Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.
The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).
With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.
MVP: Sheldon Day
While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.
Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.
Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery
Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.
Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.
Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)
Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.
Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.
Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.
Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes
While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.
Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.