Notre Dame’s 2015 plans up front all but went down the drain in August, when Jarron Jones got rolled up in a practice drill during fall camp. But that didn’t stop Sheldon Day from having one of the most productive seasons in the country, the senior captain earning All-American honors for a tremendous season in the trenches. Nor did it stop Romeo Okwara from putting together an impressive season as a pass rusher, an unlikely eight-sack season for the two-time team leader.
But both Day and Okwara are gone, leaving very large holes in a defensive front. While Day’s production and leadership will be missed from the moment the team takes the field without him, all is not lost in the trenches. Though it’s been built mostly through anonymous recruits (at least from Notre Dame’s standards) and converted offensive linemen (Jerry Tillery, and whispers of John Montelus cross-training), Keith Gilmore has a whole lot of talented depth available to fill the void.
Depth may be a strength but overlooking the returning starters is a mistake. Isaac Rochell will soon be recognized as a national talent. Jarron Jones’ return for a fifth-year likely wouldn’t have happened had he been healthy enough to play in 2015. Both can be impactful, standout players. With Jones down, Tillery and Daniel Cage earned valuable reps, snaps that’ll have them ready to take the next step in their game come late August.
Gone are the days when the Irish struggled to field a two-deep up front. There’ll be no less than 15 defensive linemen huddled around Gilmore during spring drills, a young core that only has Jones and Rochell playing their final season of eligibility.
Before spring practice, let’s finish up our roster reload series by looking at one of the most well-stocked positions on the roster.
Sheldon Day (45 tackles, 15.5 TFLs, 4 sacks)
Romeo Okwara (48 tackles 12.5 TFLs, 8 sacks)
PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Isaac Rochell, Sr.
Jarron Jones, Grad Student
Jerry Tillery, Soph.
Andrew Trumbetti, Jr.
Daniel Cage, Jr.
Grant Blankenship, Jr.
Jay Hayes, Jr.*
Jonathan Bonner, Jr.*
Jacob Matuska, Sr.*
Peter Mokwuah, Jr.*
Micah Dew Treadway, Soph.*
Brandon Tiassum, Soph.*
Elijah Taylor, Soph.*
Khalid Kareem, Fr.
Daelin Hayes, Fr.
*Fifth-year of eligibility remaining
Outside of Jerry Tillery, we’ve seen next to nothing from these two recruiting classes. And that’s fine when it comes to power players like Dew-Treadway, Taylor and Tiassum, who’ll enter spring football hoping to find a spot in a rotation. Come fall, we’ll get our first clue as to if this group is capable of playing above their recruiting profile. The trio were early targets (and commits) to Brian VanGorder, and each have legitimate size and length (all between 6-3 and 6-4 and 285 and 302 pounds). After a year of learning with Keith Gilmore, getting some productive snaps shouldn’t be too much to ask.
If the 2015 cycle focused on heft, the recent group should be looked at as the speed component. Early enrollees Khalid Kareem and Daelin Hayes both have the look of premium defensive ends. Hayes might still be limited with a shoulder issue—and could still be a linebacker—but Kareem will have the spring to convince Gilmore and VanGorder that he can help be part of the solution as the Irish continue to try and build a four-down pass rush.
Julian Okwara and Ade Ogundeji are also speed recruits. Both need some time in the weight room, but each have a raw ability that had Notre Dame’s staff believing that they’ll be capable of coming off the edge and applying pressure. Okwara’s pass rush skills are already more natural than his brother’s—that’s decent praise considering he was the team’s sack leader the past two seasons. And Ogundeji has the type of wing span and body type that could be molded into a monster, though he’ll have to put in serious work to get there.
Perhaps the most underrated part of this defensive line is the depth that’s been accumulated over the past two years. Some of that comes from stealth moves like the sophomore redshirt Jay Hayes wore, keeping him off the field kept and in line with classmate Jonathan Bonner. That’s two sophomores (eligibility wise) who can help take the pressure off of Tillery and Jones and have the positional flexibility to add something to the pass rush as well.
Finding a way to get production from weak side defensive end is still a big question mark. But most hope Andrew Trumbetti gets a bump from his late-season opportunities—and finds plenty of time for the weight room this offseason. With some key building blocks, talented back-ups and the ability to extend a rotation that got mighty thin last season, this line won’t have Day and Okwara, but it should have a lot of ability.