The evolution of Brian Kelly as a head coach has been pretty fascinating to watch from the outside. When Louisville played at Notre Dame in 2014 his defense had been ravaged by injuries and had no scheme advantages. But, when he decided to make a change at defensive coordinator he brought in Mike Elko and started to coach like he was in charge of the entire team and not just the offense.
After Elko made the move to Texas A&M, his protege Clark Lea took over and his defense was able to produce some incremental improvements last year. The biggest improvement was the ability to get to the quarterback and I think they could be even better in that area this year. Julian Akwora and Khalid Kareem combine to make up one of the best pair of edge players in the country. Akwora led the team in tackles for loss and sacks with Kareem in the top three in both. The Irish also have great depth here with Daelin Hayes leading two other seniors as their top backups at the ends.
The Louisville offensive line will have to find a way to handle both players in pass protection as they are the exact types of pass rushers that can get into Jawon Pass’ head early and make him uncomfortable. However, Akwora is a “pursuit” player that does his best work when he’s chasing down plays. With the offense that I saw App State run last year, I think they should see some success with a lot of play action passes to keep the pass rush from getting up field quickly.
The middle of the defensive line will be brand new after the Irish graduated two senior starters. Jerry Tillery was the guy sandwiched between the two ends in tackles for loss and sacks last year and I don’t think there is a guy on the roster that can step in and replace that production. That could be an issue for the Irish because the Louisville offensive line is more unsettled up the middle and could be susceptible to disruptive play from a good defensive tackle. If Louisville is able to establish the inside running game, it really opens up the rest of the offense.
Kurt Hinish will man the nose guard position for the Irish with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (I thought I was done having to spell that name) at the defensive tackle spot. Both players are veteran but neither has made an impact on the stat sheet. It’ll be a trend this season of me pointing out how important opposing tackles are with Louisville’s desire to run the ball like they will. I don’t know that they could have asked for a better situation to start the year to be able to go against a couple of unproven guys who won’t likely be nearly as disruptive as Tillery was. Jacob Lacey is a guy that could get into the game at nose guard as a true freshman. He was one of the many high level players in the state of Kentucky last year.
The second level of the Irish defense will have to replace some key guys. Te’von Coney is playing for the Raiders right now and Drue Tranquil went in the fourth round to the Chargers. That’s three NFL players up the middle that the Irish have to replace and just like the defensive tackle spots, they don’t appear to have guys that will be able to step in and replace the level of production they had last year. Drew White appears to be the first man up to take over for Coney and he’s only appeared in four games so far in his career.
Asmar Bilal is moving inside to play the weakside spot after playing the Rover position in 2018. Bilal takes over for Tranquil and he’s a solid option to replace the production and versatility he provided. Tranquil was a converted safety that had a great ability to cover tight ends and slot guys while also being a really good player in the box. Initially, it seemed like Bilal would be playing the the middle linebacker spot but I do think he fits much better in a role where he will play in coverage and in space more. Overall, there are some fair questions to be asked about how ND will replace all of their production up the middle.
Julian Love has moved on to the NFL but the Irish have to be happy with what they have at the cornerback spots. Tony Pride Jr. is one of the fastest players on the team and has plenty of experience after being the guy to be picked on when teams tried to avoid Love. Pride will take over at that boundary corner position vacated by Love and should be a solid replacement even though he’s not an All-American caliper player like Love. Opposite Pride will be either Shuan Crawford, Donte Vaughn, or Houston Griffiths. I’d put my money on Griffiths being on the field in some capacity even if he’s not the starter as he is the most talented player out of the group. But, the staff might chose to go with experience and the other two options are veteran guys who have seen the field a lot.
The safety duo of Alohi Gillman and Jalen Elliott is probably the best Louisville will see this year. Gillman has landed on a few preseason All-American teams and Elliott might actually be the better overall player. Gillman ended last season with 94 tackles after sitting out 2017 when he transferred from Navy. Gillman is the the exact type of story you hear each year with Notre Dame where a walk-on or some other “Rudy”-type situation happens and the player makes a bunch of plays. After putting up 76 tackles at Navy as a zero-star recruit, Gillman took the leap to ND and was a stud last season. The one area of his game that I saw a possible weakness was in coverage against speed. Louisville might look to create a favorable matchup at some point in the game.
Elliott is a really good player for Notre Dame that allows the to play a good amount of cover one because he can cover a lot of ground in the back end. Elliott also does a good job of getting down into the box and helping in run support. Elliott will be a key player if Louisville can get their running game going because we will likely see ND play even more cover one with Elliott playing deep. Louisville has very good options on the outside and could make it hard for him to play that over the top role. But, as a combo, these two safeties will play a huge role in the run defense and Louisville backs will have to find a way to make these guys miss in space.