Yesterday, we took a look at the offenses. Today, we’re taking a look at what Texas and Notre dame have to work with on defense.
If this Irish win this game, it will probably be because they won at the line of scrimmage. They’ll have the advantage on the offensive line going against a Texas defensive line that has question marks in the middle right now.
To add to that, when compared to the Longhorns, the Irish defensive line is expected have a more favorable match-up Sunday evening as well.
In their base formations, the best way I can describe these defensive lines overall is using two generalizations. Notre Dame’s group is mostly big and powerful. It has good size scattered throughout.
As for the ‘Horns, while they do have some size, considering a lot of that size and power will be from its freshmen, this Texas unit feels more like a finesse group right now compared to this group of Notre Dame linemen. Let’s be real, there’s a reason why Strong felt the need to bring in five freshmen at defensive tackle.
The leaders across the Notre Dame line will be returning starters Isaac Rochell at defensive end and Jarron Jones at nose tackle.
Rochell, a 6’3”, 290-pound senior, recorded 63 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and 1 sack last season. And Jones, a 6’5”, 315-pound 5th-year senior who missed most of 2015 with a knee injury, tallied 40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks in 2014.
Along with those two, Notre Dame will feature other guys like nose tackle Daniel Cage, a sophomore who saw time last season after Jones went down, and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, a 6’6” 310-pound sophomore currently listed as the starter next to Jones.
On the outside, defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, a junior who saw the 4th-most snaps among defensive linemen last season, is listed as the starter opposite Rochell. And junior Jay Hayes, a 6’3”, 285-pound defensive end, and freshman Daelin Hayes (no relation, I believe), a former five-star by Rivals, will both likely see action against Texas too.
If Notre Dame wants a unit with more speed on the field for passing downs, we’ll probably see the Irish shuffle their lineup to one that features all defensive ends across the front four with Rochell and Jay Hayes inside and Daelin Hayes and Trumbetti outside (or something similar to that).
While Texas may not return the same power up front, the group of guys who are coming back had a total of 16 sacks in 2015. We’re talking about junior Fox End Naashon Hughes (5.5 sacks), junior defensive tackle Poona Ford (2.5 sacks), senior defensive tackle Paul Boyette (3 sacks), senior Bryce Cottrell (4 sacks) and sophomore defensive tackle Chris Nelson (1 sack).
In comparison, Notre Dame’s group of returning linemen tallied 4 sacks last season.
In addition to the Longhorns listed above, we’ll see sophomore Charles Omenihu get in on the action (and possibly start), as well as at least one or two freshman defensive tackles.
Likely wanting to run the ball on Texas, one of the bigger challenges for the Texas defensive line will be slowing down the Notre Dame ground attack by fending off those big Notre Dame offensive linemen.
Maybe we’ll see some of the Texas defensive linemen hold their own against the strong Notre Dame offensive line come Sunday evening. And maybe the Longhorns’ own group of offensive linemen will keep the Irish defensive linemen at bay long enough for the offense to execute plays.
The concern going into this one, though, is that Notre Dame will get the better push in the trenches, clog up running lanes and over power the Texas offensive linemen while creating running lanes on offense against a Texas defensive line (and defense as a whole) that struggled against the run last season.
Advantage: Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s group of linebackers will feature senior James Onwualu, a returning starter who tallied 38 tackles and three sacks last season, junior Nyles Morgan, who’s listed on the Butkus Award Watch List heading into this season (though he recorded just 17 tackles last season), and junior Greer Martini, who recorded 35 tackles and a sack last season.
Texas, on the other hand, returns its own starter and Butkus Award Watch List member in sophomore Malik Jefferson. As a true freshman, Jefferson (who’s also listed on the preseason all Big-12 team among other watch lists) finished second on the team in total tackles. Against Notre Dame last season, in his first collegiate game, he racked up a total of nine.
With Jefferson will probably be some combination of senior Tim Cole, who saw action in 11 games and started three, sophomore Anthony Wheeler, who finished with 36 tackles last season, and others like redshirt sophomore Edwin Freeman, redshirt freshmen Cameron Townsend, and true freshmen Jordan McCulloch and Erick Fowler (who may see time on the defensive line as well).
It should also be noted that Notre Dame tends to run a 4-3 base defense while Texas, featuring two linebackers and a nickel, tends to run a 4-2-5 base defense. We’ll get to the nickel in the “safeties” section.
The two reasons I kept this as a push are 1) Notre Dame has to replace both Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt from their core of linebackers last season. Say what you want about Schmidt (some thought he lacked athleticism), that’s replacing a total 222 tackles and Schmidt had 78 of them.
And 2) Malik Jefferson played like his hair was on fire against the Irish last season in his first ever collegiate game. I expect another huge game out of him at home this go-around as well.
It’s tough to find a duo of young corners around the country that are better than sophomores Davante Davis and Holtin Hill. The pair combined for 85 tackles, 11 pass break-ups, and had an interception a piece as true freshmen last season.
Throw in sophomore Kris Boyd and 6th-year senior Sheroid Evans (missed 2014/2015 due to two knee injuries) and the group is shaping up to be more than solid in 2016.
The Irish, however, return just one player that made any sort of big impact throughout last season in senior Cole Luke, who recorded 41 tackles, five pass break-ups, and two interceptions.
Listed as the starter opposite Luke is 5’9” sophomore Shaun Crawford, who missed all of his true freshman season last year with a knee injury.
On the two-deeps behind Luke and Crawford are sophomore Nick Coleman, who recorded five tackles and two pass break-ups after seeing action in all 13 games last season, as well as freshman Julian Love.
No Notre Dame corner listed on the two-deeps is taller than 5 feet and 11 1⁄2 inches (Crawford). Considering Notre Dame’s corners will also have to deal with some size disadvantages against the Texas receivers, give me the Texas corners all day in this one.
Had I written this piece just over a week or so ago, I may have pushed here. Since then, former senior Max Redfield, who led all returning defensive backs in tackles with 64, has been kicked off the team due to gun-related charges.
Listed as the starting safeties for the Texas game now, per the Notre Dame depth chart, are junior Drue Tranquill and 6th-year senior Avery Sebastian.
It should be noted that true freshman Devin Studstill, who’s reportedly been playing well during camp, will likely see extensive action as well even though he’s listed behind Sebastian.
Freshman Jalen Elliott is listed as the other safety behind Tranquill.
The group of safeties for Texas features a blend of veteran experience and talented, athletic youth. Senior free safety Dylan Haines and junior strong safety Jason Hall will probably start at each safety spot respectively after each started 11 games last season.
But it’s the athletic duo of sophomore DeShone Elliott and freshman Brandon Jones that ultimately puts this group ahead of the Irish. Both players are big, fast and unafraid to get physical. I expect both to see the field against Notre Dame.
Senior Kevin Vaccaro could also see time on the field if needed as well.
When Texas is lined up in its base 4-2-5 defense, we’ll probably see a combination of sophomore P.J. Locke III and junior Antwuan Davis (who could also shift out to corner if needed) lined up at nickel.
Overall, Texas comes into this game with the better situation at safety and the stronger secondary
Both Notre Dame and Texas should have good options at kicker and punter this go-around.
When punting, expect Texas to call on sophomore Michael Dickson and for Notre Dame to call on junior Tyler Newsome. Each averaged 41.3 yards and 44.5 yards per punt respectively last season.
Kicking field goals, Notre Dame has sophomore Justin Yoon, who converted 15-17 last season. And thanks to the addition of grad transfer Trent Domingue, Texas is set to have a solid option at kicker as well. At LSU, Domingue converted 13-17 field goals as the full-time starter in 2015.
Daje Johnson handled most of the kick and punt return duties for Texas last season as a senior. Without him (and without a depth chart), it remains to be seen who will take over in those roles.
Notre Dame will turn to sophomore C.J. Sanders to again be the return man. Last season, Sanders averaged almost 23-yards per kick return and just over seven per punt return. He also scored a touchdown on both a kick return and punt return.
When it comes down to it, both teams will have athletes that should be able to create some opportunities for big returns. But without having a depth chart to tell us who will be the guy for Texas (and without seeing who’s out there blocking for him as well), I left this as a slight lean to Notre Dame. Call it a push if it makes you feel better.
Advantage: Notre Dame
When I look at these two teams, Notre Dame seems to have more strengths on the interior of its team in its OL, DL, QB and LB’s where Texas seems to have more of its strengths on the outside at the skill positions on offense, and in the secondary on defense.
If this game were played towards the end of the season, it’d likely be a more even match-up. Straight out of the gate, though, Notre Dame is rightly favored in this one.
Of course, that doesn’t mean an upset isn’t possible...
As a reminder, I’m posting one thought per day in a series of 15 posts over the course of 15 days until we get to game day.
With four days left until kickoff, this is the 12th post of the series.
If you missed the other posts, the links are below
Post #1 - “The Youth Movement Continues”
Post #3 - “Texas Needs To Score More”
Post #4 - “Offense Part 1: The Trenches”
Post #5 - “Offense Part 2: The Supporting Cast”
Post #6 - “Can the Texas defense improve enough?
Post #7 - “Where will Texas land in the final B12 standings?”
Post #8 - “Texas is set to get a great quarterback in 2017 in Sam Ehlinger”
Post #9 - “Seven questions for the 2016 Longhorns football team”
Post #10 - “Ten predictions for the Texas Longhorns 2016 season.”