Now that Spring Practice is completed and the Blue & Gold Game is in the books, let’s review and update the January assessment of the roster. We’ll start on defense, while the offense and kicking game will be the subject of a separate column in a few days. New Coordinator Al Golden has already put his stamp on this unit, and the results appear to be very positive. We’ll cover each layer of the defense with an updated evaluation of its strengths, weaknesses and overall depth.
This may be the strongest position on the team in terms of talent, experience and depth. Isaiah Foskey returns for his senior season at the rush end. A candidate for All-American honors and a potential first round NFL draft pick in 2023, Foskey will be counted upon to pressure opposing quarterbacks. He will start as the weak side end but can be moved to give him the shortest path to the quarterback.
The news gets even better in that the roster is loaded with capable backups who provide depth without a drop-off in ability. Rylie Mills had a terrific spring campaign and will share snaps with senior Justin Ademilola. This interchangeable pair of strong side ends can be viewed as co-starters. Alexander Ehrensberger and Osita Ekwanu showed they are not far behind, while incoming freshman Tyson Ford enrolled early and showed he will be ready to contribute sooner rather than later.
Senior NaNa Osafo-Mensah will back up Foskey. He has improved steadily over the past year and has demonstrated the instincts and physicality needed to be successful. He is a bit more stiff than Foskey in terms of pass rushing skills but is capable of pressuring the quarterback. Beyond these two veterans, young players such as Aiden Gobaira and Josh Burnham are likely a year away from the regular rotation. Junior Jordan Botelho, who was given a look at this position last season, appears to have found a home at linebacker. We’ll talk about him a bit later.
The number of quality players is the biggest strength in this area. The lone weakness is that the entire defense loses a bit of an edge when Foskey comes off the field.
First, let’s look at the developments regarding the roster. The good news is the Irish brought in Chris Smith, a 290-pound graduate transfer from Harvard to bolster the interior. The bad news is that nose tackle Aidan Keenaaina tore his ACL in the first practice session of the spring and is lost for the 2022 season.
Smith will help cover that spot and provide much needed size at the nose. He and Jacob Lacey will be the primary tandem in that role. The undersized Howard Cross battled there in relief of Kurt Hinish last season but has moved over to the three technique this spring. The move suits his game and will allow Cross to use his quickness and high motor more effectively. He will share time with starter Jayson Ademilola, who sat out this spring while recovering from shoulder surgery. Jayson will resume workouts this summer and be ready for his fifth season at Notre Dame.
Although the two deep rotation on the interior of the line is set, there are other players knocking on the door. Rising junior Gabriel Rubio is a player that has made strides this spring. He and his classmate Keenaaina will be in the rotation next season, but only Rubio will get any opportunities in live action in 2022. Current freshman Jason Onye also flashed some ability this spring and his progress will be worth watching.
The talent and experience of the top four players solidifies the defense. Injuries can happen though and other than the relatively untested Rubio there isn’t much depth beyond the two-deep. Mills has worked inside before and can play there if needed.
Recruiting gaps have raised concerns regarding the pipeline. Kurt’s brother Donovan Hinish is the only incoming freshman interior linemen, and he is a couple years of development away from contributing. This area has thus become a critical need for the 2023 class. One other potential remedy is that freshman end Tyson Ford may ultimately move inside.
I stated in January that the two inside linebacker positions need more speed, power and athleticism than last season’s starters were able to bring to the table. That’s not a knock on Drew White and JD Bertrand, but rather an assessment of what is necessary to become a championship caliber team. The return of strong side backer Marist Liufau from a broken leg is a large first step in this process. Liufau possesses all of the required qualities and appears poised for a monster season.
Bo Bauer appears to be in the lead for the starting middle linebacker position next to Liufau. I don’t believe the competition is over, though. Sophomore-to-be Prince Kollie had a strong spring and is my personal favorite to move over and play alongside Liufau. He is just beginning to realize his full potential and a strong fall camp may render it impossible for the coaching staff to keep him off the field. If that isn’t enough competition, true freshman Niuafe Tuihalamaka has been so impressive since arriving on campus in January that he may also threaten to crack the rotation. A nice problem to have, indeed.
The Rover position is also in a good place. Starter Jack Kiser brings athleticism and experience to the lineup. Kiser is a solid performer with big play potential. The move of Jordan Botelho to this spot creates a dynamic two-deep where Botelho brings immense power and disruptive ability to the field. If the coaches can keep him from freelancing too much, Botelho is the closest thing to a guided missile on the roster.
If this impressive two-deep is not enough, the embarrassment of riches is further confirmed by the presence of four outstanding incoming freshman. All have enrolled early and are flashing their considerable talents. Nolan Ziegler has been singled out by the staff this spring, but Burnham and Tuihalamaka have made a strong impression. The highest ceiling may belong to Jaylen Sneed, who needs to add weight and strength before he can reach his vast potential.
The potential of the group is personified by Liufau, but the number of exciting young players is more apparent here than in any other area on the roster. When productive veterans like Bertrand and Bauer could be passed by talented underclassmen, the future indeed looks bright.
We said in January that this position represents the greatest concern for the defense, and it remains true today. Cam Hart did not participate in spring practice as he continues to recover from shoulder surgery. Fall camp will be important for him as he takes over at field corner and works on his coverage skills and tackling. Clarence Lewis returns at the boundary corner, but a starting job is not guaranteed. Lewis looked better this spring but practice sessions and scrimmages are a far cry from trying to cover a five star receiver at Ohio State.
Sophomores Ryan Barnes, Philip Riley and Chance Tucker will compete for a spot along with freshman Jaden Mickey, who has already established himself as a playmaker. Another promising freshman, Jayden Bellamy has also flashed talent this spring. The question is, can any of these players demonstrate the consistency necessary to be successful in live fire situations. It’s good that each candidate is feeling the heat of competition, but the ultimate starter at the boundary position must perform better than the 2021 version of Lewis.
A piece of good news came during the winter when slot cornerback Tariq Bracy opted to return for a fifth season. Although he is not necessarily a difference-maker, Bracy will stabilize that position and give Coach Mike Mickens one less problem to address this offseason. He will need to develop a steady backup, however, as Bracy’s diminutive size and injury history must be factored into the calculus.
Hart might be considered the strength of the unit had he been able to sharpen his game this spring. As of now, he is not yet the shutdown corner he is projected to become by some cheerleaders in the media. What the team needs most is for one or two of the young players on the roster to separate themselves from the pack and claim their place on the field. Despite a few encouraging signs from several of them, the depth chart remains cloudy today and the clock is ticking toward September 3.
Kyle Hamilton is gone now but the team was able to get used to life after Kyle during the second half of last season. Veterans DJ Brown and Houston Griffith became the primary starters and their performances were only marginally okay. Other players such as Ramon Henderson and Xavier Watts joined the mix and saw action but they had little experience in playing the position. This spring was important for their development. Other candidates for a spot in the two-deep include Justin Walters, who recorded a nice interception on Saturday.
The good news is the highly regarded Brandon Joseph transferred in from Northwestern and immediately established himself as a starter at free safety. His performance this spring demonstrated why he is such an important addition. While not quite a plug-in replacement for Hamilton, Joseph makes it easier on position coach Chris O’Leary, who now only needs to find one starter among the remaining personnel.
This will be a strong unit in the fall if another reliable starter emerges and the dropoff to the backups is not too steep. Joseph can be an impact player if he does not have to worry about covering up the poor tackling and coverage deficiencies of the players around him. Hamilton was asked to do just that but no single player can plug every hole.
Each position has sufficient numbers to field a strong and deep defense this season. Young players at linebacker and in the secondary must get better between now and September to answer all of the question marks. Most important is that the 2021 starters along the back seven are not guaranteed those same roles. In fact, it would be better if younger players with more raw ability were ready to take over. If the Irish are to delve into the transfer portal now, a quality cornerback should be on their shopping list.
Al Golden’s flexibility in deploying schemes and personnel will be constrained if he cannot rely on his corners to succeed in man coverage. Ohio State and others will test the Irish and exploit every weakness.
Meanwhile, I’m confident that continued competition into the fall will yield workable solutions at the other positions. There are certified difference-makers at each level to build around. The defensive line has Foskey, the linebackers have Liufau and Joseph leads the safeties. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s recruiting shortfalls at corner over the past few years may come home to roost and keep this defense a notch below the top tier of college football.
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