Spring Solutions: Defensive Line

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In a showdown with the defending national champions, most neutral party observers were shocked when Notre Dame’s defensive front dominated Florida State’s veteran offensive line.

So were most Irish fans.

With Jarron Jones breaking loose and Sheldon Day causing problems, the Irish’s two interior defensive tackles showcased their abilities. Patched together by players young and old, Brian VanGorder and Mike Elston managed to get productivity out of the defensive end spot as well.

But as the season continued and injuries hit, the critical lack of depth showed itself as Notre Dame’s front fell apart. Behind Day and Jones was little experience. An already inexperienced defensive end spot looked more and more lost as reserves playing reserves turned the final product into a group held together by string and glue.

The depth chart returns largely unchanged, with reinforcements (perhaps young and old) on their way. With new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore infusing a new voice into the meeting room, let’s take a look at the defensive line before spring practice starts next week.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.*
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.
DE: Romeo Okwara
DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DT: Jon Bonner, Soph.*
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.*
DE: Jhonny Williams, Soph.*
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.*
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

*Denotes fifth-year available

This group could also still add Ishaq Williams, who needs to do some academic work before reapplying to the university for summer school. Technically, it could also include Anthony Rabasa and Chase Hounshell as well, though it’s assumed that both will be moving on after graduation, either to another program or to life after football.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Andrew Trumbetti: After a solid debut season, Trumbetti needs to take the type of step forward we saw from Isaac Rochell last year. Likely, that’ll come in the weight room. But ideally, it’ll come from a speed, quickness and pass rush ability as well.

Notre Dame is desperate for a pass rusher. They’ll add Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner into the mix this spring with Bo Wallace coming in this summer. Most think that’s not enough, but after being thrown into the mix early, Trumbetti establishing himself this spring would be key towards this defensive line stepping forward on generating heat on the quarterback.

Jarron Jones: There are still screws in Jones’ foot, meaning any on-field work this spring isn’t happening. And after this coaching staff already worked through a similar injury a few years back with Braxston Cave, it’ll be key for Jones to keep his strength and conditioning up to par while he continues his recovery.

While he’s got a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, a big senior season could set up Jones for the option to head to the NFL. But he’ll need to do his best in rehab and fitness if he’s going to hit the ground running heading into next season. We saw an offseason surgery derail Stephon Tuitt’s junior season. Let’s see if the Irish training staff learns their lesson as they deal with Jones.

Sheldon Day: After making the smart move to stay in school, Day needs to prove he can stay healthy. He’s got the confidence of his coaches. And now he’ll be working with Gilmore, who has a track record of producing NFL defensive linemen.

Day led the team in “almost” plays last year, a stat less valuable than Monopoly money. Getting through spring and supplying leadership for a young position group should be what’s most important for the veteran captain, who will likely find comfort as a more vocal leader heading into his final season.

Isaac Rochell: If you’re looking for a defensive lineman to feel good about, Rochell is your guy. Early comments from Brian Kelly last year gave us a hint that Rochell was ready to take on a bigger role. And after losing Ishaq Williams in August and Tuitt to the draft, Rochell played as well as you could have hoped coming off a mostly anonymous freshman season.

It’s hard to learn much from a Vine video, but Rochell out-quicked Sheldon Day in an agility drill. He’ll likely come into spring inching closer to 300 pounds. Big, strong, fast and agile isn’t a bad skillset. Getting more comfortable as a versatile piece on the defensive line, Rochell could be a great candidate for a next-level season.

Romeo Okwara: This is it for Okwara at Notre Dame, with a redshirt season never possible after depth problems forced him onto the field. But as Okwara enters his second season at defensive end, finding more comfort at the position will be key.

You could win a lot of money by knowing that Okwara quietly led the team in sacks last season with 4.0. That says more about Notre Dame’s struggles generating pressure on the quarterback than maybe anything Okwara may have done, but it’s a nice place to start from.

Grant Blankenship: That the big-bodied freshman stepped onto campus and played spoke to the lack of depth up front. But it also should be a credit to Blankenship’s preparations.

With a few more months in the weight room, it’ll be interesting to see what Blankenship weighs on the updated spring roster. There’s plenty of room to grow, which will only help the Texan’s versatility up front.

It’s hard to have a firm grasp on what Blankenship’s best skill is. With the length that made him an early target of Bob Diaco’s for his 3-4 system, we’ll see how Keith Gilmore plans to use another nice piece of young talent.

Daniel Cage: After being on Notre Dame’s recruiting radar for just weeks, Cage stepped in at defensive tackle and played a key role in short yardage situations, a stout player at the point of attack.

Battling through late-season injuries, spring will serve as a progress report for Cage, who will be counted on to take plenty of snaps without Jones in the mix. At his best, Cage can be the type of run-stuffer that would’ve fit in just fine in a 3-4 scheme, capable of doing more in VanGorder’s system.

But starting from scratch with a new defensive line coach, Cage will be asked to prove it this spring, likely part of the next wave of young players who need to take a big step forward if the front four is going to be considered a strength.

Jon Bonner: After jumping out early last training camp, Bonner started his career as a 269-pound outside linebacker, a position listing that may have been a pipe dream, but still is quite telling about the youngster’s athleticism.

Bonner never saw the field, keeping the redshirt on as depth issues surfaced. But capable of fighting his way into the mix this spring, it’ll be curious how Bonner looks knowing that the field is only as far away as he allows it to be.

Likely a candidate to be Day’s understudy at tackle, Bonner may also have the ability to add some pass rush to the mix.

Jay Hayes: After being thrown into the mix after injuries took hold, Hayes suffered a hard-luck injury against USC, rallying to return for the bowl game, but not an ideal development considering the thought that went into burning a year of eligibility.

But that decision was ultimately a compliment to Hayes’ ability, with the assumption that he’ll be around for five seasons one Kelly and company weren’t willing to make. That means Hayes will enter spring not just as a redshirt expecting his first taste, but rather as a veteran looking to prove something.

Keep an eye on the New York native.

Jacob Matuska: Thrown into the fire when injuries piled up, Matuska struggled with his own health and it showed late in November. A big body expected to battle in the trenches, he wasn’t able to do that successfully late in the year, with a stinger limiting him in the season’s final games.

We’ll see this spring if Matuska is an emergency depth player or a guy who can do more than that. You can’t teach nearly 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, but that doesn’t help if you get blown off the ball. After learning what it takes to make an impact, Matuska will decide whether or not he’s a contender for a spot in the rotation.

Jhonny Williams: He looked like a bean pole when he committed to the Irish. Around a year later, Williams is hardly the former basketball and track athlete that committed to the Irish late in the process. He also could be an answer for some of the Irish’s pass rush woes.

Expect some growing pains for Williams, part of the reason he didn’t see the field last year. But he’s also capable of making an impact off the edge, making Williams’ progress worth watching.

A new voice in his ear can’t hurt with Gilmore ready to get something out of Williams. So add him to a list of intriguing redshirts ready to help.

Pete Mokwuah: One of two late defensive tackle targets by Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly, Mokwuah committed to the Irish sight unscene, turning his back on Rutgers to join the Irish roster.

Listed at 325 pounds on the fall roster, we’ll see where Mokwuah measures in this spring. That’s a big body to work with, and one that’ll likely be transformed after nine months with Paul Longo.

Jerry Tillery: Count me among the believers in Tillery. He’s an elite athlete, and even though he’ll be learning how to grow into his frame, he’s expected to help up front, part of the reason why the transition from offensive lineman to defense appealed to the Irish coaching staff.

For as mature as Tillery is, there’s still likely an acclimatization process taking place right now. But with winter ending and spring football nearly here, Tillery will have this week’s spring break as a battery recharge before establishing his spot in the depth chart.

Micah Dew-Treadway: It’s hard to expect anything from Dew-Treadway this spring, especially after seeing where he was at the Semper Fidelis All-American game in January.

But Dew-Treadway is on campus to get a jumpstart on his career in South Bend, and the number of stars next to your recruiting ranking are all wiped out to zero regardless of who you are once you’re on campus.

He’s big enough and has intriguing game tape. We’ll see how he deals with Keith Gilmore, and likely spends these 15 practices learning the game on his way to a redshirt season.

 

 

 

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)