It is often said that a good offense can sell tickets, but a good defense can win games. And that's exactly the recipe the Notre Dame Fighting Irish relied on 2020 en route to its second College Football Playoff berth in the last three seasons. The Irish allowed more than 30 points only three times entering their Cotton Bowl playoff semifinal against Alabama, and even though the eventual national champions prevailed 31-14, it represented their lowest scoring output of the season.
In fact, Notre Dame was one of just 13 teams in FBS — joined only by Clemson among its ACC companions — to play at least 10 games and finish in the top 25 nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense and total defense. Not even Alabama — let alone Ohio State, who allowed 52 points to the same Crimson Tide 10 days later — could lay claim to such a feat. To those who argue that defense matters little in this day and age, it's worth noting that five of those 13 teams reached New Year's Six bowl games, while only three of the teams that played at least 10 games — North Carolina, Ohio State and Cincinnati — finished in the top 25 nationally in rushing offense, scoring offense and total offense.
Notre Dame can thank a number of contributors for its success on that side of the ball, including a number of experienced seniors and graduate students who have seen the true ups and downs with the program. Among those graduate students are a couple of captains on defense whom the Irish will certainly miss in 2021 and beyond, especially defensive end Daelin Hayes. Hayes made his impact felt both on and off the field, leading the Irish's nationally ranked unit while also being a key leader in advocating for racial and social justice on campus and being named a finalist for the Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year award.
His absence, in addition to that of Lott IMPACT Trophy finalist and unanimous All-American linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, will undoubtedly be felt in 2021 and beyond. But in their stead will be a fresh crop of talent ready to keep the Irish's 10-win season streak going, both those with previous starting experience and those being called upon to lead at their respective positions for the first time. Here's a position-by-position look at the projected defense for Notre Dame in 2021.
The defensive line returns a wealth of experience up front, though a sizable drop-off in talent looms following the departures of Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji (seven sacks in 2020). Isaiah Foskey (4.5 sacks, 5 TFLs) and Justin Ademilola — a junior and senior, respectively — are likely to lead the group at defensive end, with NaNa Osafo-Mensah, Jordan Botelho and Alexander Ehrensberger — a 6-foot-7, 247-pound sophomore from Germany — waiting in the wings. In the middle, graduate students Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish will provide the push up front, with Jacob Lacey, Howard Cross III and Ademilola's twin brother Jayson also projected to make impactful contributions.
Graduate student Isaiah Pryor won't bring the same level of accolades to the Rover position as Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, but the former does possess 43 games of experience across three seasons (2017-19) with Ohio State and one (2020) with Notre Dame. He'll be joined by a fellow fifth-year in Drew White and senior Shayne Simon, who have played in 29 and 14 games, respectively, with White the returning leader in career tackles (145) and tackles for a loss (17) and the opportunity to continue developing under new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman.
Should any falter or miss time, Bo Bauer likewise enters his senior year with juniors Jack Kiser and local product Paul Moala providing key depth and consensus four-star incoming freshman Prince Kollie — an explosive two-way player who finished his senior season in high school with 109 tackles, two sacks, and an interception with 1,562 yards rushing and 26 touchdowns — an extremely talented piece who could compete for a starting role early on.
While the front seven will feature many returning starters and players with multiple years of on-field experience, the secondary will be lacking in that department. A first-team All-ACC pick and a second-team (The Athletic) and third-team (Associated Press) All-America selection, free safety Kyle Hamilton — who has totaled five career interceptions and is the featured piece among the back four — will be expected to lead the group. After Hamilton, though, seniors DJ Brown andHouston Griffith — the latter of whom reportedly plans to return after entering the transfer portal, the first major win for Freeman as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator — are the only returning safeties with any meaningful experience heading into 2021.
With Shaun Crawford's college career coming to a close after a roller-coaster six years, Brown, Griffith and junior KJ Wallace appear in line to compete to start alongside Hamilton. Keep an eye out for Khari Gee — a dynamic safety/athlete who notched 37 tackles, five TFLs, and a pair of interceptions in his senior season — who is an option to make some noise in camp and earn some playing time as a true freshman.
If the safety spot is short on experience, cornerback is even more so. With graduate student and key veteran presence Nick McCloud completing his college career, senior TaRiq Bracy and sophomore Clarence Lewis are the only returning cornerbacks with any meaningful experience heading into 2021, combining for 57 tackles, 10 pass breakups, and a forced fumble last season. After Lewis, junior Cam Hart saw time sporadically in 2020 while consensus four-star and top-25 cornerback recruit Philip Riley has a chance to bloom with not a whole lot of traffic ahead of him.
Notre Dame will in all likelihood maintain consistency in the kicking game for a third straight season, as both Jonathan Doerer and Jay Bramblett return at kicker and punter. Doerer connected on 15 of 23 field goals in 2020, hitting 11-of-14 from inside 40 yards but just going just 4-for-9 on attempts of 40 or more yards. Bramblett averaged nearly 43 yards per punt last season, with 10 punts of at least 50 yards and a long of 59 yards.
In the return game, wide receiver Matt Salerno was a steady, reliable presence returning punts and should have every opportunity to maintain that role heading into 2021, while Chris Tyree was the primary kick returner with a shade over 20 yards per return. But Lorenzo Styles Jr. — a consensus four-star and top-10 recruit from Ohio who notched nine total touchdowns (three rushing, two receiving, three punt return, and one kickoff return) as a high school senior — would be an immediate threat in the return game to utilize his game-changing speed and be a playmaker for Notre Dame in 2021.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of und.com)