite good.
Rising junior Jacob Lacey is a very talented player that could become a force up the middle, but he has battled a troubled shoulder the last two seasons. If Lacey can get back to full speed and stay healthy he could form an outstanding one-two punch up the middle with Hinish. I'm curious to see if rising sophomore Aidan Keanaaina makes a jump this spring, and Howard Cross III could be a swing player between the nose tackle and three-technique positions.
VYPER END DEPTH CHART
Notre Dame's Vyper/Drop position has been outstanding the last four season, but all the primary players at the position are off to the NFL. There is talent returning, but it's largely unproven. The key to Notre Dame continuing its strong play up front is Isaiah Foskey becoming a dominant player and Jordan Botelho stepping into a disruptive rotation role.
Freshmen Devin Aupiu and Will Schweitzer are both undersized, but getting a jump in the strength program should give at least one a chance to work himself into the third Vyper role.
MIKE LINEBACKER DEPTH CHART
Notre Dame has plenty of experience returning at Mike linebacker, and the depth chart is filled with players that should fit quite nicely into the Freeman defense.
Veteran Drew White is the most experienced returning linebacker, but he might get challenged by Bo Bauer this spring. There were times last season when Bauer out-played White, and with a new coordinator there could be a legit battle. I expect both to play, but how that shakes out should make for a fun spring.
WILL LINEBACKER DEPTH CHART
This is one position where the most fierce competition should take place. Shayne Simon is the returning starter, but he was below average last season. I expect rising junior Marist Liufau to push him hard, and if Simon hangs onto the job it would likely mean he has turned his top-notch athleticism into on-field production, which would be great news for the defense. If Liufau beats him out he gives the defense an athletic, high-energy player with excellent range.
I'm very curious to see what happens with Osita Ekwonu and Jack Kiser, players that could play different positions in the defense. Ekwonu could be a Mike and Kiser could be a Rover (see below). If Kiser stays at Will linebacker he should have a chance to battle for the starting job.
ROVER DEPTH CHART
Jack Kiser is a bit of a wildcard for Notre Dame. If the Irish stay with a true five-man secondary look he'll likely stay inside, but if Notre Dame plays the rover role like it did in previous seasons I could very well see Kiser move outside. With Isaiah Pryor's limitations and Paul Moala coming off a major injury, plus Kiser's athleticism, talent and penchant for making a lot of plays he could be the key to the rover position thriving next season.
FIELD SAFETY DEPTH CHART
With Kyle Hamilton limited I expect there to be a lot of moving parts at the safety position this spring, but this is how I see things shaking out right now if everyone was healthy.
This is a huge spring for young players Litchfield Ajavon and KJ Wallace. With Justin Walters (see below) and Khari Gee showing up they will need to pick up the defense quickly and perform well this spring if they want a shot to work their way onto the field this spring.
Wallace could be a swing player that gets action at safety, cornerback and possibly even in the slot.
BOUNDARY SAFETY DEPTH CHART
I expect Houston Griffith to get every opportunity to win the boundary safety position, but more is needed from him. He not only needs to win the job, he needs to finally tap into his full potential. That means becoming a more consistent player, and while I expect him to get snaps at both safety positions, this is the one he needs to excel at this spring.
This is also a big spring for veteran DJ Brown, who has a chance to solidify a swing safety position as the backup at both safety positions. If Griffith falters or gets injured then Brown could earn a starting role, but if Griffith and the young players perform well Brown could find himself battling to stay in the No. 2 role if he doesn't have a strong spring.
I'm looking forward to seeing/hearing how well freshman Justin Walters picks things up this spring.
FIELD CORNERBACK DEPTH CHART
Clarence Lewis beat veteran TaRiq Bracy out last season and he heads into the spring as the No. 1 player at the field corner spot. I would imagine the Notre Dame coaches are hoping that both Lewis and Bracy perform well this spring. That would give Freeman and position coach Mike Mickens the ability to use both o them at times, to use them to matchup with specific skillsets, and possibly to use Lewis at the boundary position if the players over there struggle.
Rising sophomore Ramon Henderson is another intriguing player I'm looking forward to hearing/seeing this spring. Henderson is a very athletic player that is still learning the position, but Mickens has thrived with players like him in the past. He has the speed, athleticism and length to be a strong cover player, but he has to learn how to turn that into strong play on the outside.
BOUNDARY CORNERBACK DEPTH CHART
This is arguably the shakiest position on the defense, at least prior to the start of the spring. The concerns at the position are about a lack of proven production and inexperience than they are about talent. That's the good news, there's a lot of length and talent at the position.
Junior Cam Hart really needed last spring, and not having that development time hurt him in 2020. Assuming we have a spring in 2021 he should benefit greatly from the high volume of reps he'll get this spring. Hart is very long, his size is excellent and he's athletic, but he didn't look natural in coverage last season. If the instincts and ability to play the ball match his size and athleticism he could be a breakout player for Notre Dame this season.
Caleb Offord needs to mature quickly if he's going to prevent freshmen Ryan Barnes and Philip Riley from passing him up early. Barnes and Riley will both likely start at boundary, and whoever plays the best in the spring will stay there and push Hart and Offord, and the other could end up moving somewhere else he can earn a chance to get on the field.
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