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Defensive emphasis pays dividends for Irish

| Thursday, February 4, 2016

Over the past few years, Notre Dame has seen its defense decimated again and again by injury and graduation, and Brian Kelly has obviously taken note. This Wednesday, 13 defensive recruits officially signed with the Irish, the most under Kelly since 2011.

Some of the class of 2016 will have the chance to immediately fill the spots left by those 2011 recruits, as well as others. All told, Notre Dame is losing six of its 2015 defensive starters to graduation or the NFL Draft, as well as veterans Matthias Farley and Jarrett Grace, two key reserves. To take their place, Kelly already has talent on campus, according to Andrew Ivins, an Irish recruiting analyst for Rivals.com affiliate Blue and Gold Illustrated.

“If you’re looking for two guys who have a chance of definitely seeing playing time next year, it’s two of the early enrollees, defensive end Khalid Kahreem and safety Devin Studstill,” Ivins said. “Obviously Notre Dame has a really big need at safety … they’re kind of dinged up there, and Studstill is kind of an under-ranked player on campus early. I think he has the chance to work his way into the rotation.”

Kelly did list the safety position as one of his team’s top needs with the graduation of Elijah Shumate and Farley, as well as cornerback, where the Irish are losing KeiVarae Russell. All told, Notre Dame has seven defensive backs in the class of 2016, including four-star recruits Jalen Elliott, D.J. Morgan, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride, Jr.

And while Notre Dame has not been a program where freshmen have come in and made an immediate impact in the past, that is changing under Kelly, and the chance to play immediately was a selling point to defensive backs on the recruiting trail, Ivins said.

“I think they’ve done a good job in the past few cycles under Brian Kelly of telling kids, ‘Hey, we’re going to play freshmen if you’re good enough,’” Ivins said. “ … So Notre Dame really pitched it to the defensive backs, that was the kind of situation it was.”

But the secondary is far from the only area Notre Dame needed to shore up heading into National Signing Day. With Jaylon Smith’s decision to depart for the NFL a year early, the Irish linebacking corps lost a combined 216 tackles from last year’s squad in the form of Smith, Grace and Joe Schmidt. Kelly only has six returning scholarship players at linebacker, and the Irish added three more this recruiting cycle. Ivins said the possibility of rising up the depth chart early was an incentive at that position as well.

In particular, five-star linebacker Daelin Hayes was attracted to Notre Dame by that very possibility, Ivins said. Hayes, the top-rated prospect in Notre Dame’s 2016 class, decommitted from USC earlier in the recruiting cycle, and Ivins said in addition to the promise of playing time, Hayes was also drawn to Notre Dame by Kelly’s overall vision for the program and his place in it.

“At the end of the day, Daelin hasn’t played a lot of football,” Ivins said. “He says he wants to play, but he’s had some shoulder injuries, and I think he just felt very comfortable with what Notre Dame wants to do with him. He felt very comfortable with the staff. So part of it was playing time, more of it was just what he sees at Notre Dame and the big picture.”

The Irish did miss out on one of the top linebackers in the nation, five-star prospect Caleb Kelly. On Wednesday evening, he announced his commitment to Oklahoma, despite a late push from Notre Dame that included a personal visit from Kelly. Still, with Hayes and two other linebackers in the fold, Ivins said, the Irish managed to plug one of their biggest holes on defense.

But one of Notre Dame’s best areas in the current class is along the defensive line, Ivins said. Kareem was once committed to Alabama and is ranked as one of the top-20 defensive ends in the country. After years of failing to secure a top-rated end, Kareem’s commitment was a massive grab for the Irish, Ivins said.

Even without Kareem or Hayes, Notre Dame at least have some familiar names on the defensive side in this year’s class. Julian Okwara, the younger brother of former defensive lineman Romeo Okwara, is a four-star defensive end who has the potential to develop into a “sack artist” in a few years, Ivins said.

At linebacker, Jamir Jones is a three-star recruit and younger brother of defensive lineman Jarron Jones. Ivins said Jones could potentially switch to defensive end later on in his career.

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About Greg Hadley

Greg Hadley is a senior from Rockville, Maryland, majoring in political science with a minor in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He served as The Observer's Editor-in-Chief for the 2015-2016 term and currently covers Notre Dame baseball and women's basketball.

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