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Under Pressure: Where will the Irish find their pass rush?

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Brian VanGorder’s media access has been limited to a small handful of interview opportunities. But that didn’t stop the Irish’s new defensive coordinator from uttering what amounts to a mission statement for his defense.

“My mindset, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being more aggressive,” VanGorder said. “It starts out (at cornerback). That’s where you start your decisions as a coach. Can we hold up out there? If you’ve got a corner that can press and take a guy out of a game, that’s a huge advantage. That makes sense to all of us. But you can’t just do it to do it.”

In what amounts to the most radical coaching change in the Kelly era, VanGorder’s defense is almost the inverse of Bob Diaco’s. And it also fits the personnel the Irish have, with KeiVarae Russell, Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, Matthias Farley and Devin Butler headlining one of the strongest positions on the roster.

But covering receivers is one thing. Getting after the quarterback is another. And if VanGorder’s defense is built around aggression and pressure, finding the players to provide that spark is as essential as the back end of the defense.

Heading into offseason conditioning, consider these five players crucial in providing the pass rush.

ROMEO OKWARA
Career Sacks: 0.5

That Okwara was just thrown into a starting defensive end job tells you quite a bit about the depth chart after Stephon Tuitt decided to head to the NFL early. On paper, he looks the part of a 4-3 defensive end, and at 6-foot-4, 258-pounds he’s got the length and size to be dangerous.

But Okwara has spent more time backpedaling than rushing the passer in his career, and has been a utility replacement player for two seasons. There’s no more part time work for Okwara anymore. He’ll be counted on to beat offensive tackles and wreak havoc in the opponent’s backfield.

A productive spring ended with a nice performance in the Blue-Gold game. But the work has only just begun for Okwara.

 

ISHAQ WILLIAMS
Career Sacks: 1

It’s beginning to feel a little bit like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown with Williams, but Brian Kelly was cautiously optimistic about Williams heading into spring practice, where the now veteran defensive end desperately needs to lead this defense.

At 6-foot-5.5 and 271-pounds, Williams has an NFL body and athleticism. He just hasn’t shown any of the production after arriving in South Bend with a five-star ranking and immense expectations. Being stuck behind Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo didn’t help. But Williams’ job has been simplified this spring by VanGorder. Go get the quarterback and make plays.

We’ll see if he’s able to do that in his final fall playing for Notre Dame.

JAYLON SMITH
Career Sacks: 0

You’d be foolish to think that VanGorder wouldn’t utilize his best defensive weapon in the pass rush, especially after watching Smith’s brief cameo in the spring game. The team’s best athlete, Smith is already set to be the team’s best playmaker, and a shift to Will linebacker could make him even more productive.

The Irish haven’t been a very good blitzing football team the past few years. But VanGorder was incredibly successful with zone blitzes with the Atlanta Falcons and just spent a year with Rex Ryan, one of the NFL’s true mad scientists.

Expect him to utilized his most skilled pupil.

SHELDON DAY
Career Sacks: 2.5

Let’s give Day a mulligan for 2013, when an early high ankle sprain ruined his efficiency early in the season. But Day will shift inside to defensive tackle in VanGorder’s new system, and should only come off the field when opponents call in the punt team.

Kelly has raved about Day’s ability and explosiveness since he early enrolled. Against Temple, Day was the team’s best defensive lineman. But after suffering the ankle injury against Purdue, it took almost until the season finale to get the Indianapolis native back to 100 percent.

The Irish’s best defensive lineman needs to get to the quarterback. Able to attack a gap and get up field, Day should be able to utilize a very elite skillset that makes him dangerous.

ANDREW TRUMBETTI (or FRESHMAN X)
Career Sacks: 0

You can forgive Trumbetti if this spring was a bit of culture shock. Instead of running track, throwing a shot put, and going to prom, the New Jersey native was tasked with learning an NFL defensive system in 15 practices.

The transition won’t be much easier for the freshmen defenders coming to campus this summer. But thanks to some tweaks in NCAA rules, the Irish coaching staff will be able to study film and implement playbook changes with their new players, which could help get a young pass rusher up to speed.

Freshman Aaron Lynch made an impact as a pass rusher. So did Prince Shembo. Does Jonathan Bonner have the best chance of coming in and contributing off the edge? Is it more likely to be lanky and explosive Jhonny Williams? Or perhaps the added bulk that Grant Blankenship brings to campus will help him get on the field.

Either way, at a position with this little depth, expect a freshman to get a shot.

 

Restocking the roster: Offensive Line

Notre Dame offensive line
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When Notre Dame takes the field this spring, there’ll be two very large holes in the offensive line that need filling. All-American left tackle Ronnie Stanley is gone. As is captain Nick Martin at center. Both three-year starters leave Harry Hiestand with some big decisions to make in the coming months as the Irish look to fill those key positions and still field a unit with the ability to dominate in the trenches.

The Irish have had incredible stability at left tackle, with Stanley sliding in seamlessly after four seasons of Zack Martin. Perhaps the best six-year run in the program’s storied history at the position, Stanley will likely join Martin as a first-rounder, back-to-back starters at a key spot that often dictates the play of one of the most important units on the field.

Replacing Nick Martin could prove equally tricky. Rising junior Sam Mustipher served as Martin’s backup in 2015, filing in capably for Martin after an ankle sprain took him off the field briefly against UMass. But Mustipher will face a challenge this spring from rising sophomore Tristen Hoge, the first true center recruited by Hiestand and Brian Kelly since they arrived in South Bend.

Kelly talked about 2017 being a big cycle on the recruiting trail for restocking the offensive line. You can see why when you look at the depth, particularly at tackle. Let’s look at the work that’s been done the previous two classes as Notre Dame continues to be one of the premier programs recruiting in the trenches.

 

DEPARTURES
Ronnie Stanley
, Sr. (39 starts)
Nick Martin, Grad Student (37 starts)
Mark Harrell, Sr* (No Starts, fifth-year available)

*Harrell’s departure is not confirmed, though expected.  

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Tristen Hoge
, C
Trevor Ruhland
, G
Jerry Tillery
, T
Parker Boudreaux
, G
Tommy Kraemer
, T
Liam Eichenberg
, T

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Hunter Bivin, T
Quenton Nelson, LG
Sam Mustipher, C
Steve Elmer, RG
Mike McGlinchey, RT

Alex Bars, T
Colin McGovern,* G/T
Tristen Hoge*, C
John Montelus*, G
Jimmy Byrne*, G
Trevor Ruhland*, G

*Has an additional year of eligibility remaining. 

ANALYSIS:
It’ll be a fascinating spring up front for the offensive line. We’ll get our first look at potential replacements and see if the Irish staff values a veteran presence (as it has done in the past) or puts former blue-chip recruits in position to become multi-year starters.

For now, I’m putting last season’s backups in line to ascend to starting spots. That’s not to say I think that’s what’ll happen. Hunter Bivin may have been Stanley’s backup last season, but as long as Alex Bars is fully recovered from his broken ankle, I think he’s the best bet to step into that job. Sharing reps at guard—not a natural spot for Bars to begin with—was more about getting him some experience, with the aim to move him into the lineup in 2016. That allows Bivin to be a key swing reserve, capable of playing on either the right or left side.

At center, the decision is less clear cut—especially since we’ve yet to see Tristen Hoge play a snap of football. Size and strength is a genuine concern at the point of attack for Hoge, not necessarily the biggest guy hitting campus. But it sounds like he’s had a nice first season from a developmental standpoint, and if he’s a true technician at the position, he could be a rare four-year starter at center if he’s able to pull ahead of Mustipher this spring.

On paper, the other three starting jobs don’t seem to be in question. Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey are ready to step to the forefront. Concerns about Steve Elmer’s buy-in will certainly be answered by spring, there’s little chance he’ll be on the field in March if he’s not going to be around in August. I’m of the mind that Elmer’s too good of a character guy to leave the program, even if his life doesn’t revolve around football 24/7. Now it’s time for him to clean up some of the flaws in his game, the only starter from last season who held back the Irish from being a truly elite group.

Depth isn’t necessarily a concern, but there isn’t a ton of it at tackle. That happens when you move a guy like Jerry Tillery to defensive line and lose a player like Stanley with a year of eligibility remaining. That could force the Irish to cross-train someone like Colin McGovern, a veteran who can swing inside or out if needed. McGovern seems to be a guy who would start in a lot of other programs, but has struggled to crack a two-deep that’s now filled with former blue-chip recruits, all of them essentially handpicked by Hiestand and Kelly.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
Getty
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

BVG
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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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