Heading into the season, Notre Dame’s defensive line was looked at among the finest units in the country. Led by preseason All-Americans Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, the Irish’s three man front, with sophomore Sheldon Day stepping in for graduated Kapron Lewis-Moore, had the makings of one of the deepest and most dangerous in the country.
Which made the sight of outside linebacker Romeo Okwara and true freshman Isaac Rochelle playing significant crunch time snaps up front against Arizona State all the more telling. That the Irish haven’t played as dominant along the defensive line isn’t as easily explained as injuries to guys like Day, Chase Hounshell or Tony Springmann, and the disappearance of Eddie Vanderdoes. But let’s take a look at the production the Irish have gotten from Mike Elston’s guys and check out some of the contributing factors that have gone into Notre Dame’s 4-2 start.
Louis Nix III — 20 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 BU, 1 PD
Stephon Tuitt — 18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PD, 7 QBH, 1 FF
Sheldon Day — 7 tackles, 1 TFL
Kona Schwenke — 6 tackles
Isaac Rochelle — 3 tackles
Jarron Jones — 2 tackles
Injuries. There’s really no getting around this one. Losing glue guys like Hounshell and Springmann were killer injuries, especially with Day struggling to come back from an ankle sprain the past few weeks. Combine the fact that Tuitt has been slowed by a hernia surgery, and you see a position that at one time looked like the deepest in the past 20 years on the defensive side of the ball, now need to depend on untested players like Jarron Jones and Tyler Stockton in key situations.
Supporting Cast. Playing a three-down alignment doesn’t just rely on great work by your nose tackle and two stout defensive ends. It depends on precise run fits by linebackers and seamless work by defenders in elementary things like alignment, communication and scheme. Losing Hounshell and Springmann loses two guys that understand what it is this defense wants to do. Subbing in a first time starter at linebacker like Jarrett Grace (and now with his injury, walk-on Joe Schmidt or Kendall Moore) in place of Manti Te’o, and you see how the little things likely led to some bigger issues.
Bullseye. Let’s be honest. It’s easy for guys like Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix to make an impact when not everybody knows how good they are. But after a 12-0 season that saw both players garner some All-American mentions, constant double teams and offensive coordinators scheming against you certainly makes things a little bit more difficult.