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McGuinness: Irish defense needs strong start for 2023 to be a success

| Friday, April 21, 2023

Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Irish linebacker Jack Kiser celebrates a safety in Notre Dame’s 28-20 victory over the BYU Cougars.

For the third straight year, the Notre Dame football team will likely enter the season with a quarterback who has never started a game for the program. And even if graduate student Sam Hartman surprisingly does not begin the year behind center, junior Tyler Buchner does not exactly bring a wealth of starting experience to the table. In fact, he’s yet to play a full game at Notre Dame Stadium.

While there’s a decent amount of continuity and exciting youth across the rest of the offense, starting (mostly) fresh at quarterback always requires an adjustment period. We saw it two years ago with Jack Coan, who came to campus with multiple years of starting experience. We saw it last year in the first few games Buchner and junior Drew Pyne played in. And we’ll probably see it again this year with Hartman. It takes time to develop chemistry with new receivers and learn a new playbook like it’s the back of your hand. That isn’t to say the Wake Forest transfer is going to be brutal early on. But there’s a difference between just not struggling and firing on all cylinders. Don’t expect Hartman to do the former, but don’t count on him doing the latter right out of the box.

So, how does a football team with College Football Playoff aspirations handle that? There isn’t just one answer. Fortunately, the Irish run game seems to be in a tremendous place, to the point where senior Chris Tyree is moving to wide receiver to make the numbers work. It would certainly be nice if the special teams pick up from the outstanding level they left off on last season, too. But the most obvious unit that needs to step up while Hartman gets acclimated is the Irish defense.

Notre Dame’s first year under Al Golden was similar to Marcus Freeman’s first year as head coach: more positive than negative, but still a mixed bag. Go back to Notre Dame’s first two games last year. The turning point of the Ohio State game was undoubtedly the ill-fated double-safety blitz that C.J. Stroud picked apart to give the Buckeyes a commanding lead late in the third quarter. And while the Irish offense certainly dropped the ball against Marshall, they gave the defense a lead early in the fourth quarter. Notre Dame responded by allowing a momentum-sapping 11-play, 94-yard touchdown drive that put the Thundering Herd ahead for good.

Things got better against Cal, but the Irish still hadn’t found their best form. It took over 14 quarters for them to force their first turnover of the season. From there, though, the Irish stepped up. They didn’t allow more than 24 points in a game from Oct. 8 to Nov. 5, a stretch that included a complete shutdown of No. 4 Clemson. They shut out Boston College two weeks after taking down the Tigers. But just when it seemed like the switch was flipped for good, the Irish allowed 76 points across their final two games. USC’s Caleb Williams, in particular, had a field day, picking apart the Irish throughout the regular season finale.

That summary probably paints a picture that is a bit too negative, however. Notre Dame’s defense was a difference-maker through much of the middle of the season. And they turned things around after a rough start in the Gator Bowl, forcing a pair of turnovers in a one-score win against South Carolina. There were some incredibly positive individual developments, as well. Defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey set the program’s all-time sacks record. Then-freshman Benjamin Morrison emerged in the second half of the year, showcasing game-changing potential to the tune of six interceptions over Notre Dame’s final five games. All in all, it was a solid season for the Irish defense.

And once the offense gets rolling, “solid” may be good enough for the Irish in 2023. Hartman’s track record is legit — there’s a reason why he’s being compared to legendary Irish quarterbacks like Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen before ever suiting up for a game in blue and gold. But it’s not fair to Hartman or first-year offensive coordinator Gerad Parker to expect the offense to come out of the gate already in full form. And it will be up to the defense to pick up the slack.

At cornerback and linebacker, the Irish should be confident in their ability to do just that. Remember, Morrison wasn’t the only highly-touted cornerback who suited up as a freshman last year. In fact, some were higher on Jaden Mickey heading into 2022 than Morrison. The two youngsters have two experienced options to rely on for support in graduate student Cam Hart and senior Clarence Lewis. That quartet should be able to not just fill the void left by TaRiq Bracy’s departure, but could be Notre Dame’s best group of corners in a long time. And that’s before accounting for junior Lorenzo Styles, Jr. switching to cornerback from wide receiver. Styles is an unknown at a new position, but a player with his athleticism is intriguing wherever he plays.

Meanwhile, the Irish return each of their three leading tacklers in graduate students Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau. Liufau in particular has the potential to take a big step forward. He got his legs back under him in 2022 after missing the entire 2021 season due to injury. Kiser and Bertrand aren’t the flashiest players, but are solid presences in the middle of the Irish defense who consistently make plays and make the players around them better.

Things are less settled at defensive line and safety, but there are still reasons for the Irish to feel good. Yes, making up for the loss of Foskey, defensive linemen Jayson and Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph will be difficult. But the Irish brought in experienced transfers at both positions to help ease the transition. Graduate student Javontae Jean-Baptiste notched a career-high four sacks after moving from defensive end to the inside last year at Ohio State. Fellow graduate student Thomas Harper brings starting experience from Oklahoma State to the safety position, as well.

Senior safety Xavier Watts enters 2023 looking to build off a strong finish to last year. The position doesn’t have an established star presence like in previous years with Joseph and Kyle Hamilton. But between Watts, Harper, graduate student DJ Brown and senior Ramon Henderson, there’s a decent amount of depth.

Senior defensive linemen Rylie Mills and Jordan Botelho were second and third behind Foskey in sacks last year. The duo combined for eight, a number that each could approach on their own with another step forward. And there’s always the potential for a Morrison-level breakout season from a freshman. Defensive end Brenan Vernon is Notre Dame’s highest-rated 2023 recruit, according to Rivals. The Irish also signed a pair of highly-regarded safeties in Ben Minich and early enrollee Adon Shuler.

Notre Dame’s defense won’t be a finished product in Week 1. And that’s ok. By the time Notre Dame’s first major test of the year arrives — a Week 5 rematch with Ohio State — the offense should be up to speed. But the defense may be more important to ensuring the hype around the Buckeyes’ arrival does not dissipate over the season’s first four weeks. The old saying “offense wins games, defense wins championships” still largely remains true. But the Irish will need their defense to step up early to keep their loftiest ambitions alive and well. Their play in the Blue-Gold Game Saturday should give an indication of how well-equipped Golden and company are for that challenge.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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