The Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team experienced an easy, uneventful Saturday this past weekend, as the players enjoyed the end of their bye week and the coaches finished off a week mostly focused on recruiting (WOOHOO Khalid Kareem!). Thus, because there was no game for which to dole out grades, we’re going to grade Brian VanGorder’s defense on the season it has had up to this point, seven games into the season.
Defensive Line: B
Sep 19, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Sheldon Day (91) celebrates a defensive play in the fourth quarter against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
The defensive line has been okay this season, if not a pleasant surprise considering the circumstances. After losing senior DT Jarron Jones before the season even began, things certainly looked grim for this unit. However, senior captain Sheldon Day is finally having the injury-free season (knock on wood) that’s escaped him for his first three years at Notre Dame, enabling him to be the absolute force that we all knew he could be (8 TFL, 2 sacks, 10 QB hurries). Junior Isaac Rochell has been very good as well (35 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 6 QB hurries), exceeding expectations and serving as a key component of the defensive front.
Sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry “Terry Jillery” Tillery have been serviceable and even, at times, impressive as they’ve filled in at defensive tackle for Jones. Senior Romeo Okwara has been up-and-down, seemingly nonexistent in some games while exerting his pass rushing skills in others (leads the team in sacks with 3). Sophomore Andrew Trumbetti, after a promising freshman season that looked to set him up for a breakout year in 2015, has not been nearly as effective as expected.
Thus, as an overall unit, the defensive line has been fairly mediocre, with Day and Rochell doing the majority of the heavy lifting. The defense is 85th in the country in rushing defense, allowing 175.9 yards per game on the ground. This can probably be attributed at least partially to having played two triple option teams so far this season, inflating the rushing numbers. However, the defensive line hasn’t exactly been stifling against the run (some big runs have been given up thanks to huge holes in the line), and their pass rush has certainly left a lot to be desired, frequently leaving the secondary hanging out to dry as opposing quarterbacks sit in the pocket and wait for receivers to get open. Going forward, this group needs to play with more tenacity and find ways to not only be stout at the line of scrimmage, but also to get into the backfield, wreak havoc, and make plays.
Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) celebrates with students after defeating the USC Trojans 41-31 at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Just about every preseason All-American watch list included junior captain Jaylon Smith as one of the best linebackers in the country, and his play so far in 2015 has completely lived up to that hype. Smith has been a game-changer for the Irish defense, leading the team in tackles (56) and fumble recoveries (2) while being tied for the lead in pass break-ups (3). He has been crucial in corralling ball carriers in run support, and has flashed incredible athleticism in covering receivers downfield and in attacking the quarterback in the occasions he is sent on a blitz into the backfield.
The rest of the linebacking corps, on the other hand, has been underwhelming to say the least. Senior captain Joe Schmidt is an incredible leader and the mental side of his game is top-notch, but his physical limitations, especially in speed, have been detrimental at times, especially in pass coverage. He is still third on the team in tackles and has two sacks on the season, but has just not been a very strong middle linebacker overall, and everyone has to wonder if he ever fully recovered from his fractured ankle last season.
Junior James Onwualu is improving, but still looks lost and over-matched at times, while sophomore Greer Martini has played well occasionally filling in for Onwualu and Schmidt, proving especially adept at reading running plays and flying to the ball carrier (effective against Navy and Georgia Tech, especially). Senior Jarrett Grace has played in limited time, as have sophmore Nyles Morgan and freshman Te’von Coney, and although all three have looked pretty good, none have had much of a chance to show what they can really do yet this season.
Entering the year, the Notre Dame secondary was projected to be one of the best in the country. All of the talk throughout the spring and summer was about how junior safety Max Redfield and senior safety Elijah Shumate had improved immensely, senior captain Matthias Farley was an experienced voice who could be plugged in at various positions when needed, and the Irish were also bringing back junior Cole Luke, who had a great year in 2014 as the team’s number-one corner. Additionally, senior KeiVarae Russell was returning after missing 2014 for academic suspension, and many believed he would immediately pick up where he left off at the end of 2013 and compete for All-American honors.
Oct 17, 2015; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell (6) celebrates after initercepting against the Southern California Trojans in the fourth quarter tat Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Instead, this talented group has only shown brief flashes of their potential. Russell has looked rusty at times (however, he is second on the team in tackles with 42, many of those being solo tackles), Luke has been consistently beaten by more than a couple receivers (despite leading the team in interceptions), Farley has been so-so (mostly as expected), and Shumate and Redfield, although mostly excellent in run support (33 and 28 tackles, respectively), seem to surrender at least one or two huge plays every game because they bite on play action or trick plays and allow receivers to sneak behind them.
The group turned in a fantastic performance in the second half against USC, and have certainly had their moments and big plays throughout the year (Luke’s pick against Clemson comes to mind), but overall they have been disappointing and one of the biggest reasons the defense has had so much trouble getting off to quick, successful starts to games. Their stats aren’t embarrassing or too dismal, only allowing 194.4 yards per game through the air, but as with the inflated rushing yards stat mentioned earlier, this one is certainly deflated a bit due to playing two triple option teams that almost never pass the ball. Thus, the secondary certainly has room to improve, especially in terms of surrendering big plays that can put ND in a hole early and completely alter the game.
Inconsistency is the key word here, as the Notre Dame defense has looked dominant at times (Texas, 58 minutes against Georgia Tech, last 24 minutes of USC) and completely hapless at other times (Virginia, first half of UMass, first quarter of Clemson, parts of Navy and USC). No one expected the defense to be the strength of this Fighting Irish squad, and most figured that the offense would put up a lot of points to help compensate. However, the defense has been the main reason for any struggles and shortfalls the Irish have experienced so far this season, as the offense has been impressive and explosive, and also playing with a backup QB and RB.
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Ranked 39th in the country in scoring defense (22.6 points per game) and 50th in total defense (370 yards per game), the Irish have been okay compared to the rest of the country, but certainly not great or playoff-caliber. Having said that, the defense has shown consistency in getting stops when it ultimately counts. Sequences down the stretch against Clemson and USC are prime examples of the Notre Dame defense putting it all together and keeping the Irish in the game until the offense can inevitably start putting up points in crunch time. Hopefully they will be able to channel that focus and bring that level of play more frequently in the last five games of the season, enabling Notre Dame to run the table and possibly sneak into the College Football Playoff. However, if the first seven games are any indication, the defense will continue to fluctuate in its level of performance and always serve as a wild card that can’t be counted on to consistently bring their A-game.