2018 Notre Dame football: What to watch for from the Fighting Irish defense

Notre Dame defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea speaks with his linebackers prior to a drill Friday at the team's opening practice of training camp at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame captain and linebacker Drue Tranquill gets warmed-up prior to practice Friday at the team's opening practice of training camp at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame senior linebacker Te'von Coney wipes away the sweat in between drills Friday at the team's opening practice of training camp at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston and defensive lineman Jerry Tillery run in between drills at a training camp practice last season at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame redshirt sophomore safety Alohi Gilman speaks with the media at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in South Bend following a spring practice. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)
Notre Dame freshman strong safety Houston Griffith works through a drill Friday at the team's opening practice of training camp at Culver Academies. (By Tom Davis of News-Sentinel.com)

The losses of significance are found all over the Notre Dame offense from a season ago.

From the two behemoth offensive linemen (Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) that were taken near the absolute top of the 2018 NFL Draft to the perimeter (wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown) to the backfield beast (Josh Adams). The Irish offense in 2018 will have a lot to live up to.

However, the positive news is the fact that the Fighting Irish defense may be the best unit that the Irish Nation has seen since the 2012 run to the BCS Championship Game.

“They are a very confident group,” veteran coach Brian Kelly said of his defense following the annual Blue-Gold Game in April. “I think depth at the safety and cornerback position. I like our rotations on the defensive line. If there’s one concern, it’s finding the depth at the linebacker position. That would be probably my only concern.

“But it’s a confident group. They run to the football. They are going to be attacking the football in the back end of the defense, which was at times frustrating (in 2017). I think we’ve kind of come a long way from that perspective.”

Kelly continued to be pleased following the opening day of training camp at Culver Academies on Friday and cited the play of defensive end Daelin Hayes and cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr. and Julian Love.

The defense will need to continue to evolve right up until the season-opening game against Michigan on Sept. 1 (7:30 p.m., NBC).

ESPN announced Saturday that the game would be the location of its weekly College Gameday pregame show.

Here are some things that Fighting Irish fans have to look for defensively this season.

LINEBACKER DEPTH

Kelly already made this point in the spring and it will bear watching throughout training camp.

The Irish graduated 167 tackles from seniors Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, but do have senior Te’von Coney (a team-leading 116 tackles, 13 for a loss) and graduate student and captain Drue Tranquill (75 tackles, 10 ½ for a loss) returning. However, after those two “tackling machines,” as Kelly referred to them on Thursday at his initial press conference, there are a lot of question marks.

“We’re really fortunate to have two tackling machines, if you will, with those two guys,” Kelly said of Coney and Tranquill. “They have a lot of experience and that’s a great thing. It doesn’t mean that they have arrived. They certainly will be coached.

“(But) Having said that, we have to really develop that next group in at that position.”

Redshirt junior Asmar Bilal and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will battle throughout camp for the starting job at rover (the third linebacker spot), while Kelly moved sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath from safety to add depth behind Tranquill.

“Jordan Genmark Heath is obviously an important piece for us throughout this whole process,” Kelly said of figuring out the linebacker dilemma.

Genmark Heath gained five pounds of muscle since last season and is listed at 225 pounds, while Bilal dropped five to be able to move better on the outside.

Backing up Coney will either be redshirt-sophomore Jonathan Jones or emerging true freshman Bo Bauer, who has earned praise from Kelly since enrolling in January.

“Here is a guy that physically has transformed himself,” Kelly said of Bauer, “his mentality, his work ethic, and the way he attacks things both in the classroom. He’s been extremely impressive.”

HELLO ALOHI

Kelly spoke confidently last season that if Navy safety transfer Alohi Gilman would have been eligible, he would have started. Well, Gilman is eligible in 2018 and he made an impression in Friday’s first practice, as he nearly picked off an errant throw at the goal line from Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

“He is a special kid,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said of Gilman this spring. “He is a guy that in one year has made an impact from a leadership standpoint. The guys follow him.”

As a freshman at Navy, Gilman started 12 of 14 games and finished second on the Midshipmen in tackles with 76.

He is projected to start at free safety this fall alongside junior strong safety Jalen Elliott.

“If you look at every time he’s near the football,” Kelly said following the spring game, “there’s high contact with him. That’s what we were looking at that position, high contact and plays the ball well in the air, and is a very smart football player.

“He’s what we thought he would be. He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”

TILLERY CAN MOVE, SO HE IS ON THE MOVE

There were a lot of factors that played into the decision-making process for senior defensive lineman Jerry Tillery coming back to South Bend for one more season, some of which were on the field aspects, while others not.

“I told him he should go to the NFL if he just wants to go be a football player,” Kelly said this spring of his heart-to-heart chat with Tillery. “But if you want to develop in all areas, if you want to have that holistic development which is part of who we are, if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll get that here.

“He was looking forward to that. That’s what he wanted. That was one of the reasons why he came back.”

It isn’t that Tillery doesn’t want to play in the NFL, he does. However, both Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston did the research and were informed by NFL evaluators that Tillery was not going to be a high selection – in 2018 – so he should come back and continue to work on learning a slightly altered position.

He and senior Jonathan Bonner will switch inside positions and Tillery will play the “3 technique,” which will provide him opportunities to get into the offensive backfield more.

“I have seen a difference maker – at times,” Lea said this spring.

Tillery made an impact last year from the inside position. He finished the season with 56 tackles (nine for a loss) and a team-best 4 ½ sacks. Those numbers may be even more impressive with his new role.

“Jerry is a dynamic and athletic defensive lineman,” Lea said, “and in a lot of ways, the 3-technique position is where you want to have your most disruptive and athletic (player). He has done a great job and already made his presence felt there.”

WILL THE SAFETIES DANCE?

A year ago, and this is not a typo, the Fighting Irish safeties did not make a single interception. As noted earlier, newcomer Alohi Gilman nearly did that on the first day of practice, so that should not be a strange facet to the 2018 Notre Dame season this fall.

“First of all,” new Irish safeties coach Terry Joseph said this off-season, “to have zero that is tough luck. It’s almost impossible to happen.”

The insertion of Gilman should help (and has already), but there are others that are already off to a strong start in preparing for the upcoming season.

Junior Jalen Elliott is penciled into to start at free safety aside strong safety Gilman, and Elliott was named as the “Special Teams Player of the Day” on Friday.

“The best grasp,” Joseph said this spring of his defensive teachings, “has been by Elliott and Alohi, as far as kind of understanding what is going on. Those two don’t have a lot of panic in them. They are kind of calm and put themselves in the positions that they need to be in.”

HOUSTON, WE (DON’T) HAVE A PROBLEM

Since he arrived in South Bend in January, freshman defensive back Houston Griffith has impressed everyone that has watched him.

The Illinois native played well in his initial work at cornerback, but he had the skills to contribute to safety also, so Kelly moved him to his new position midway through spring practice.

“He knows what he is doing,” Kelly said this spring. “You never know until they get here and put the pads on them. He has great instincts. He knows the game. He’s going to be a really good player here.

“He’s going to play for us in the fall. How that ends up, whether he is a starter or a back-up, he will play football for Notre Dame this fall.”

Griffith is projected to back-up Gilman, along with veteran Nick Coleman.

For more on Notre Dame football, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010, Facebook at Thomas Davis, and Instagram at tomdavis101010.

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