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DelVecchio: Despite major losses to the NFL, the Irish defense should be just fine

| Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Fresh off of an undefeated season that ended with an unfortunate 30-3 loss to eventual-national-champion Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Notre Dame football enters the 2019 season hungrier than ever to recapture the highly coveted Coaches’ Trophy.

While the Irish are always under high scrutiny from critics and non-believers alike, the big loss to Clemson certainly didn’t help their standing. The Irish have yet to win a New Year’s Six bowl under the helm of head coach Brian Kelly, and while the 4-8 finish in 2016 is far back in the Irish’s rear-view mirror, there are plenty of question marks that remain heading into this season regarding who will fill the holes left by the departures of several key players from last year’s 12-1 playoff squad.

Notre Dame had six players drafted in April’s 2019 NFL Draft, and while the Irish are returning an elite group of defensive linemen led by seniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, the loss of leaders on both sides of the ball, like cornerback Julian Love, wide receiver Miles Boykin, and linebacker Te’von Coney, will prove to be a challenge for Notre Dame moving forward.

Arguably the biggest storyline of the off-season is five-star freshman safety Kyle Hamilton. Hamilton has amassed as much hype as any incoming freshman in recent years for Notre Dame, and the 6-foot-4-inch uber-athletic coverage man from Atlanta has “walked the walk” up until this point after recording seven interceptions in Notre Dame’s practices open to reporters over the summer.

If Hamilton’s storyline wasn’t big enough, now factor in the reality that he will be taking snaps away from senior captains and fellow safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. At Notre Dame’s media day Aug. 21, safeties coach Terry Joseph spoke about the fact that, while Gilman and Elliott exceeded expectations on the field last season, he felt as though the pair played too much. Head coach Brian Kelly has also expressed high praise for the Irish safety, noting his exceptional quickness and ability to change direction. Hamilton will be able to provide the Irish with some much needed depth at the safety position, and he is expected to have an immediate impact come kickoff Monday at Louisville.

Since the completion of last season, the biggest void left by last year’s graduates is undoubtedly at the linebacker position. With camp over, junior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah has emerged as the probable starter at the rover position, and graduate student Asmar Bilal, who played the rover position in 2018, has moved over to the starting mike position. While replacing the production of Tranquill and Coney — who combined for 209 stops last season — will be no walk in the park, this year’s linebacker corps features a plethora of young talent, and defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will be able to expand his use of both players and packages. While Owusu-Koramoah has seen limited action since arriving to campus in 2017, the 6-foot-1, 216-pounder out of Hampton, Virginia, has impressed in Bilal’s old position thus far and is someone who will more than likely make his name known as a key contributor to the Irish defense this upcoming season. For Bilal, the position change will pose new challenges, but the coaching staff trusts in his ability to replace Te’von Coney.

Also be on the lookout for junior Drew White, who will join the rotation in the middle after returning from shoulder surgery last year. White was a three-time state champion at St. Thomas Aquinas in Florida, and the 6-foot, 230-pound physical enforcer from Boca Raton, Florida, will most likely find himself on the field in passing situations. Sophomore linebacker Shayne Simon should also see some playing time at the linebacker position for the Irish. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound athlete out of Saint Peter’s Prep in New Jersey brings a combination of great size, physicality and speed to the linebacker position.

Furthermore, with the departure of star cornerback Julian Love, senior Troy Pride Jr. will have to step up in the secondary. In a battle for playing time opposite Pride Jr. in the secondary, former preferred walk-on and current senior Temitope Agoro has shined in the offseason. Former quarterback recruit turned running back/wideout junior Avery Davis has been taking reps in the secondary since last spring, and he should also be seeing the field along with graduate student cornerback Shaun Crawford. Davis’s athleticism speaks for itself considering the coaching staff has now switched his position multiple times in order to get him onto the field.

While the Irish defense has certainly taken some major hits since last season, there is no reason to panic. Notre Dame has ample talent on both sides of the ball, and this summer has proven that there are guys willing and able to step up for the Irish this season. The opportunities will be there, the question remains whether or not they will be capitalized on.

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