SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The defense Notre Dame trotted out for its Blue and Gold Game Saturday was hardly a finished product from a personnel standpoint.
Missing were three starters and two key reserves: Nose guard Jarron Jones (foot), linebacker Joe Schmidt (ankle), cornerback KeiVarae Russell (suspension) and safeties Avery Sebastian (transfer) and Drue Tranquill (knee).
We saw what the Notre Dame defense looked like without Schmidt last year, and that was a unit that allowed an average of 42.5 points in the six games in which he missed time. The cornerback duo of Cody Riggs and Cole Luke held up well, but Devin Butler struggled with Riggs banged up in the second half of the season. A thin defensive line unit wasn’t able to shoulder losing Jones and Sheldon Day in the middle.
But while it’s not difficult to find optimism in every corner of spring practice, there may be something to the exceedingly positive rhetoric flying around the Gug.
“The progression that we’ve made has been tremendous,” safety Elijah Shumate said. “It’s fun to watch. It’s just fun to watch us when we’re all on the same page, how fast we play, how good we play, how passionate we play. And I just can’t wait. And then adding those other factors, which are great players, I feel like this sky’s the limit.”
The senior added: “I feel like we can be the best secondary in the country.”
Shumate and fellow safety Max Redfield have earned plenty of praise from coaches for the strides they’ve made this spring, largely in terms of communication. Outside of Malik Zaire’s 68-yard touchdown heave to Will Fuller (who burned rising sophomore cornerback Nick Watkins) and his 29-yard touchdown to Justin Brent, there weren’t many mistakes from the back end of the Irish defense on Saturday.
Whatever mistakes were made weren’t as glaring as the ones on display last year, where communication breakdowns between Redfield and Shumate led to far too many debilitating big-chunk plays.
Both Redfield and Shumate said they understand the concepts of Brian VanGorder’s defense far better in Year 2 than they did in Year 1 so when they make a call, they know why they’re making it.
“The biggest factor to that is just more comfortability in the system,” Redfield said. “Obviously it was our first time learning that sort of NFL scheme and after a year, we feel obviously even more comfortable in it. The communication is a lot more apparent and a lot more evident.”
It’s not just the secondary that’s comfortably wading into the deeper waters of VanGorder’s defense. Rising sophomore Nyles Morgan has made “amazing” improvements, VanGorder said, and the Irish have enough linebacking depth to make Jaylon Smith a dangerous player at multiple positions. When Schmidt returns, he’ll cross-train and Mike and Will linebacker, opening the door for him, Smith and Morgan (or Jarrett Grace) to be on the field at the same time.
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A young, thin defensive line gained valuable experience this spring and added Jerry Tillery — who impressed as an early-enrolling freshman — to the group led by senior-to-be Sheldon Day. There should be good depth up front to withstand the punishment of a full season, something Notre Dame’s defense hasn’t had over the last two seasons.
This isn’t a defense that projects as elite along the lines of the group that drove the bus to the 2013 BCS Championship. But there could be enough players here — and on the way — that have the talent to earn back some of the defensive reputation Notre Dame’s lost over the last few seasons.
“We need physical players here,” Smith said. “We've kind of got a bad rep of being soft and intelligent, smart guys at Notre Dame. But along with that, we have to have that mental and physical mentality, and we have the capacity. It's just about turning that switch.”