Notre Dame Halftime Spring Summary: Defense
In case you haven’t received the memo, defense no longer wins championships in college football.
In previous starts to new decades, defense ruled the ranks. The 1980 national champion, Georgia, defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl while accumulating 127 yards total offense and scoring on touchdown drives of one and 22 yards.
In 1990, Colorado also won its first national title with a 10-9 victory over the Fighting Irish in the Orange Bowl, and in 2000 Oklahoma won a 13-2 yawner over Florida State to capture the crown.
Even as late as 2010, Auburn won it all with a 22-19 victory over an Oregon outfit that had been averaging about 50 points per game.
Overall, though, since the turn of the century — and especially since the inception of the College Football Playoff in 2014 — the game has transformed into shootouts where if you want to win a title, tallying at least 30 points merely gives you a puncher’s chance.
In the seven CFP national title games, the champion averaged 40.9 points per game, most recently Alabama’s 52-24 conquest of Ohio State. What has enabled Alabama’s Nick Saban to become the greatest coach of his generation — and perhaps all time — is the willingness to adapt and change.
His first national title at LSU in 2003 was a 21-14 win over an Oklahoma team that was averaging 45.2 points per game. His second at Alabama, in 2011, was a 21-0 shutout of LSU after losing 9-6 to the Tigers in overtime during the regular season.
“It used to be that good defense beats good offense,” Saban told ESPN last year. “… It used to be if you had a good defense, other people weren't going to score. You were always going to be in the game. I'm telling you, it ain't that way anymore.”
This from a man who made his coaching bones on defense and originally complained about how the modern spread attacks were too fast and were even creating player-safety issues.
“I don't like it,” he added. “But we just have to make sure we have an offense that's that way and that explosive, which we have.”
More evidence of how much the college game has changed was how Notre Dame’s defense actually had a laudable effort in the 31-14 CFP semifinal loss to the Crimson Tide, holding the Crimson Tide to about 18 points under its average.
During Clark Lea’s three-year reign as the Fighting Irish defensive coordinator from 2018-20, Notre Dame finished among the top 15 in scoring defense three straight years for the first time since 1969-71. Still, today it’s more about damage control than domination.
In both playoff seasons during Lea's time, Notre Dame had a first-round figure, or a projected one, first with lineman Jerry Tillery (2018) and then Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (2020).
This year under first-year Irish coordinator Marcus Freeman that figure could be junior free safety Kyle Hamilton, who is sidelined this spring while recovering from an off-season surgical procedure. With Lea now the head coach at Vanderbilt, Freeman is looking to find six new starters at the two end spots, Buck and rover on the second level, and boundary corner plus strong safety.
The strength should once again be the line, despite the graduation of fifth-year seniors/captains Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji. Filling one of the end voids in the multiple alignment is two-year starting tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, who returns with nose tackle Kurt Hinish.
Under assistant Mike Elston, the unit is not so much about a premier NFL prospect but exceptional collective depth that once again results in fresh legs. Last year, 11 different defensive linemen played at least 141 snaps, and that could be the case again in 2021.
Junior vyper end Isaiah Foskey might possess the most star potential but head coach Brian Kelly cautions he remains a “work in progress” in terms of holding the edge consistently and now having to play more than 20 snaps per game.
“We're getting a lot of really good play on the defensive line,” Kelly said. “There's a lot of depth there, as you guys know, across the board, inside out. Howard Cross III is very difficult to defend. Great leverage, great first step quickness, very difficult to block. Kurt Hinish is a guy that sometimes you think, 'Oh, it's another spring year for Kurt and he can take it off,' but he's had a nice spring … both Ademilolas — really pleased with both of them getting better.
“I don't think there's a guy on the defensive line that would say, 'Man, we're disappointed and they're not ascending, they're not getting stronger, they're not putting in the time.' [Vyper] Jordan Botelho is showing up all over the place.”
The same quality depth aspects holds true at linebacker, although the absence of Owusu-Koramoah negates an extraordinary individual talent in the lineup. But the tag-team duos at Mike with veterans Drew White (who has not yet been seen in videos provided by Notre Dame) and Bo Bauer, at Buck with Shayne Simon and Marist Liufau, and rover with Isaiah Pryor and Jack Kiser provide much flexibility.
“I think Marcus is very pleased with that front seven in terms of what they're able to provide for us on downs and it allows him to be really multiple in what we're seeing from four down to three down,” Kelly summarized.
The back end is the area that remains more unresolved despite the presence of Hamilton and starting experience at corner with both sophomore Clarence Lewis and senior TaRiq Bracy. Strong safety Houston Griffith has had an unfulfilling collegiate career from a football perspective, but was talked out of the transfer portal by the staff.
The dark horse at the boundary corner spot, occupied in 2020 and now vacated by graduate transfer Nick McCloud, is junior Cam Hart, who arrived as a wide receiver prospect and then had his progress at corner stifled because of shoulder surgery as a freshman and the cancellation of spring drills in 2020 because of the coronavirus.
Similar to 2016-19 cornerback Donte Vaughn, Hart possesses what Kelly describes as “elite length” with his 6-2½, 207-pound frame, but now has to translate that to functional corner coverage.
“He's got a really strong skill set, and to play the corner with that kind of size and athletic ability, he can be a really, really good football player,” Kelly said. “He's still learning. There are still parts of his game that he's got to clean up… he's making really good progress at that position.
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