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Spring Solutions: Defensive line

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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.

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.”