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First-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden arrived on campus with a simple blueprint.
Stay the course.
New Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman, Golden’s predecessor, concurred. With Golden taking over as the team’s third defensive signal-caller in three years, Freeman opted for continuity over change, especially after the unit showed so much promise in 2021.
“We’re trying to keep some consistency in what we’re doing,” Freeman said. “There obviously have been some enhancements because of coach Golden’s experience being a defensive coordinator and being in the NFL. But the basis of what we’re going to do is not going to change.”
Why should it?
After making the 2020 College Football Playoffs, the Fighting Irish took a significant step forward by producing 41 sacks, 26 takeaways and finishing 15th nationally in points allowed (19.7 per game) during Freeman’s first and only season as coordinator.
If the Irish can replicate those numbers, No. 5 Notre Dame could be back in the playoff hunt.
The mantra is simple: Play fast, play free. And the 53-year-old Golden intends to stick to the script.
Golden brings a solid track record to South Bend. A successful tenure as Virginia’s defensive coordinator led to head coaching jobs at Temple and Miami before he went to the NFL. He coached linebackers with the Detroit Lions and was part of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl run last season.
Now he’s trying to help build another championship contender.
“I think we’re talented, I think we have depth and I think we have leadership,” Golden said. “That’s a great starting point. The thing I’m most excited about is it’s a group that wants to be empowered, that wants to do it on the field, that wants to communicate on the field. Great things can happen when you have that kind of group.”
The cupboard is far from bare as the Irish prepare to open the season No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 3.
Preseason AP All-American Isaiah Foskey decided to return to school rather than pursue an NFL career after leading the Irish with 11 sacks while forcing six fumbles. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end is the anchor of the front seven.
“I feel I need to be more vocal as a leader,” he said.
Defensive end Rylie Mills will start on the opposite side after registering three sacks in 2021 and they will be backed up by upperclassmen Justin Ademilola, Jordan Botelho, Alex Ehrensberger and Nana Osafo-Mensah.
Jayson Ademilola’s, Justin’s twin brother, and seniors Howard Cross III, Jacob Lacey and 310-pound grad transfer Chris Smith will man the interior line. Smith played at Harvard and Golden likes what he’s seen out of the newcomer.
“A Harvard grad who is playing at Notre Dame?” Golden chuckled. “He’s really strong – a good anchor in there.”
Middle linebacker JD Bertrand returns after posting a team-best 101 tackles and rover Jack Kiser also comes back after logging 45 tackles and two interceptions he returned for scores. There’s also sixth-year-senior Bo Bauer, who had 47 tackles last year.
Plus, senior Marist Liufau is healthy again after missing the 2021 season with a broken ankle and Botelho could see action at linebacker where everyone has learned to play multiple positions under Golden and James Laurinaitis, Freeman’s former teammate with Ohio State.
“Coach Freeman has encouraged us to do that so we have more depth,” Golden said.
Also back are starting cornerbacks Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis and fifth-year senior TaRiq Bracy. At safety, the Irish return two more experienced starters — DJ Brown and Houston Griffith.
Add All-American Brandon Joseph, who had six interceptions at Northwestern in 2020, to the mix and the Irish secondary could be even stronger despite losing star safety Kyle Hamilton to the NFL.
“Brandon is a natural leader,” Freeman said. “He’s confident, which is extremely important, and he’s made plays and he’s very vocal making checks.”
It will be a tough combination to match — one Freeman, understandably, wants to keep together.