clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film Study: A first look at Notre Dame’s defense

The Fighting Irish rely on flexibility from their base personnel to create challenges for opposing offenses.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame-Spring Practice South Bend Tribune-USA TODAY NETWORK

Ohio State is beginning their final approach towards the 2022 football season, with less than three weeks until their top-5 match up against Notre Dame. Throughout fall camp, many of the questions asked have been about Ohio State’s defense, but they open up against a good Notre Dame defense with a solid defensive line, a consistent group of linebackers, and a stingy defensive backfield. Led by first year head coach and former defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, there are high expectations on this side of the ball by the Irish staff.

Looking at the staff, Notre Dame brought in former Miami and Temple head coach Al Golden to serve as the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Golden had Ryan Day on his staff for one season at Temple in 2006, which probably does not mean all that much. Another Ohio State connection to the staff is former Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington, who is now the defensive line coach and defensive run game coordinator for the Irish. Former Buckeye James Laurinaitis is also on staff as a defensive of grad assistant. There is a lot of familiarity in this matchup, and Day’s one matchup against a Freeman defense ended in 42-0 throttling of Cincinnati when he was their DC.

Last season, Notre Dame ranked 14th in points per game, 28th in opponents yards per play, and 10th in opponents third down conversion percentage. Overall, Freeman has a flexible defense that mixes in pressure and relies on a disciplined secondary to limit big plays in the passing game. Their defense is talented and will create some challenges for Ohio State’s offense. Looking at the spring game should allow for an in depth look at Notre Dame’s base defensive looks and how they might come out against the Buckeyes.

Defensive Personnel & Alignment

Notre Dame under Marcus Freeman has run a base 3-3-5 and 4-2-5 hybrid, depending on the matchup. This gives them the flexibility of showing an odd front, as well as being able to mix in a four down linemen even-front with a stand up end. This flexibility and formational versatility comes from a position Notre Dame employs called the “Vyper,” which is an EDGE defender who plays both down linemen and outside linebacker responsibilities — similar to Jim Knowles “Jack” position. On the defensive line, Notre Dame has three down linemen including a defensive end (or Big End), a defensive tackle, and a nose tackle.

Moving to the backfield, Notre Dame utilizes the standard Mike and Will terminology for their two inside linebackers. Their five defensive backs include two corners and three safeties. The safeties are broken into three groups, with them being the boundary safety, field safety, and rover position, which is a bigger in-the-box safety. The rover position can be rotated out for a nickel safety, which is an additional corner body type against pass heavy teams. The defensive structure below gives a look of both defensive looks with bigger personnel and smaller personnel.

Base Defense

To get started, here is a visual of the Notre Dame base defense with all the positions marked. This look is a 4-2-5 look with the “Vyper” – the prestigious academics apparently don’t know how to spell the name of the snake species the position is named after – playing as a stand up defensive end. The two linebackers the “Mike” and “Will” are aligned straight forward, with the “Will” to the boundary and “Mike” to the field side. The safeties play on the hashes and their names are pretty self-explanatory, and they do rotate sides. Lastly, the three-down linemen are true odd front bodies, with the “Big End” being a heavier defensive end, the nose tackle usually lined up as 1-tech to the strong side, and the defensive tackle plays as a 3-tech to the weak side.

The “Vyper” position allows for Notre Dame to utilize odd front personnel from an even front look. This also gives them a lot of flexibility to move the down linemen around to search for matchups.

Defensive alignment against 11-Personnel Doubles

Notre Dame’s defense relies on their base structure and the flexibility that the structure provides against multiple formations. Having two positions that emphasize versatile skill sets in the “Rover” and “Viper” allows for them to match up against most looks from their base set. In this situation, they took the “Rover” out for a nickel corner due to the 3rd-and-11 passing situation, but the defensive front remains the same. Looking at the linebackers, they are aligned in their traditional spots with the “Will” playing to the short side, and the “Mike” playing to the field side.

Defensive alignment against trips

The defense in this example is aligned against a three wide receiver look. The defense is playing with their base defensive personnel. Looking first at the box in the picture, we get another look at how the Fighting Irish defensive line looks up front. The “Viper” is playing once again as a stand up EDGE rusher, the DT is in a 3-technique, the NT is in a 1-technique, and the “Big End” is to the field side. Looking at the secondary, the “Rover” is over the first receiver and the two safeties are both playing their landmarks with hash marks.

This shows another example of how Notre Dame does not stray away from their base personnel in most situations and relies on the positional versatility to matchup against a variety of looks.


Notre Dame runs a two-high based look, and under Marcus Freeman the focal point of their coverage strategy has been utilizing “Cover-4 Match” which is a versatile coverage a lot of teams have moved to using. This coverage is simple and has been effective against Ohio State over the past couple of seasons. To explain Cover-4, it is a quarters look, meaning the two corners and two safeties are responsible for quarters of the field. In Cover-4 Match, the responsibilities are still based in the principle of playing for quarters, but there is a built-in switch emphasis on the receivers.

Looking at the clips below, we can get a look at how Notre Dame drops into their coverage. In the first play, we see the Rover and the Field Safety over the two inside receivers. This leaves the field corner alone on an island responsible for the outside receiver. The “Rover” is responsible for whichever of the two receivers runs a short breaking route. The Field Safety is responsible for whichever receiver pushes vertically.

In this scenario, the “Mike” drops into the middle of the two deep safeties, providing help and allowing the safeties to stay deep. The quarterback makes a bad decision and this results in a pick, but seeing the initial drops helps visualize how Notre Dame will be looking to defend Ohio State.

In the second play, the Cover-4 Match ends up being played as a traditional Cover-4. Looking at the boundary side first, the outside receiver runs a shallow route across the formation and the corner lets him go then sits back in his quarter zone. The Boundary Safety takes the vertical tight end, but when the tight end breaks off his route towards the cornerback, the safety is able to provide help to the middle.

To the field side, the “Rover” presses the receiver at the line of scrimmage, who takes an inside release in the direction of the field safety, meaning the receiver is the safety’s responsibility. The field corner takes the outside receiver and is able to stay over top, allowing the “Rover” to remain as an underneath player. The field safety keeps his depth and is able to take his receiver and watch the backfield, which allows him to make a play on the ball, intercepting the pass.

Notre Dame’s defense is based in structure and creating havoc through their organization. Marcus Freeman has built his defenses on this philosophy, and this is why his defenses have been successful on a consistent basis. Their 4-2-5 defense is flexible and can be used in a variety of ways to create mismatches for offenses. Having two positions dedicated to being versatile allows Notre Dame to change their fronts and numbers in the box seamlessly.

From a defensive personnel standpoint, they utilize the “Vyper” and “Rover” to match up against certain offensive looks better. The “Rover” is able to provide additional run support in the box when necessary, and is a focal point in the field side coverage interrupting the seam. In the front-seven, the “Vyper” is used to attack different pass rush matchups and also aids in coverage at times against bigger tight ends. This versatility on the field allows Notre Dame to maintain their base structure, but they are also able to have a lot of flexibility in player responsibility.

The Buckeyes will have their work cut out for them, as Notre Dame has a big defensive line and they play a bend not break style. If Ohio State isn’t patient, that will play into Notre Dame’s hands, as their defense is built on waiting for the offense to make a mistake. The Fighting Irish will need a huge performance defensively, but if Ohio State starts with some of the same problems they had last year, the Notre Dame defense is built to make things difficult for unbalanced offenses.

Ohio State will need to establish the run and attack the Irish with a lot of play-action to create indecisiveness on the back end. If they can do that, Notre Dame’s defense, despite being stingy, won’t have enough to slow the Buckeyes down.