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Finding consistency: Irish defense looking to hit stride in season’s final stretch

| Monday, November 8, 2021

When Marcus Freeman took over as Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator at the start of this year, it was inevitable that his unit would endure some growing pains adjusting to new concepts and schemes. Year one under Freeman has seen the squad struggling at times to find consistency week-to-week. There was an electrifying, five-turnover performance against Wisconsin at Soldier Field. On the other hand, the UNC Tar Heels gashed the Irish for 554 total yards this past Saturday. The Irish responded this weekend with a suffocating performance against the always dangerous triple-option attack of the Navy Midshipmen. While it may just be another peak in a season that has also included some valleys, this defense seemed to find the right chemistry on Saturday in the ultimate test of communication and teamwork.

“Guys had a sense of urgency to communicate across the board,” junior linebacker Jack Kiser said after the game. “From pre-snap communication to during the play we did an unbelievable job. I’m really proud of everyone for having that emphasis during practice and coming out and executing.”

Matching up with a unique offense like Navy’s does require some extra preparation. But, the Irish defense certainly didn’t want to overcomplicate the game according to head coach Brian Kelly. Remaining disciplined and keeping the game in front of them were the primary focuses of Notre Dame’s preparation this week.

“Defensively, we were detailed. We were focused and got back to the foundations of playing really good defense that is assignment, communication and tackling,” Kelly said in his post-game press conference.

“The discipline is the big thing we’ll take with us as we move forward. That was a big concern of ours heading into this week of practice,” Kiser added.  “Also having the grit and the toughness to compete every single snap. This week in practice was uncomfortable at times, and if we do that heading into next week we’ll only get better.”

The veteran defensive coordinator, Freeman, knows how to put his players in a position for success. He proves that through his scheme. His defensive philosophy allows his players to identify what their best at and fuse it with their in-game assignment. Kiser has only ever played linebacker in his Notre Dame career, but his closing speed and physicality made him the perfect back-end centerfielder against the triple-option. This was especially true with junior safety Kyle Hamilton still on the mend.

“I played this role in high school and when you play triple-option teams the safety is in on a lot of plays, so I was excited about it and felt comfortable, Kiser said. “The keys are definitely eye discipline, knowing your role and knowing where you’re supposed to be at all times. If one guy’s out of position [Navy] can be very explosive.”

“We felt like Kiser can run as well as any of our safeties, but we wanted some physicality in there as well,” Kelly added. “We wanted to keep them behind the chains and not get caught in a lot of third and short situations.”

While the Irish haven’t strung together a series of dominant defensive performances, these players have displayed toughness week in and week out, especially during a midseason stretch with a seemingly endless gauntlet of quality opponents. Senior linebacker and captain Drew White is one player who has exemplified this determination. He battled through injury this past week to be available for his teammates against the Midshipmen.

“Drew tore his PCL during the week and played today. He’s a warrior and had the mental toughness to play through it.”

White’s teammates also took note of his drive to be on the field despite physical setbacks.

“Drew is one of the grittiest, hardest working guys on the defense,” junior linebacker JD Bertrand said. “It was questionable as to whether or not he was going to play and then he just came out and had an incredible performance. It’s awesome to be able to follow his lead and learn from someone like him.”

Kizer believes that as a collective unit, the defense will hit its stride. He said they’ll capture that elusive consistency in the final three games of the season.

“We’re on that continuous process of improvement. When we have energy and are out there playing hard for one another, we can be the best defense in the country. It’s a matter of making sure everyone stays disciplined and does their job.”

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About Colin Capece

Colin is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in political science and minoring in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. He hails from the great state of New York and currently serves as an Assistant Managing Editor at The Observer for the 2021-2022 academic year. You can sometimes find him on Twitter at @ColinCapeceND

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