Blue and Gold Illustrated

May 2018

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

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40 MAY 2018 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY BRYAN DRISKELL F or the third consecutive year, Notre Dame will enter the sea- son with a different defensive coordinator, but unlike the last two changes there will be a much- needed degree of continuity. First-year coordinator Clark Lea will put his own stamp on the de- fense, but will remain the same from a philosophical and terminol- ogy standpoint. That means Notre Dame's safeties will now have a chance to master the complexities of the defense instead of once again getting forced to start from scratch. Lea described his defense as being safety driven, and Notre Dame's late- season swoon on defense flushed that out. Notre Dame yielded 27.2 points and 401.2 yards per game, plus 5.4 yards per play, in the final five con- tests as the front seven began to wear down and the safeties were exposed. "They're involved more directly with fitting the run, involved in cov- erage at times when they are iso- lated," the Irish defensive coordina- tor explained. "It requires a hybrid, unique kind of athleticism to execute at a high level. You have to defend all 11, you don't just rotate and let guys play zone coverage. "The safeties a lot of times are the guys accounting for the RPOs [run- pass options] or accounting for quar- terback runs in given calls, and that makes it a safety-driven defense." Notre Dame's starting safeties in 2017 were a true sophomore (Jalen Elliott) who played quarterback in high school and a junior (Nick Cole- man) that converted from cornerback last spring. The top backup was an- other true sophomore, and a pair of freshmen were next in line. That youth and inexperience be- came exposed while the Irish safeties broke up just five passes as a group and failed to intercept a ball all sea- son. Production on that level isn't good enough for Notre Dame if it wants to play championship-caliber defense. Experience is crucial at the safety position, and the struggles of last sea- son should reap dividends in 2018. "That position is challenging in this defense," Lea explained. "Those guys have a lot on their plate, so it takes some time, they need some time to be able to execute those re- sponsibilities at a high level. I think we're getting to that point … I don't think we're there yet. "I do think we're not doing as much to adjust for the need for time to let them come along. I think we're allowing to come back to what is the base of the package." Notre Dame is clearly happy with the talent it returns at the position. Moving sophomore Isaiah Robertson — a top signee in the 2017 class — to rover prior to the start of spring and classmate Jordan Genmark Heath to Buck linebacker late in the spring doesn't happen without confidence in who remains. Another year of experience in the defense was highly beneficial for El- liott, who played much faster this spring and showed more comfort with his assignments. That showed itself in the Blue-Gold Game, with Elliott breaking up two passes and picking off another. Improvement from Elliott is a posi- tive sign, but the emergence of junior Alohi Gilman had arguably the big- gest impact. Gilman was the second- leading tackler for Navy in 2016 be- fore transferring to Notre Dame, but he was forced to sit out last season because of NCAA transfer rules. Gilman quickly rose to the top of the depth chart at the boundary safety position, where he spent much of the spring playing alongside Elliott. "He's a special kid. He's a guy that in one year has made an impact from a leadership standpoint," Lea noted of the Hawai'i native. "The guys fol- low him, they listen to him, they trust him. … He's consistent, he's depend- able, all the things you want. "He's got 'it' as a leader. We want to harness that and let that shine." Additional leadership is always welcome on the back end, but lead- ership without playmaking ability doesn't move the needle. Gilman showed the ability to impact the football this spring, and that adds as much to the safety position as his leadership. "Every time he's near the football there's high contact with him," head coach Brian Kelly said of Gilman. "That's what we were looking for at that position — high contact. Plays the ball well in the air and is a very smart football player. "He's what we thought he would Junior Alohi Gilman, who sat out last year after transferring from Navy, provided the safety posi- tion with leadership and production this spring. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL SPRING OVERVIEW: DEFENSE Improving safety play and establishing depth at linebacker will be important

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