Spring Preview: Notre Dame Defense

With spring practice days away, Irish Breakdown takes a look at what will be a successful spring for the Notre Dame defense.
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Notre Dame kicks off the 2020 spring on Thursday with the first practice of fifteen practices, which includes the April 18 Blue-Gold Game.

Notre Dame will be a preseason Top 10 program in 2020, and the spring will be an opportunity for the Fighting Irish to take another step towards building a team capable of getting back to the College Football Playoff.

A successful spring will accomplish that and send the Irish into the summer with positive momentum heading into the fall. Putting together another outstanding defensive performance in the fall is key, and a strong spring will be a great first step towards making that happen.

Let’s take a look at what would make for a successful spring on defense.

1. Leaders Emerge On Each Level — Part of Notre Dame’s success on defense the last two years has been outstanding leadership. Notre Dame will have to replace four defensive captains from its 2019 defense, and the on and off field leadership that Khalid Kareem, Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott provided allowed the Irish to overachieve on defense last season.

The winter began the process of new leadership being established. This isn’t about captains, this is about leadership. Notre Dame needs new leaders to emerge on all three levels of the defense. Up front it will be easy, as Daelin Hayes will easily step into a leadership role along the line, even if he is limited this spring by the shoulder injury that cost him his senior season.

Establishing leadership on the other levels will take a bit more work and is in more question. Sixth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford has the work ethic and attitude to be one of those players, but he’ll need to grow into that role and also be vocal to truly be the kind of leader the young secondary needs.

At linebacker we will see if veterans like Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah can show leadership and continued improving their games. If Notre Dame can end the spring with a genuine leader emerging on all three levels of the defense that unit will be poised for another strong season.

2. Corners Make Strong Progress — The cornerback position will be the most watched this spring, at least it will when I’m at practice. There is talent at the position, but at this point there are more questions than answers. Can Crawford stay healthy and up his reps this season? Can TaRiq Bracy take his game to the next level and become a top cover corner? We’ve seen the flashes, but can he do it week after week? What will we see from the rising sophomores (Cam Hart, Isaiah Rutherford, KJ Wallace) and the freshman (Ramon Henderson)?

Crawford staying healthy and Bracy taking his game to the next level are legit question marks, and we need to see them both accomplish those feats. But even if both play as hoped for and raise their game it’s still not enough. Notre Dame needs at least one more cornerback - and ideally two more - to step up this spring.

If the veterans progress and at least two corners emerge and force their way into the rotation it will be a successful spring. Keep an eye on Rutherford, a player I’ve heard a lot of good things about during the offseason.

3. The Young Edge Players Shine — I won’t be surprised if Hayes is limited this spring, and honestly it’s probably good to limit him, or even leave him out. It could be good for his overall health and it would allow the younger ends to get even more snaps, and snaps against the top offensive line and the first team offense.

There are two young drops that I’m really looking forward to seeing this spring. Junior Ovie Oghoufo impressed last spring and showed moments during the fall, his first as a drop end after moving from linebacker. A good spring for Notre Dame means Oghoufo gets stronger, continues developing the necessary technique at the position and becomes a playmaker on the edge.

The other young end I want to see this spring is Isaiah Foskey, a rising sophomore who might be the most talented lineman on the roster. Foskey has elite length and he’s extremely athletic for his size. He has all the tools to eventually grow into a star, and he’s sort of a hybrid of Kareem and Julian Okwara. If he ever taps into his full potential he could be a star, but will that happen this spring or in 2020?

If that happens, and if Oghoufo takes his game to another level, it will put Notre Dame in position to have an elite drop rotation in 2020.

On the strongside I expect fifth-year senior Ade Ogundeji to become a standout for the Irish defense. Depth behind him needs to be established. The name I keep hearing as a possible breakout player is rising junior Justin Ademilola. Whether its staff members or teammates, everyone I talk to says Ademilola is poised to become a difference maker for the defense in 2020.

If those three young ends rise to the level I hear they can, and their talent dictates, do not be at all surprised if in the fall we see an edge rotation that is even better than it was in 2020.

4. Interior D-Line Depth Chart Is Solidified — There is a lot of depth and talent at defensive tackle, and every interior player that played a snap last season returns, although one could end up at another position and there are some injury concerns at the position.

A good spring for the interior players is getting the group healthy and players like Jayson Ademilola, Ja’Mion Franklin and Jacob Lacey really solidifying themselves in the rotation. For Ademilola that means finally becoming a consistent difference maker, and one that can play more snaps without getting injured. For Franklin is means doing more than just eating up space, and for Lacey it’s about showing himself capable of making plays at both inside spots.

If those three players can stay healthy, stay focused and mature their games the Irish interior defense next fall could be outstanding.

5. 2018 Class Steps Up — I didn’t discuss the Buck position working out as a key this spring, because position battles can go into the fall. In fact, part of me wants the battle to go into the fall, because it could mean a lot of players step up and perform well this spring.

But the 2018 class is vital to success at linebacker, and it will play a major role in the entire defense once again being a championship caliber group. It must step up this spring and finally show itself to be what we thought, and hoped, it would be at Notre Dame.

You’ve got Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer at linebacker. I’ve talked about the Ademilolas and Oghoufo at defensive end, and Franklin is going into year three inside, and he’s now another year away from his lower body injury.

Nowhere is it more important than in the secondary. Safety Houston Griffith and Bracy at cornerback could be the difference between Notre Dame being an elite front seven with one great safety, or Notre Dame being an elite defense on all three levels. Griffith has the tools to become a standout, and he needs to step up this spring and be assertive, make plays and play like a veteran.

If the 2018 class finally emerges it will have a major role in the 2020 defense being even better than the 2019 defense.

6. Good Health — Like the offense, getting injured players healthy will help make for a successful spring. Limiting further injuries would also play a major role.