Notre Dame Football Defensive Preview
A vicious Notre Dame defense squares up against a struggling Cal offense.
Make sure you catch the offensive preview here.
I was a little dismayed to see some worried Cal fans in the comments of the offensive preview. That wasn’t the article that was supposed to make you lose hope— this one is! Sure, tight end Michael Mayer is probably a first round draft pick, but wait until you see the NFL-caliber players on the defensive line and in the secondary!
We all know that Notre Dame is a big-time college football program, but did you know they even have a partnership with Guinness?
Because nothing says “Fighting Irish” quite like… well, you know. Because what else would get you this hyped for a football game?:
Although the Notre Dame offense has struggled so far this season, this is still a very good defense. After promoting the former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to head coach, Notre Dame had an absolutely fantastic defensive gameplan for the high-powered Ohio State offense. Notre Dame knew exactly what Ohio State wanted to do on offense and took that away from them, forcing Ohio State QB CJ Stroud to beat them via difficult throws on his 3rd or 4th reads. At the very least, Freeman demonstrated that at least the defensive side of the ball could hang with a likely playoff-bound team (well, at least with a whole offseason of preparation). I’m hoping Notre Dame took a look at Cal’s offense and thought, “Yeah, we don’t need to study for this one.”
Notre Dame has one of the best defensive lines in college football, and that’s one of the main reasons that this game worries me. Notre Dame was 12th in the nation in sacks last year (3.15 sacks/game) and 10th in turnovers gained (25 in 13 games), largely due to the fumbles forced by the defensive line as well as the QB pressures that resulted in bad throws for interceptions. Cal, on the other hand, gave up 2 sacks to FCS UC Davis, and 4 sacks to UNLV (for comparison, UNLV was 92nd out of 130 teams in the FBS last year in sacks). Cal generally does well in not turning the ball over, but it’s clear that Cal will have to gameplan around the shortcomings on the offensive line, because Jack Plummer (who has seen the Notre Dame defensive line last year at Purdue, by the way) is not going to have a ton of time to let plays develop.
Beyond that, though, Notre Dame also has some serious athletes in the secondary, who are more likely to be drafted highly for their physical attributes than necessarily their on-field production.
Notre Dame typically runs a variation of a 4-3 defense, with two defensive tackles bookended by a defensive end and what Notre Dame calls the “Vyper.” The Vyper is essentially a stand-up defensive end who can drop back to linebacker when necessary. They also have a position called the “Rover,” which is similarly a hybrid linebacker/safety. Not surprisingly, this is where Notre Dame likes to play some of their most versatile athletes.
Let’s start with the Vyper, because Cal QB Jack Plummer saw this same defensive front last year at Purdue.
The Vyper, Isaiah Foskey, is an absolute beast. Foskey is one of the top-rated edge defenders in the upcoming NFL Draft class, and a first round draft pick is not out of the question. The 6’5” 265 lbs. edge rusher has impressive speed for a man of his size, and because opposing linemen have to respect his speed off the edge, he can transition to power moves using his length as a pass rusher.
When I mentioned earlier that quarterback pressures resulted in turnovers for Notre Dame, I was referring to plays like this:
Here’s a perfect example of Foskey using both his speed and power. He starts with a speed move to the outside, then drives back the lineman with one-hand:
Again, Foskey was simply too fast for a lot of offensive linemen, and he consistently created havoc in the backfield last year as a result:
Here’s an example where Foskey uses his power to drive the lineman back into the quarterback for another sack:
Here Foskey uses his long arms to keep the left tackle’s hands off of him, walks him back into the quarterback, and strips the quarterback for the forced fumble:
At the traditional defensive end position is Rylie Mills, a 6’5” 292 lbs. junior who has been playing since he was a true freshman. Mills showed a lot of improvement over the course of last season, and I think he could be headed for a breakout year. Mills has a lot of strength and great hands, but he is still developing his pass rush repertoire, and that’s what would really take him to the next level.
Here he fights his way through the Ohio State offensive line:
I like the way he plays with a very high motor. He doesn’t give up on a play:
This tight end had no chance of stopping Mills:
Also on the defensive line are the twins, Jayson and Justin Ademilola. Jayson is the more highly-touted of the two at defensive tackle, while Justin is the backup Vyper to Isaiah Foskey.
Jayson Ademilola is a bit undersized at defensive tackle, but he is a pretty stout run defender and reliable tackler, and he also has the potential to play at the next level.
His primary pass rush move is the bull rush:
He usually lines up in the B-gap, but here’s an example of him lined up over the tackle:
DT Jayson Ademilola shows good pursuit against the run game, and is good at penetrating opposing offensive lines:
His brother, Justin Ademilola, is also a good pass rusher, although not as reliable in rush defense.
Here he shows some good pursuit of the quarterback:
And here’s a play with both Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola rushing the quarterback:
Last but not least is the defensive tackle (and sometimes nose tackle) Howard Cross III. His dad, Howard Cross Jr., played 13 seasons in the NFL and won a Super Bowl in 1991 with the Giants. Cross III also steadily improved over the course of last season, taking over the role vacated by now Houston Texans DT Kurt Hinish.
Here he picks up a sack on the ever-elusive CJ Stroud:
Here the Georgia Tech offensive line decides they prefer their quarterback in pancake form:
Here he shows good pursuit of the running back:
Finally, I don’t even need to attribute this to a specific player, I just wanted to show the push by the entire defensive line:
As clearly shown above, the Notre Dame defensive line will likely cause the Cal offense some serious problems.
Backing up the likely NFL Draft picks along the defensive line are a decent group of linebackers. Notre Dame shuffled their linebacker group around a bit, which complicated this section a bit (I took these clips long before I knew their starting lineup this year), but I will do my best. Last year the starting weakside linebacker was JD Bertrand and the backup middle linebacker was Bo Bauer, so I assumed Bo Bauer would take over the starting job after the departure of the starting MLB. Instead, the new starting weakside linebacker is the senior Marist Liufau, who did not play in 2021 (and he only has 1 solo tackle so far this year, so no clips), and JD Bertrand was moved over to middle linebacker (Bo Bauer is still the backup MLB).
Let’s start with JD Bertrand. Bertrand is an absolute missile, and loves blowing up players on the offense (to his detriment, even; sometimes you need to go for the sure tackle over the big hit). Still, Bertrand led the Irish in tackles last season, showing good instincts for where the ball was going.
Here he uses his powers for good, to pick up the sack:
Here Bertrand dives in and gets just enough of a piece of the quarterback to blow this play up:
Here he shows great pursuit of the running back out of the backfield, on the sort of play you might expect from a team who knows they can’t protect the QB for too long:
At middle linebacker is Bo Bauer. The first thing that jumped out to me about Bo Bauer was his coverage skills. For example, here Bauer is given the very difficult task of both simulating pressure, and then getting back into coverage on the wheel route by the linebacker:
The previous starting middle linebacker, Drew White, was very strong in pass coverage, and so more will be expected of Bertrand on that front.
At the “Rover” position—the hybrid linebacker/safety—is Jack Kiser. These sorts of hybrid positions suit the Notre Dame defense well, because they tend to have a lot of “tweener” type recruits— say, an undersized linebacker who is great in coverage, or a big defensive back who is great in run support.
Probably not surprisingly, Kiser is probably the best coverage defender of the linebacking corps.
Kiser prefers to play in space, and usually uses his speed to attack the run:
This is probably going to be the toughest front-7 Cal sees all year.
The best way to describe Notre Dame’s secondary: serious athletes.
As I mentioned earlier, the secondary also has NFL talent, but in contrast to the defensive line, they don’t necessarily have the on-field results to match. These are the types of players where the NFL is going to look at their measurables and say, “yeah, I’ll take a flyer on this one.” I’m not going to try and predict NFL Draft rounds here, because I’m sure analysts will put them all over the map (and really, you only need one team to really like you).
So what does that mean for the secondary? Well, high ceiling, but perhaps variable play.
The biggest shoes to fill on the secondary from last year was the safety, Kyle Hamilton, who was a mid-first round pick last year. That’s really high for a safety (since safeties have relatively lower positional value in the NFL), but Kyle Hamilton was often described as the top talent of that draft to defy that norm.
So what Notre Dame did was look to the transfer portal and grabbed the best safety they possibly could: Northwestern’s Brandon Joseph.
As the new field/free safety replacing Kyle Hamilton, Joseph will be asked to cover a lot of ground in zone, cover slot receivers in man, be involved in a lot of pressure packages, and just generally be the key to their versatile defense.
Joseph caught attention nationwide for this SportsCenter type of catch:
That’s an NFL first rounder throwing to another NFL first rounder, and Brandon Joseph just making a ridiculous play in their face.
Besides the very obvious ball skills, Joseph is also great in zone coverage and the deep portions of the field.
One issue with Joseph, however, is his tackling. Joseph loves the big hit:
On the other hand, you could probably pin Marshall’s late touchdown on this same tendency, as it was Joseph who whiffed to give up the game-changing touchdown.
The other starting safety, DJ Brown, is also solid in coverage:
The play by the Notre Dame corners is much more interesting, as they have their ups and downs, even though there’s no denying their physical talent. Cam Hart did great against Wisconsin, but got picked on by Ohio State (this was actually the most surprising thing to me, but I guess Ohio State saw something on tape they could exploit). Clarence Lewis struggled in midseason, but had great games against Georgia Tech and Stanford. TaRiq Bracy struggled against Virginia Tech and North Carolina, but did great against Toledo and Ohio State.
Personally, my favorite corner is Cam Hart, and I think he has the most NFL potential. He’s a converted wide receiver, so he has great ball skills, as well as the speed to keep himself glued to any wide receiver. So Hart clearly has the physical tools as a corner, but his biggest weakness is probably his relative inexperience and knowledge for the intricacies of the position (exactly the type of player an NFL team will take a flyer on; can’t teach speed, but we can teach you the position).
Here he shows his coverage skills:
And here he does a good job reading the play:
If your receiver is not open, it’s dangerous to challenge him:
One thing I noticed about him is that even though he does a great job of covering receivers, he can be too physical:
TaRiq Bracy has worked his way into the starting lineup this year. I actually thought he was Notre Dame’s best corner last year (when I watched the Pac-12 games, USC and Stanford), but I changed my opinion after seeing the rest of the season (which I watched this offseason). So clearly, the potential is there. Bracy will have a terrible game against a lesser opponent, but then somehow look like the best corner in the game against Ohio State (where pretty much every wide receiver is NFL-bound). There’s probably something I’m missing here to explain this, but Bracy is probably Notre Dame’s most experienced corner.
Here he shows some tight coverage:
And here he does the same to some real competition, coming up with a big stop on 3rd down:
Here he fights through the catch:
Also in the rotation is Clarence Lewis. I am less enthused about Clarence Lewis, as he’s probably the least exciting of the bunch.
One thing you could say, though, is that after some early season struggles, he was a much more reliable tackler later in the season:
I liked the following play against Oklahoma State, only because it shows a receiver this Cal secondary has seen before: former Washington State WR Davontavean (Tay) Martin:
I thought Tay Martin was a great receiver at Wazzu, and although it was earlier in his career, Cal did a good job corralling him, just to give you an idea of where Clarence Lewis is comparatively.
So although the defensive line is loaded with talent and consistently disruptive (if you ignore some early season struggles this year), the secondary is loaded with talent but nowhere near as consistent.
The Notre Dame offense has been struggling so far this season, but their defense is still chock full of NFL talent, and will pose a huge problem to a struggling Cal offense. If Cal struggles on defense, the game is done, because Cal isn’t going to score a ton on this defense. If Cal turns this game into the rock-fight I’m expecting, they absolutely have a chance, especially if they can bolster the score with a defensive touchdown. Wilcox defenses have historically struggled covering NFL-caliber tight ends (even if they are great at shutting down NFL-caliber wide receivers), so Cal will have to score a non-negligible about of points on this defense. With a defensive line that will probably tear through the Cal offensive line, Cal is probably going to need to get creative.
I’m hoping this is a great game, and I’ll see you in South Bend.
Full clips can be found here.