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As Solid As They Come: Breaking Down the Limited Question Marks in the Notre Dame Defense

Updated: Jun 16

Written by Liam Farrell|Senior Staff Writer|Twitter/X: @LiamFarrell_IT

Photo via The Irish Tribune


Ever since Marcus Freeman arrived in South Bend, he has continued to build on a strong defensive culture instituted by Mike Elko and Clark Lea. Yet, when Freeman got promoted to being Notre Dame's 32nd head coach in the program's history, his main mission was to find a defensive mastermind to take the Fighting Irish defense to new heights. His heir at the defensive coordinator position ultimately was Al Golden, who has cemented the Irish as one of the best defenses in the country. In 2023, the Irish ranked ninth in opponents points per game (17.0), seventh in opponent yards per game (288.0), and sixth in opponent yards per play (4.4). In this part offseason, Freeman and newly initiated athletic director Pete Bevacqua, made it their mission to keep coach Golden in South Bend. They did this by inking a four-year, $9 million deal to make him one of the highest-paid coordinators in college football.


With Golden's extension and the promise of a successful 2024 campaign, many key defensive pieces opted against entering the NFL Draft and chose to return to campus. This included Nagurski Trophy winner Xavier Watts, the defensive tackle tandem of Howard Cross III and Rylie Mills, and veteran middle linebacker Jack Kiser. However, there are still some question marks in this projected top five ranked defense. Let's look at some of these issues here.





Secondary Depth


The biggest transfer portal need for Marcus Freeman and Al Golden was finding more viable options in the Notre Dame secondary.


"There's still some depth in the backend of the defense that we can continue to finalize," said Freeman in an interview with Greg McElroy.


In the offseason, Notre Dame made a splash bringing in two experienced players in the secondary through the transfer portal. The first was Arizona State's Jordan Clark, who was the first transfer to commit to the Fighting Irish last winter, and the other was Northwestern's Rod Heard II, who had to finish classes at Northwestern this spring, so he did not participate in spring ball.


Clark appears to be the plug-and-play solution for Thomas Harper leaving for the NFL Draft, as Heard offers a little more versatility on the back end.


In a secondary room that already features two All-Americans in Watts and Benjamin Morrison, the pieces complementing them will be imperative. There is still a position battle as to who will be the cornerback opposite of Morrison. Both Christian Gray and Jaden Mickey have shown flashes of greatness throughout spring ball, and both are extremely good options, yet the battle will not be decided until the end of summer camp.





Linebacker Inexperience


As it pertains to the linebacker room, Notre Dame has stayed fairly consistent over the past three years. JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and Jack Kiser have been the primary figures manning the middle of the defense. However, with Liufau and Bertrand heading to the NFL, Notre Dame will finally get the opportunity to showcase new faces at the linebacker position.


Some guys have already made their presence known like Jaylen Sneed and Drayk Bowen who have shined in limited opportunities last season. There is also freshman Kyngstonn Viliamu-Asa who has the physical look of an All-American linebacker. Jaiden Ausberry is another player that adds a sideline-to-sideline speed that the Fighting Irish have been missing at the position since Jaylon Smith.


However, with the opening week in an extremely rowdy environment in College Station, communication will be crucial. Jack Kiser's experience will be huge, yet it will be a true test as to how these inexperienced linebackers can keep up with SEC-caliber play. While Notre Dame's linebacking room may have a higher upside with these more athletic options, their youth may be exploited.



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