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Irish Insider: Notre Dame defense prepares to become team’s focal point

| Friday, April 20, 2018

As spring practice continues for Notre Dame, the pieces of the puzzle are continuing to come together on the defensive side of the ball, as the Irish are looking to make up for losses at a wide variety of positions, from the line to the secondary.

At linebacker, there are two big holes to fill with the graduation of Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini. However, with graduate student Drue Tranquill staying on for his fifth year, he will be moving from Rover to an inside linebacker spot alongside senior Te’Von Coney.

There will also be holes to fill on the line, as Jay Hayes recently announced he will graduate transfer to Oklahoma, and Andrew Trumbetti also graduated. Junior Khalid Kareem has appeared to step up over the course of the spring season and could see starting action.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery brings an LSU ball carrier to the ground during Notre Dame’s 21-17 victory over the Tigers in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph, who is beginning his first year with the Irish, said he told all of his players they are not being evaluated based on past performance, instead simply based on how well they progress and play during the spring season and throughout training camp.

“I think the big thing for the guys, like I told them, everybody starts with a clean slate. Everybody was starting from zero, and every day is a day to get evaluated,” Joseph said April 5. “And so, at the end of the day, we want to have a good grasp on who is our top-four guys at the position, where we can know how to rotate. Obviously, if we start putting nickel in, we want to get the best five [defensive backs] on the field at the point, so we start moving some guys around. … So, just trying to find the best combination of guys.”

One of those guys both Joseph and fellow defensive backs coach Todd Lyght have been especially impressed by is freshman defensive back Houston Griffith, an early enrollee who arrived on campus in January. Griffith began his career practicing with the cornerbacks, but a few practices in, was moved over to Joseph and the safeties.

“We think that he can be a guy who can compete for a starting job at free safety, so we want to make sure — because he’s such a good athlete, and we want put all our best athletes on the field — anyway we can get him on the field, and we feel like moving him to the free safety spot will do that,” Lyght said of Griffith on April 5.

Joseph has been impressed with what he has seen of the freshman so far and feels he is adjusting well to the learning curve at the new position.

“You like that he has the cover skills because, when you play a quarter system, you want a guy at safety who has those cover skills,” Joseph said of Griffith. “He’s big enough to hold up in the run game; he’s shown he has some physicality; and with how deep we are at corner, it’s one of those situations where we want to get the best guys on the field, and we wanted to give him the opportunity and look at him at safety. He’s done a great job as far as picking it up. He’s a smart kid — really happy how he’s progressed so far.”

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish senior linebacker Te’von Coney tackles a runner during Notre Dame’s 21-17 win over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 in Orlando, Florida.

Another fresh face Joseph has been happy to see progression from has been junior safety Alohi Gilman. Gilman, who was forced to sit out his sophomore year after transferring from Navy and not being granted eligibility to play, spent the past season on the scout team. As a result, he was almost too eager to get back on the field, Joseph said.

“I think he was so excited to get back in the mix after spending the year on scout team. And like I told him, one of the things that he had to adjust to is on the scout team, you’re looking at a card, you’re really just following the line,” Joseph said. “Now, it’s more about processing what’s going on, how to match routes, how to get yourself in the right position, how to read what’s happening [and] what the offense is trying to do. So that’s been our deal with him these first two weeks of practice.”

When it comes down to choosing starters, however, Joseph said he has a wide variety of players to pick from, including juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill and senior Nick Coleman, all of whom have seen significant amounts of playing time in the past. Joseph said the starter decision will come down to talent and nothing more.

“At the end of the day, I love them all, but the truth of the matter is, the best two guys are going to run out there against Michigan on Sept. 1,” he said. “And the truth of the matter is this: I don’t care what grade they’re in. I don’t care what jersey number. I don’t care how long they’ve been here. Because at the end of the day, the two best guys are going to run out there, and I’ve been very truthful with those guys about that. So value every rep because, at the end of the day, the two best guys are going to play. If one of those guys gets hurt, the next best guy is going to go in. It’s going to be an open competition. I really see this deal going on hopefully until about the middle of training camp, and hopefully that keeps every one of the players involved in it every day.”

While there are fewer fresh faces at the cornerback position, there is still a lot up in the air because of defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s encouragement of competition at each and every position.

Currently, Lyght has junior Julian Love and graduate student Nick Watkins playing the perimeter, while senior Shaun Crawford and juniors Troy Pride Jr. and Donte Vaughn have been playing the interior. When the incoming freshmen arrive for training camp in the summer, Lyght said each one will get the opportunity to test out both positions, but he believes Noah Boykin and DJ Brown will test out the boundary and Tariq Bracy will play the field, whereas Joe Wilkins Jr. could do either one.

Lyght has been especially impressed with Crawford, who he said reached full health at about the midpoint of last season, coming off the two major injuries of a torn ACL and a torn Achilles.

“We want to play Shaun both inside and outside,” Lyght said. “I think that we gain huge benefits by playing him in multiple positions because he’s smart enough to get it done. He’s athletic enough to get it done, and his playmaking prowess as a defender, his ability to dislodge the ball from running backs, his ability to go up and high point the ball, his ability to win in one-on-one situations — you want to keep guys like that on the field.”

Lyght also noted that while Love was one of the unit’s top performers last season, the junior also has some work to do in the offseason to attain the next level; however, most of that work has to do with his mental game.

“For Julian, his key to success and his key to getting to the next level is going to be focus and attention to detail. Sometimes when he gets out there, he can go into autopilot mode every now and then,” Lyght said. “He’ll make a big play, and then he’ll come back and he might go in a little bit of an autopilot mode where he’ll relax a little bit and not really push himself past his comfort level. So just to continually stay on him about his focus, his intentions, his attention to detail, his pre-snap readiness are going to be the keys to getting him to the next level.”

Lyght said over the course of the spring season, he has been the most impressed with Pride Jr. and Crawford — the former being a pleasant surprise.

“As far as these eight practices go, Shaun Crawford and Troy Pride have been our most consistent corners in our group,” he said. “It doesn’t surprise me with Shaun, but very glad to see Troy take a step up with his consistency and with his development.”

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About Elizabeth Greason

Elizabeth is a senior studying civil engineering from New York, NY (yes, the actual city). She is a proud resident assistant in McGlinn Hall and is a die-hard Mets and Giants fan. She is currently serving as assistant managing editor of The Observer and she also has an obsession with golf that is bordering on unhealthy.

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