Notre Dame defensive players Tuitt, Nix III, and Te'O celebrate after breaking up a play in the fourth quarter during their win over USC in their NCAA college football game at the Coliseum in Los Angeles

Restocking: Defensive Line

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Brian Kelly has instilled plenty of changes in the Notre Dame football program. But perhaps none is more surprising than the success this Irish coaching staff has had recruiting defensive linemen.

For the longest time, Irish coaches swung and missed trying to land key front-line defensive players, getting to the point where recruitniks started to resemble Ahab chasing the white whale, only to be driven mad at near misses on promising players like Omar Hunter, Gerald McCoy, Justin Trattou, and many others.

When Brian Kelly announced his plan to play a 3-4 defense, some expected the difficulty to land defensive linemen was a factor in choosing a system that only required three down linemen. But in reality, Kelly’s system has put a premium on finding bigger, stronger and more versatile linemen, raising the bar of the recruiting profile needed to succeed in his multiple front defense.

And succeed this staff has done. Kelly’s ability to quickly transform the two-deep depth chart along the front has been impressive. Let’s take a look back at how he’s done it:

2008
Sean Cwynar — Played as a key reserve before turning down a fifth year of eligibility.
Ethan Johnson — Saw the field immediately and spent four years as a regular.
Kapron Lewis-Moore — Redshirted, then started four years at defensive end.
Brandon Newman — Reserve player for Irish, finished eligibility at Ball State.
Hafis Williams — Reserve player for Irish, started seven games for UMass this season.

2009
Tyler Stockton — Reserve defensive lineman won’t likely see a fifth year at Notre Dame.

2010
Kona Schwenke — Late addition to recruiting class backed up Louis Nix at DT in 2012.
Louis Nix — Chose ND during coaching transition. All-American candidate in ’13.
Justin Utupo — Mostly reserve player that’s a tough fit in current ND defensive scheme.
Bruce Heggie — Late addition to class transition from DL to OL. Now reserve center.

2011
Brad Carrico — Switched from DE to OL before a foot injury ended his career.
Aaron Lynch — Freshman All-American before quitting team during spring drills.
Anthony Rabasa — Reserve linebacker with pass rush skills. Yet to break into rotation.
Tony Springmann — Redshirted in ’11 before playing key reserve minutes in ’12.
Stephon Tuitt — Exploded during sophomore season with 12 sacks from DE and DT.
Ishaq Williams — Versatile player saw time in both ’11 and ’12. Needs breakout ’13.

2012
Romeo Okwara — Saw time at outside linebacker as a 17-year-old freshman in ’12.
Sheldon Day — Had an impressive season rotating along the Irish defensive line.
Jarron Jones — Saved a year of eligibility. Expected to compete at DE.

2013
Isaac Rochell — Georgia DE had elite offers from SEC schools before choosing ND.
Eddie Vanderdoes — Heir apparent to Nix will likely contribute immediately.

Way too early spring projection

There’s no reason the Irish defensive front doesn’t take a step forward this season. Against Alabama, it was clear there was work to be done. And after a few months to get the bad taste out of their mouths, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and company will get back to work.

The battle to replace KLM won’t likely be won by one player, but expect Sheldon Day to step into the lineup immediately. Day’s impressive freshman season will be one to build on, and even though he lacks the prototype size, he’s disruptive enough to play both inside and out. It’ll also be interesting to see what Jarron Jones brings this spring, as he’s got the bulk and height Bob Diaco and Mike Elston like in their defensive linemen.

How the Irish used Ishaq Williams will be interesting. He isn’t likely to beat out Prince Shembo at Cat linebacker, but he’ll definitely be one of the Irish’s top front seven players, and a four man defensive front, with Tuitt sliding inside, could be a lot for opposing offenses to handle.

 

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”