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.

 

 

 

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”