With Notre Dame in its bye week, we're grading each unit of the Irish after their 2-5 start to the season. After the coaching staff and offense, today it's the defense:
Defensive line: C-
What’s gone right: Individually, players in this unit have had strong games, be it Isaac Rochell (Texas, Syracuse), Daniel Cage (Nevada), Jerry Tillery (Michigan State, N.C. State) or Jarron Jones (Nevada, Stanford). There's certainly disruptive talent here -- Jones, for example, has both an interception and a forced fumble -- that's shown flashes over the course of the season.
Using a 3-4 front after Brian VanGorder was fired opened the door for Jay Hayes to get on the field, and he immediately made a positive impact against Syracuse. He's someone who coaches still need to get on the field more after the bye week given his size and physicality.
What's gone wrong: It's not just that Notre Dame only has six sacks -- half of which came against Stanford -- but this team hasn't even been effective at consistently pressuring the quarterback. Rochell has accounted for 37.5 percent of Notre Dame's quarterback hurries (nine of 24), which is also half of the defensive line's total. In 2015, Notre Dame's defensive line averaged just under four sacks and pressures a game; so far in 2016, this group's average is 2.7.
And to drive this point home a little more: Notre Dame's passing down sack rate is 3 percent, which ranks 118th in FBS and is about 5 percent below the national average. Translated: On obvious passing downs, when a defense usually is able to pin its ears back and rush the quarterback, Notre Dame is getting a sack about one in every 33-34 times. That's staggering for a defensive line that isn't completely bereft of talent -- Rochell, Jones, Tillery and Hayes were all former four-star recruits, while freshman Daelin Hayes was a five-star recruit.
What's gone right: Nyles Morgan (56 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 passes broken up) and James Onwualu (37 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 1 sack, 5 passes broken up, 1 QB hurry, 2 forced fumbles) both have had impactful seasons and have hardly been the reasons why Notre Dame's defense has struggled so much. In a normal season, these numbers would be exactly what Notre Dame needed from these two positions -- rock-solid tackling at middle linebacker from Morgan, and a playmaker at Sam linebacker in Onwualu.
Greer Martini's two sacks against Stanford were a welcome boost, too, that's worth noting. And Notre Dame's front seven as a whole has been good at not allowing explosive running plays (only two of 30 or more yards).
What's gone wrong: There's been too much inconsistency from the Will (inside) position, with Te'von Coney, Martini and Asmar Bilal falling short of the production level set by Morgan and Onwualu. And this group certainly is culpable as part of Notre Dame's issues pressuring the quarterback, too.
Taking the front seven as a whole, it's been mediocre against the run (4.06 yards per carry, 60th in FBS) and ranks 79th in defensive rushing success rate, meaning opposing teams are gaining yardage that would be deemed successful (50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down and 100 percent on third and fourth down) on 42.8 percent of their running plays.
What's gone right: Since Amba Etta-Tawo's 72-yard touchdown in the first quarter of the post Brian VanGorder era, Notre Dame's defense has only allowed one passing play of 30 or more yards (the Irish allowed eight before VanGorder was fired). Freshmen cornerbacks Julian Love, Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. have shown promise, while senior Cole Luke picked off a pass while playing the nickel against Stanford. Drue Tranquill and Devin Studstill have both tackled better since VanGorder was fired, too.
In ditching VanGorder's complex, massive inventory for a simpler, smaller version of it, Notre Dame took a fire extinguisher to a secondary that combusted in Week 1 against Texas and remained a burning mess through September. It's not a permanent fix, but the work Brian Kelly, Mike Elston & Co. have done to limit explosive plays from this group has been commendable, though there was nowhere to go but up for it.
What's gone wrong: While the preseason dismissal of Max Redfield and the Week 2 injury to Shaun Crawford were blows, there's no excuse for how awful Notre Dame's secondary was in its first four games. Forget 30-yard plays, this defense allowed four pass plays of 60 or more yards in September. Opponents average 9.1 yards per pass against the Irish with VanGorder as the defensive coordinator this year (120th in FBS) as this wasn’t a boom-or-bust group like it was last year — it was just a bust group.
The jury is still out on this secondary, which made strides but did so with a few qualifiers. Syracuse’s offense was more about operating with speed than effectiveness; N.C. State’s passing game was shut down by a hurricane; and Stanford quarterbacks Ryan Burns and Keller Chryst have struggled this year and were without running back Christian McCaffrey as an offensive crutch. Games against Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and USC’s Sam Darnold will be stronger measuring sticks for this secondary and for the Irish defense as a whole coming out of the bye week.