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irish insider

Irish defense remains a stronghold on the roster

| Friday, April 30, 2021

The adage ‘defense wins championships’ might be all but dead in this fast-paced modern era of football, but a solid defense is still a vital part of each and every championship team. That is why when Clark Lea announced that he would be stepping down as defensive coordinator and taking a position as head coach at a struggling Vanderbilt, just days ahead of Notre Dame’s 10-38 trouncing, courtesy of the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship, many Irish fans felt things were starting to fall apart. Sentiment soon started to turn once Lea’s replacement was named.

Marcus Freeman’s hire was huge and just as quickly as panic had begun to set in, the masses were relieved. Freeman not only brought great NFL and college coaching experience to the table but he also came with an invaluable trait that Notre Dame has been trying to find for quite some time: someone who could stand up as a big threat on the recruiting trail. The Irish haven’t been on a field with a crowd since their 14-31 loss to No. 1 ranked and eventual national champions Alabama at the AT&T Stadium in the College Football Playoff Semifinal this past January, but this will change come Saturday at the Blue-Gold game. And although Freeman might not be a star of the show, what he chooses to display in his defensive sets will certainly be telling of his plans for this upcoming season. 

While the media has been unable to attend any spring practices this year, clips released by the football team of their practices have shown the defense wreaking havoc on a younger, less experienced offensive line. 

The Notre Dame defense has shown the most promise and has boasted the most stability of any position group throughout this off-season by far. But spring games aren’t made to wear out your veterans but more so to get younger players some experience. That is why watching what Freeman will choose to do on Saturday will be interesting, especially considering how strong and deep he is at some positions, most notably his defensive line, which boasts plenty of returning players like junior Isiah Foskey and graduate student teammates Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. While Freeman hasn’t been with the Irish for a long time, he is certainly making his presence known, especially when it comes to recruiting. 

When asked about his philosophy for recruiting, Freeman was clear. 

“As far as recruiting, we’re going to continue to be the most aggressive and hardest working, really, recruiting staff in the country. And that’s just a goal of mine and a philosophy of mine is, ‘hey let’s outwork everybody in the country.’ That’s in terms of evaluations, that’s in terms of developing relationships. I think we’ve done a really good of identifying the guys that we feel are the best players that fit Notre Dame.”

His defense also boasts some highly touted recruits that will undoubtedly see some field time on Saturday and are likely to make an impact right away, like early enrollee Gabriel Rubio, sophomore Rylie Mills and junior Nana Osafo-Mensah. As the offense uses the spring to “develop an offensive identity,” as Brian Kelly put it, the defense has probably been a breath of fresh air providing a sense of stability within the walls of their practice facility. The only position group that could possibly be a cause for concern on this side of the ball is the cornerback roster. 

It’s important to consider that this group is green and tapes put out by the football team might not paint the group in the most flattering light due to their highlight video nature, but cornerback coach Mike Mickens will have his work cut out for him this upcoming season. Kelly has been praising junior Cam Hart for his improved play, but Hart is the only upperclassman besides TaRiq Bracy who can expect to see some big playing time this year. Early enrollee Philip Riley has also been getting some first-team work at cornerback, so while this position remains the most unestablished, they need not worry too much for Saturday, as most attention will be geared towards the quarterback battle. The safety position is being held down by senior Houston Griffith while junior Kyle Hamilton slowly nurses his way back onto the field after an ankle injury and subsequent surgery, so no questions are left at that spot. But the corners might be a weakness in this stronghold of an Irish defense. 

Mike Mickens has worked with Freeman before at Cincinnati, and Brian Kelly too, who was his head coach in his playing days at Cincinnati. Luke Fickel hired Freeman in 2016 and he went on to transform the Bearcats’ defense into one of the best in the AAC, and then Mickens joined the crew in 2018 and the Bearcats had a standout year. That year, Freeman’s defense led the American in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense, and also ranked among the Top-15 in the NCAA FBS in all three categories. That said, it is exciting to see what these three minds together can come up with for this upcoming season. 

When it comes time for the Irish defense to step up to the plate in the Blue-Gold game, expect them to deliver. The only outlying criticism of Freeman is his aggression, which if anything, will favor the quarterbacks who are all vying for the role of starter. When the Irish take the field on Saturday be wary of Marcus Freeman’s defense and how it ebbs and flows. It might not be indicative of a whole season but it will provide an insight that has been disallowed to the public since January.

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About Jimmy Ward

Jimmy is a senior at Holy Cross College, where he studies English and sports management. He is originally from Westfield, Indiana. Currently, Jimmy serves as an associate sports editor at The Observer. You can find him at @jimmyyward on Twitter.

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