Blue and Gold Illustrated

BGI April 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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30 APRIL 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI F ollowing head coach Brian Kelly's second season at Notre Dame (2011), the Fighting Irish defense was in a significant re- build mode when it lost mainstays at every position. The secondary graduated three starters, notably first-round safety Harrison Smith and cornerback Rob- ert Blanton, who would play five years in the NFL. The linebackers lost playmaking Darius Fleming, who would win a Super Bowl ring at New England. The defensive line was absent 37- game starter Ethan Johnson, and then Freshman All-American defen- sive end Aaron Lynch — one of the three most dynamic pass rushers to step on campus the past 20 years — decided to transfer to South Florida. Voila! The 2012 Notre Dame de- fense still produced its best season statistically in 32 years, including al- lowing only 10.3 points per game during a 12-0 regular season. In 2019, second-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea, in his third season overall as linebackers coach, is not keen on any rebuilding con- versation, although he too lost main- stays at every level: consensus All- American cornerback Julian Love, the dynamic linebacker tandem of Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney, and the interior front with potential NFL Draft first-round prospect Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner. "This is year three, and we're identifying our standard of perfor- mance," said Lea, under whom de- fensive recruiting has improved in balance the past two seasons while landing five ends, four tackles, seven linebackers, five cornerbacks and five safeties. "We haven't found it yet, but there's no reason to think this unit can't go a little further along the way. "If anything, every year you're in the system it gets a little easier be- cause expectations are understood, performance standards are under- stood. We're in search of that bar right now. Even though we don't have in-game experience at several positions, we have system experi- ence. We have smart people and athletes." Fortunately on that side of the ball, the two strongest positions overall on the team, at least on paper, are end and safety. It's not by accident those two ar- eas feature four of the eight Spring/ Summer Workout Accountability Team (SWAT) captains, with seniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara at end and classmates Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott at safety. The duo of Kareem and Okwara have combined for 33 career tackles for loss, 18 career sacks and dozens of quarterback hurries, while class- mates Daelin Hayes — who has the most career tackles among returning linemen with 72 — Ade Ogundeji and Jamir Jones would start at many schools. Gilman and Elliott transformed one of the top concerns on paper in the 2018 preseason to a top playmak- ing unit with 162 combined stops, 12 passes broken up, six interceptions and four forced fumbles. The Irish also have recruited the safety posi- tion superbly the past two seasons. The primary questions center on bringing along a mostly nascent line- backer/rover corps, fortifying the ranks in the defensive interior and finding a strong complement to se- nior field cornerback Troy Pride Jr. LINEBACKER BY COMMITTEE There was no single unit tandem that contributed more to Notre Dame's 22-4 run the past two years than linebackers Tranquill and Co- ney. The Irish are not lacking in can- didates to replace the pair with the presence of nine scholarship line- backers alone this spring and three more arriving in June ... but who will emerge? "The conversation starter in spring ball is 'be comfortable being uncom- fortable,'" Lea said. "Just like any hu- SyStematic improvement The Fighting Irish defense is not looking to 'rebuild' despite replacing numerous stalwarts Clark Lea noted that fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal is making the transition from rover to Buck linebacker this spring, because it would allow him to better maximize his experience and physical qualities. PHOTO COURTESY FIGHTING IRISH DIGITAL MEDIA

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