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Spring Solutions: Defensive line

Feb 27, 2014, 4:09 PM EDT

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No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons.

With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is the biggest wildcard on the roster.

Talented personnel exist (Sheldon Day is a moment away from being an elite player), but how the group bonds together under the direction of Mike Elston and new coordinator Brian VanGorder this spring will be one of the determining factors of the season.

Let’s take a look at the spring depth chart and the group tasked with rebuilding the defensive front this spring.

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

Justin Utupo, DE — GS
Chase Hounshell, DE — Sr.*
Tony Springmann, DE — Sr.*
Sheldon Day, DE — Jr.
Jarron Jones, DT — Jr.*
Jacob Matuska, DE — Soph.*
Isaac Rochelle, DE — Soph.
Andrew Trumbetti, DE — Fr.

*Fifth year of eligibility available.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Justin Utupo: After playing very little football his first four seasons, Utupo took advantage of his opportunities when injuries forced him into action. A tweener that’s bounced between linebacker and defensive line positions, a shift to a one-gap philosophy could really help utilize Utupo’s talents.

It will be interesting to see where Utupo weighs in on the spring roster. He was listed at 290 pounds last year, plenty big to play as a defensive tackle. Even though he’s just a shade over six-feet, he’s a disruptive guy. He’ll have his chances to make his mark this spring with a relatively shallow depth chart.

Chase Hounshell: Eventually, good luck needs to come Hounshell’s way. Multiple shoulder injuries have derailed Hounshell’s career at Notre Dame, to the point where we really don’t know what he can bring to the Irish defense.

If there’s an objective for the spring, it’s staying healthy. Beyond that, it’s providing some quality depth at a position that’s pretty thin. Hounshell was a well regarded prospect who turned down Florida to come to Notre Dame. Getting something out of the 6-foot-4.5, 271-pound defensive lineman would be huge.

Tony Springmann: Another crucially important veteran. Springmann was poised to breakout last season before an ugly knee injury ended his season. There were true worries about the severity of things, especially when an infection in the surgically repaired knee had some wondering if his career was over.

Springmann will be one to watch this spring as Kelly wasn’t sure how much work he’ll do during these 15 practices. An early start definitely doesn’t help, but there’s a belief inside the Gug that Springmann is a really good football player. He’ll be needed in the fall, making health and recovery the main objective.

Sheldon Day: The future is now for Day. (And I’m on record saying the future is very bright, as well.) The rising junior’s 2013 season was derailed after a high ankle sprain nagged him for much of the season. But a new system and a healthy Day could be a breakout performer next season.

There’s an argument to be made that Day’s one of the two most talented defenders on the field for the Irish. (Rising sophomore Jaylon Smith being the other.) Always a bit undersized at defensive end in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, watching Day this spring move find a spot in VanGorder’s system will be revealing.

Jarron Jones: After spending most of his first two seasons anonymously on the bench, Jones answered the bell against BYU with a breakout game at nose guard. Irish fans exhaled deep relief that life might just be okay after Louis Nix.

Jones is far from a finished product, but it’s clear something clicked at nose guard for him. He’s a big, strong player at the point of attack who will need to hone his craft this spring. He understands now what it takes to play and be great. This spring will be about achieving that.

Jacob Matuska: With his redshirt off, Matuska enters a depth chart with room to move. A relatively unknown commodity, it’ll be interesting to see how Matuska attacks the depth chart, with playing time certainly available.

Listed at 6-foot-4.5 and 275 pounds as a true freshman, there’s no question that Matuska’s a big boy. Now we’ll get a chance to see how a season under Paul Longo’s watch went.

Isaac Rochell: Good enough to see the field as a freshman, Rochell learned on the job last year. Now he’ll need to elevate his play if he’s hoping to grab a starting job. Rochell chipped in 10 tackles while playing in 11 games last season. There isn’t a lot on tape to suggest that he’s ready to start, but he just might be the best option available.

We’ll likely hear from Brian Kelly about Rochell’s progress, as the defensive line will certainly be a discussion point on Friday. Rochell almost embodies this unit: Promising, but unproven.

Andrew Trumbetti: The early enrollee freshman will have plenty of opportunities to state his case for immediate playing time. Whether he’s athletic enough and a good enough pass rusher to take that role remains to be seen.

A very real issue for this group is rushing the passer. Where are the sacks going to come from? Trumbetti might have the best skill-set among the personnel to be that guy. It’s just a matter of determining whether or not he’s got the speed and skill to make the immediate leap forward.

  1. farwest99 - Feb 27, 2014 at 4:42 PM

    “A very real issue for this group is rushing the passer. Where are the sacks going to come from?”

    They call him Mr. Smith. LB. Jaylon Smith.

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 27, 2014 at 11:36 PM

      You’re probably right in the answer to that question because the sacks will come from Brian Van Gorder’s defensive scheme…and if you look at his history, 2/3 of his teams sacks come from the linebacker position.

      Across his time as DC @ U of Georgia, Jacksonville, and Atlanta the sacks come from a rush linebacker…guys like John Abraham (Falcons) and David Pollock (Georgia)

      His defenses don’t produce an absurd number of sacks (about 3 per game across his history as a DC), but still respectable. The other thing you’ll notice from his history is that his teams don’t get a ton of turnovers….less than 2 per game.

      BUT, he’s notorious for defenses that allow very few points. I think I read somewhere that during his 4 years as DC at Georgia, they only allowed more than 30 points one time.

  2. mtflsmitty - Feb 27, 2014 at 7:01 PM

    Eight guys to fill a 2-deep across 3-4 positions does seem thin. But with so much strong recruiting in the last three years its more about the system than anything.

    Lose a couple really good players? It may seem like a lot of drama, but watch! These guys, who’ve been quietly developing in the BK/Longo system, and will now be further developed by BVG, will step up and fill the shoes of Nix and Tuitt. I doubt any will have Nix’ sense of humor. But they’ll fill their shoes just fine.

    Without a true NT, but backed by smaller and faster LBs, BVG will move to a 4-3. Starting front-4:
    Strong side DE – Tony Springman
    Strong side DT – Sheldon Day
    Weak side DT – Jarron Jones
    Weak side DE – Isaac Rochelle

    GO IRISH

    • 4horsemenrideagain - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:14 AM

      I like that front four.

      it may lack the big names/big expectations that last year’s front had, but make no mistake, there are no slouches in this group. in fact, once he’s 100%, day is poised to have a monster season, especially in a 4-3.

      I love having a slightly inexperienced group of guys with everything to prove. lots of room to grow and develop and all the motivation to make a name for themselves. that’s a good combination of motivating factors.

  3. irishdog80 - Feb 27, 2014 at 9:53 PM

    The best thing that happened to this defensive line was the signing of Cody Riggs. Last year’s defense had injury and lack of effort problems on the d-line, linebackers that had trouble playing in space and were slow except for Jaylon, and a defensive backfield that was a mix of slow and slow to react. Riggs presence on the back end will give the d-line more time to get to the QB and more time to develop as a unit over the season.

    In 2014, if Redfield is truly ready, we will have an elite defensive secondary, a more athletic set of linebackers especially if Morgan can step in quickly and a defensive line that will be, at the worst, as good as last year’s since Tuitt and Nix were either not there or not there in spirit. Give me a defense that plays hard together. The 2013 defense lacked leadership. i doubt that will be a problem in 2014…we will be much better due to intensity and overall athleticism.

    • upthera44 - Feb 27, 2014 at 10:31 PM

      Hmm not sure about “D-line will be, at worst, just as good.” I definitely don’t share that level of optimism. The under-performances of Nix and Tuitt are really being exaggerated on these boards lately. They did underperform, but the expectations were sky high (and Nix-defenders’ argument that Nose guards don’t really fill the stat sheet, but eat up space in the middle are legitimate). And besides, I still remember thinking in several games that they (Tuitt especially) was a really disruptive/dominant force. Oklahoma for one, despite the team’s overall poor performance.

      So I think they’ll be lucky to be even nearly as good on the d-line. I still think they have a chance to be a comparably good defense next year, with hopefully a much-improved offense.

      And aren’t we due for some good luck on the injury front? C’mon Houndshell, Springman and Grace!

      • irishdog80 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:40 PM

        I do tend to be optimistic. That said, before the 2012 season if you had told me that Nix and Tuitt would break out and become potential Top 10 picks, I would have said that you were being very optimistic. My gut tells me that other than a few spotlight games with national attention and NFL talent scouts watching, Nix and Tuitt were saving themselves a bit…and I do not necessaryily blame them with potentially millions of dollars on the line…for their NFL careers and not the glory of ND–thus the comments by Brian Kelly about wanting players that are here for ND and not the NFL.

        I truly believe we are vastly improved in the secondary and potentially at linebacker. With Day and Jones on the line, we have two players that came in with high recruiting rankings that are poised for potential break out years…sound familiar? The net/net will be a d-line that with better talent behind them, will be as good or better than our 2013 line. If Nix and Tuitt were so dominant, where were the sacks early in the year? Part of the issue was scheme, but part of it was both of them being a bit banged up and thinking about an NFL payday.

  4. fnc111 - Feb 27, 2014 at 10:39 PM

    I think this is the key unit on the team for a big ’14 season.

  5. knuterocknesghost - Feb 27, 2014 at 11:20 PM

    Just throwing a thought out there to hear comments:

    The cupboard is loaded on the O-line side given how well Harry Heistand has recruited. And it’s no guarantee that depth needed for the D-line will be adequately addressed by incoming freshman. So how drastic would it be for BK to re-arrange the dishes ND has in its O-line cupboard by moving a plate or two from the O-line over to the D-line cupboard? For example, John Montelus (6-4, 340 lbs. rated 4 stars by Scout and also ranked as no. 2 guard prospect in his recruiting class) as a NT? Is this (A) mindlessly far fetched, (B) somewhat interesting, or (C) I gotta believe BK is already considering a move like this?

    • idratherbeinsouthbend - Feb 27, 2014 at 11:39 PM

      I don’t think that’s the play. If they need to move more bodies to the D-Line, they would be better suited to throw some weight on a linebacker. But, really, I don’t think they need any more bodies up there. What we have now fits BVG’s defensive scheme well I think

      • knuterocknesghost - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:25 AM

        BK reportedly expressed a preference for a defensive coordinator who would keep ND in a base 3-4 defense that can switch into a 4-3. But in any case I think it depends on a team’s personnel on defense. It may be that BVG convinces BK to think differently.

    • bernhtp - Feb 28, 2014 at 9:49 AM

      I think it’s far more likely that Ishaq will be moved to DE.

    • mtflsmitty - Feb 28, 2014 at 2:53 PM

      You pose an interesting question. Two years ago there were several linemen recruited on one side of the ball that were in play to move to the other. I’m pulling this from memory only, but I believe Jarron Jones was recruited by most schools, including ND as an OL.

      I maybe wrong on Jones. But I believe this has been part of the consideration set in the past. So…Someplace between B and C.

  6. knuterocknesghost - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:13 AM

    If we’re going to speculate for fun, then lets start with some real speculation:

    Sheldon Day – DE
    John Montelus – NT
    Jarron Jones – DE

    together with what I expect (and hope) will be a line-backer corp. that is faster with Jaylon Smith, soon to be joined by Niles Morgan, and with an improved secondary as already noted by Irishdog.

    Does it make more sense to cover the field with more speed from the back 7 to cover all the gaps if Montelus can consistently occupy two of the opponents’ O-linemen by ND going with a 3-4 defense as its basic defensive alignment?

    Could Isaac Rochell fill in the spot vacated by the graduation of Prince Shembo? Rochell reportedly ran the 40 in 4.71 as reported by Scout when he was a CFB recruit (that’s Shembo’s NFL combine time and supposedly a shade quicker than was reported by Scout for Ishaq Williams as a CFB recruit). Rochell last year was listed at 6-3, 280 lbs. Is he or is someone else the better athlete to be all at once the 4th pass rusher, sometimes dropping in coverage, and occasionally becoming the 4th down lineman in certain situations while playing the OLB position opposite Jaylon Smith?

    • shaunodame - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:23 PM

      The Montelus move is an interesting one no doubt. I hadn’t thought of a move like that. With a new Coordinator I don’t think we could rule out a move like that either. However, with Rochell, he’s simply too big to be used as a Cat rusher like Shembo. Sure he could line up at D-End in 4 man looks, but I don’t think there’s much chance he’s a true Cat OLB with coverage responsibilities. His size and athleticism is much better suited to have a hand in the dirt, permanently.

  7. dsharp86 - Feb 28, 2014 at 3:01 AM

    When we lineup in 4-3, I assume Williams and Okwara will play some with their hand on the ground, particularly in passing situations. Okwara started to come on in the latter part of 2013 and hopefully will continue to progress.

    I’m also looking forward to Springmann’s return. Nothing more intimidating than a guy who looks like he just came from cutting down redwoods and wrestling bears.

  8. mediocrebob - Feb 28, 2014 at 8:27 AM

    I like this dline a lot. The best thing about them IMO is that they all have something to prove. No preseason all
    Americans. Just a bunch of guys that nobody really knows a whole lot about.

    If I had to choose, I’d say Rochelle is going to be the biggest surprise. And if Springman stays healthy, I think he’ll be a huge part of this defense. I also believe that we’ll see a healthy amount of the 4-3 and 3-4. I like that this defense may not be as easy to prepare for. There’s a lot of talent, not just on the DL , with guys that bring different skills which could make it diffiicult to know what’s coming.

  9. yaketyyacc - Feb 28, 2014 at 8:40 AM

    at the end of the season, we will be saying, where did this aggressive, punishing defense come from.
    wasn’t it back in Feb. when Keith was writing about what kind of and who would be defense. what will bring this to reality: VAN GORDER.

  10. fnc111 - Feb 28, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    Onwualu moving to safety. I was going to suggest that under the WR article on here a few days ago. He looks like he’d be a way better safety than WR. Him and hopefully Redfield back there in 2015. Look out.

    • shaunodame - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:30 PM

      Safety Depth Chart is way toooo stacked already to start adding more players like Onwualu (though I def agree he seems to profile quite well there). I think Riggs could win the Nickelback spot, making things even more crowded with Shumate out of a job. Just for fun, here’s my depth chart prediction, let me know what ya think:

      Boundary Safety: 1a. Elijah Shumate 1b. Max Redfield 2. Eilar Hardy 3. John Turner (remember him? lol)
      Field Safety: 1. Austin Collinsworth 2a. Mathias Farley 2b. Nicky Barratti

      • dsharp86 - Feb 28, 2014 at 2:42 PM

        Your depth chart was outdated before you even wrote it. Farley to corner and Turner to linebacker announced this morning, plus adding Onwalu added as mentioned.

      • shaunodame - Feb 28, 2014 at 7:06 PM

        Fair enough dsharp. Where do you get your ND news from? Jw

  11. shaunodame - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:19 PM

    My ’14 Depth Chart Projections/Predictions

    3 man line 2 deep
    Right D-End:1.Sheldon Day 2. Andrew Trumbetti
    Nose Tackle:1. Jarron Jones 2. Tony Springmann
    Left D-End:1. Isaac Rochell 2. Chase Hounshell

    4 man line 2 deep
    Right D-End:1. Isaac Rochell 2. Andrew Trumbetti
    Nose Tackle:1. Jarron Jones 2. Tony Springmann
    Defensive Tackle (3 Tech):1. Sheldon Day 2. Chase Hounshell
    Left D-End:1. Ishaq Williams 2. Romeo Okawara

    I also expect Freshman like Jay Hayes and Daniel Cage to see time at the 3 technique DT, Mokwuah at Nose, and Johnny Williams and Kolin Hill at the Left (Rush) D-End.

    I used the 4 man set-up based on the 4 man line looks we used last year. That being said, Van Gorder could have a whole new set of ideas/formations for his 4 man lines. This is just my prediction, hope you guys enjoy.

  12. danirish - Feb 28, 2014 at 1:57 PM

    Wow, just read on ESPN’s Notre Dame blog that:

    Will Mahone and Amir Carlise are WR’s

    Farley is not a safety but a Corner

    Onwuala is not a WR but a safety!

    • danirish - Feb 28, 2014 at 4:58 PM

      I got a thumbs down for reporting something from the ESPN Notre Dame blog? Or does the thumb downer just not like the decisions made?

  13. fnc111 - Feb 28, 2014 at 2:40 PM

    Riggs is going to start at corner, opposite of Russell.

  14. mediocrebob - Feb 28, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    Luke will be nickel and they will play up to 4 corners at a time per BK. There will be plenty of snaps to get them all PT and that’s before injuries. You can always count on injuries and consider ourselves lucky if the injury bug does not affect us.

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