SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Freshman Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden arrived on campus with a simple plan.
Stay the course.
New Fighting Irish coach Marcus Freeman, Golden’s predecessor, agreed. With Golden as the team’s third quarterback in the last three years, Freeman chose continuity over change, especially after the unit showed so much promise in 2021.
“We try to keep some consistency in what we do,” Freeman said. “Obviously there were some improvements because of Coach Golden’s experience as a defensive coordinator and being in the NFL. But the basis of what we will do will not change.”
After reaching the 2020 College Football Playoff, the Fighting Irish took a big step forward, producing 41 sacks, 26 takeaways and 15th in the nation in points allowed (19.7 per game) during Freeman’s first and only season as coordinator.
If the Irish can repeat those numbers, No. 5 Notre Dame could be back in the playoff hunt.
The mantra is simple: play fast, play free. And Golden, 53, intends to stick to the script.
Golden brings a solid track record to South Bend. Successful stints as Virginia’s defensive coordinator led to head coaching positions at Temple and Miami before he moved on to the NFL. He coached linebackers with the Detroit Lions and was a part of the Cincinnati Bengals’ Super Bowl run last season.
Now he’s trying to help build another championship contender.
“I think we have talent, I think we have depth and I think we have leadership,” Golden said. “It’s a great starting point. My biggest concern is that this is 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 a group like this.”
The Irish prepare to open the season at No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 3.
Preseason AP All-American Isaiah Foskey opted to return to school rather than pursue a career in the NFL after leading the Irish with 11 sacks and six fumbles. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end is the anchor of the front seven.
“I feel like I need to be more active as a leader,” he said.
Defensive end Riley Mills will start on the opposite sideline after registering three sacks in 2021 and are backed up by seniors Justin Ademilala, Jordan Botello, Alex Ehrensberger and Nana Osafo-Mensah.
Jason Ademilala, Justin’s twin brother, and seniors Howard Cross III, Jacob Lacy and 310-pound senior Chris Smith will lead the interior line. Smith played at Harvard, and Golden likes what he’s seen from the rookie.
“Harvard grad playing at Notre Dame?” Golden laughed. “He’s really strong – a good anchor there.”
Middle linebacker Jay Dee Bertrand returns after posting a team-best 101 tackles, and Jack Kaiser also returns after registering 45 tackles and two interceptions, which he returned for scores. There’s also sixth-grader Bo Bauer, who had 47 tackles last year.
Also, senior Marist Lufau is healthy again after missing the 2021 season with a broken ankle, and Bottelu could see action at linebacker, where everyone has learned to play multiple positions under Golden and James Laurinaitis, Freeman’s former state teammate Ohio.
“Coach Freeman encouraged us to do that so we have more depth,” Golden said.
Also back are starting cornerbacks Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis and fifth-year cornerback Tariq Bracey. At safety, the Irish return two more experienced starters in DJ Brown and Houston Griffith.
Add in American Brandon Joseph, who had six interceptions at Northwestern in 2020, and the Irish secondary could be even stronger despite the loss of star safety Kyle Hamilton to the NFL.
“Brandon is a natural born leader,” Freeman said. “He’s confident, which is very important, and he’s played, and he’s very vocal about making checks.”
It will be a difficult combination – one Freeman, understandably, wants to stay together.