Notre Dame’s Defense was vastly improved last year under the direction of Mike Elko. Unfortunately, Elko moved to Texas A&M this offseason. His replacement Clark Lea won’t be the only new face the Irish will rely on this season.
As is always the case in college football, teams face transitional periods where they have to rely on new faces to take the next step. After being woeful on defense in seasons prior, the Irish took a step in the right direction last season. But gone are the likes of Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, and Jay Hayes. Which under-the-radar players will the Irish rely upon to take the next step in 2018?
ROVER Asmar Bilal
After coming to Notre Dame prior to the 2015 season, Bilal has seen time on special teams and as a backup. This year, he is tabbed as the likely starter at Notre Dame’s ROVER position.
Bilal was known as an athletic linebacker. When he first came to Notre Dame, he was too small to be a linebacker and not quite athletic enough to play safety. Three seasons later, Bilal fits the ideal prototype of the ROVER position under defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
Occupied by Drue Tranquill last season, Notre Dame’s ROVER position is a hybrid of the linebacker and safety position. Tranquill has moved inside to the traditional linebacker position, leaving the ROVER for Bilal. At the Rover position, Tranquill tallied 85 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and an interception.
The position is an integral one in Notre Dame’s offense. If Bilal fills the position as well as Tranquil did, Notre Dame’s defense can continue to move in the right direction. If not, it could cause a significant tailspin.
Strong Side Defensive End, Khalid Kareem
Kareem saw a little bit of action in 2017, averaging just over 20 snaps per game last season, but will move into a starting role in 2018. Last year’s starter, Jay Hayes, elected to exercise his option to graduate transfer and will play at the University of Georgia next season. Part of the reason behind his transfer figures to be the emergence of Kareem.
The Notre Dame defense is placing a higher emphasis on pressuring the passer this season. It is something that they have not had great success in doing so the past two seasons. Kareem adds athleticism and pass rushing abilities to Notre Dame’s defensive line.
Notre Dame’s offensive line depth is fairly solid, if not completely tested. The strong side defensive end position is Kareem’s to lose. If he is able to build on flashes of brilliance in 2018, Notre Dame’s defense can be as good or better than they performed last seaon.
Safety Alohi Gillman
Undoubtedly, the safety position was the weak point of Notre Dame’s defense last year. With the rise of Navy transfer Alohi Gillman, that group should take a significant step in the right direction this season.
Gilman comes to the Irish after starting his career at the Naval Academy. After a year on the practice squad, Gillman is ready to compete for playing time this season.
What Gillman brings to the Irish secondary is leadership by example and reliability. Gillman has been regarded as a player who understands where to be and when to be there. He has also been known to be a devastating hitter. If nothing else, Gillman will be a dependable bridge while incoming freshmen Derrik Allen and Houston Griffith await their turn in the Irish defensive backfield.
Notre Dame brings back plenty of talent next season. If the Irish can remain stout against the run and improve on their pass defense, they will be even better than last season, despite losing defensive coordinator Mike Elko.