It’s hard to wipe the memory of November’s defensive implosion away. The biggest culprit? A defensive line that was certainly decimated by injury but also filled with untested kids and leftovers.
Without a healthy Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day, the interior of the line had no chance. And by the time the Irish limped to Southern California, the front-four was playing on roller skates. The Trojans took what they want, when they wanted it, in one of the least competitive games between the two programs since the heights of the Pete Carroll era.
But there’s hope that last season’s embarrassments will fortify the troops. And new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore spent the spring getting to know a very well-stocked depth chart. Yet strength in numbers has to prove it’s actually a strength on the field.
There’s hope that last season’s experience—however painful—will be a good one for the depth chart. With Jones on the mend, Day returning for a much-needed senior year and some intriguing young players in the mix, the front four returns with its reinforcements almost entirely intact.
Now we’ll find out if that’s a good thing or a bad one.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr. (6-4, 260)
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr. (6-2, 285)
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.* (6-5, 315)
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr. (6-3.5, 287)
DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph. (6-3.5, 255)
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr. (6-6.5, 300)
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph. (6-3, 285)
DE: Johnny Williams, Soph.* (6-4, 260)
DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph. (6-4.5, 252)
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.* (6-4.5, 295)
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph. (6-.5, 315)
DE: Jon Bonner, Soph.* (6-3, 275)
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr. (6-4, 295)
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.* (6-3, 317)
Jerry Tillery. The freshman nearly built a legend this spring, needing just a small handful of practices before Brian Kelly was ready to tab him as ready and capable to be an impact player up front.
He’s certainly got more than adequate size, with length and power that should remind you of Stephon Tuitt. That he also possesses a preternatural knowledge of the game and a very good head on his shoulders gives him a chance to do even more—and sooner—than Tuitt did in his three seasons in South Bend.
No pressure, kid.
Jay Hayes. After taking off the redshirt late in the 2014 season only to go down with an injury a game later, Hayes had a tough-luck first year in South Bend. But this spring’s decision to take things easy with Sheldon Day ended up being a very good thing for Hayes’ development, and the New Yorker was dead set on taking advantage.
If you had a starting duo of Hayes and Tillery on your Blue-Gold prop sheet, you’d have likely won a tidy sum. And it’s clear that the early word on Hayes’ “scrappiness” is telling, that he’s willing to mix it up in the trenches is a much needed development, especially with Hayes up to 285 pounds.
Isaac Rochell. One of the success stories from 2014 up front, Rochell was thrown into the starting lineup after Ishaq Williams went down with the Frozen Five and Rochell put together an impressive season.
While the Irish roster still misses a true speed rusher, Rochell is going to wreak havoc in 2015, especially if he’s playing with three other capable linemen. Whether it’s sliding inside or at strongside defensive end, the image I can’t get out of my head was Rochell out-quicking Sheldon Day during offseason shuttle runs.
Men that big shouldn’t move that quickly, and Rochell is my pick up front to take a huge step forward in 2015.
Sheldon Day & Jarron Jones. Until we see both of them on the field again lined up against Texas, it’s a wait-and-see approach. But make no mistake, this duo—when healthy—is among the best defensive tackle tandems in college football.
The mission? Take out the health concerns and contingencies when making the above statement. And find a way to make it through their senior seasons unscathed. If they both do, the NFL will like what they see, and the Irish will have a defensive front that’ll be awfully hard to run against.
Jhonny Williams. It sounded like Williams had all the talent needed to see the field last season, but simply needed to learn the game more. That shouldn’t have been surprising considering the basketball and track athlete’s late introduction to the game, but Williams wasn’t one of the emerging stories of the spring, so this neutral grade is a reflection of him not taking the big step forward many were expecting.
Romeo Okwara. Notre Dame’s returning sack leader is a senior now. He’s a 6-foot-4, 260-pound athlete that maybe should only be a sophomore in college when you consider he’s not only enough to drink yet, but that’s no excuse.
With the Irish in desperate need of a pass rusher, if Okwara is capable of being the man off the edge a missing link on the defensive will be filled.
Jon Bonner. This would’ve been a fast-riser had Bonner not gone down with the spring’s only major injury. While he should be healthy and participating come fall camp after turf-toe surgery, Bonner’s impressive athleticism and quickness is predicated on being healthy, and until we see that, it’s tough to see him ascending a packed depth chart.
Buy. This group is likely a value play. On paper, there’s a ton of talent. Players like Jacob Matuska—290-pounders with athleticism—would’ve been staples up front in the Weis era.
But it’s hard to forget that the last time we saw this group, they were turning Leonard Fournette into Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson in the Music City Bowl. And that was after losing November, a month Kelly had built his reputation around.
This is still very much a “show me” proposition. But there’s a lot to like from a young group that should have its best football in front of it.