Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2020

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

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34 PRESEASON 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY LOU SOMOGYI D uring a 23‑3 run the past two seasons, t h e N o t r e Dame defense has been one of only seven in the 130‑ team Football Bowl Subdivision to finish among the top 15 in fewest points al‑ lowed per game each of those years (18.2 in 2018 and 17.9 in 2019). The Irish joined Alabama, Clem‑ son, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky and Washington in that category. The past two seasons also marked the first time since 2001‑02 the unit did not permit at least 20 points per game in consecutive campaigns. Such consistency has made third‑ year defensive coordinator Clark Lea one of the top ascending figurers in the profession. Faced with somewhat of a rebuild in 2019 with the loss of significant star power at all three levels — first‑ round NFL Draft pick tackle Jerry Til‑ lery, the highly productive linebacker tandem of Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney, and consensus All‑America corner Julian Love — Notre Dame still finished No. 5 nationally in the Fremeau Efficiency Index, high‑ lighted by a No. 4 placement in turn‑ overs forced (28). This year, six of the 11 starters must be replaced, notably four captains from the defensive end and safety spots. These five points in particular will go a long way toward determining if the 2020 unit will be Lea's "best of three" at Notre Dame. 1. AN ISSUE TO TACKLE With no tackling drills in the lone non‑contact spring practice March 5 before the sessions were canceled be‑ cause of COVID‑19, the Notre Dame defenders hadn't been involved in tackling since preparing for the Dec. 28 Camping World Bowl the Irish won 33‑9 versus Iowa State. Consequently, the rust was ram‑ pant in the team's first 2020 full scrimmage on Aug. 16. "The one thing you can't work on is the thing that we need to work on — and that's tackling," head coach Brian Kelly noted the following day. "There wasn't anybody that went into that first tackling scrimmage thinking we were going to be flaw‑ less in that. "You can't duplicate tackling if you don't have that skill down and work on it. We know that's something that has to be a priority for us." 2. THE END GAME At most programs, the graduation at a position group of a third‑round NFL selection (Julian Okwara), the team's Defensive MVP and fifth‑ round choice (Khalid Kareem) and a highly reliable reserve (Jamir Jones, who had 26 tackles last season, 6.5 for loss with 4.5 sacks) would devas‑ tate the unit. Fortunately under defensive line coach Mike Elston, the talent identi‑ fication, recruiting, development and quality depth have become constants of the operation. Fifth‑year seniors Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji return as bona fide NFL prospects at end after having combined for 134 to‑ tal stops, 24.5 tackles for loss and 12 quar‑ terback sacks in their Notre Dame careers to date. That is not too far off what the Ok‑ wara/Kareem tan‑ dem had last year — 122 tackles, 33 stops for loss and 18 sacks — enter‑ ing their senior campaigns. What has Kelly especially upbeat is the growth of junior Ovie Oghoufo and sophomore Isaiah Foskey. Simi‑ lar to Hayes and Jones back in 2016, Oghoufo arrived in 2018 as an out‑ side linebacker, although with not nearly the fanfare of a five‑star rating that Hayes had. Redshirting as a freshman be‑ fore eventually downshifting to the line, the 2018 Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year's quick‑twitch ex‑ plosiveness off the edge has resulted in comparisons to a young and fledg‑ ling Okwara. Through five August practices, Kelly noted Oghoufo has been "arguably as good as anyone we've had out there." Meanwhile, outside of safety and 2019 Freshman All‑American Kyle Hamilton, nobody in the 22‑man 2019 recruiting haul passed the pro‑ verbial eye test better than the 6‑5, 255‑pound Foskey, whose blocked punt at Stanford last year when the Irish trailed 17‑7 was a game‑changer in the 45‑24 Irish victory. "There's four guys right there that coming off the edge are going to be impactful," Kelly said. "Not a lot of college football teams can talk about four guys that can get to the quarter‑ back that we can feel good about." It's part of why Notre Dame's end game on defense is expected to re‑ main among the strongest nationally if … 3. INSIDE PRODUCTION While the defensive end positions will have a drop‑off depth‑wise in game experience, the interior corps returns their top four rotational fig‑ ures with seniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa‑Amosa, plus ju‑ nior Jayson Ademilola and sopho‑ more Jacob Lacey. What Elston and Lea want to see from that quartet is more disruption to take some of the onus off the ends. Last year, sophomore Kyle Hamilton contributed a team-high four interceptions, plus tied for sec- ond in passes broken up (six) and ranked seventh in tackles (41) despite his part-time role. PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER Best Of Three? Third-year coordinator Clark Lea's defense is laden with experience despite the loss of six starters

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