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1 Day Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Defensive Line

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In a few hours, Irish coach Brian Kelly will meet with the media to preview Notre Dame’s spring practices. Exactly 24 hours from this posting (scheduled for 9 a.m. ET), the Irish will be on a football field wearing helmets working on actual football activities.

The biggest question facing them in that practice and the subsequent 14 this spring comes up front. Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front? If so, who will those linemen be?

For the second-consecutive year, Notre Dame lost two defensive linemen to the NFL, presuming both Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones do indeed follow in the footsteps of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. A year ago, though, it was clear Rochell and Jones were ready to lead at the defensive point of attack. Rochell had, in fact, led the Irish defensive line with 63 tackles in 2015. Looking for that candidate this year is a much more opaque process.

Just how barren is the position’s past performance? Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen recorded a grand total of zero sacks in 2016  and only 5.5 tackles for loss.

Looking at previous experience, senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, 3 for loss) may have inside tracks on starting positions. If able to stay healthy, senior tackle Daniel Cage has shown enough talent to join them, but concussions have plagued Cage for two seasons now. He finished last season with 10 tackles, 0.5 for loss, and made 18 in 2015, with four of those behind the line of scrimmage.

After those three veterans, defensive line coach Mike Elston has an inventory of unknown and unproven commodities. For that matter, one could argue Tillery is a veteran in title only after the immaturity displayed to close last season.

Sophomore end Daelin Hayes arrived at Notre Dame the most highly-touted recruit in the Irish class of 2016, a rivals.com five-star. He earned enough playing time in last year’s tumultuous season to notch 11 tackles. Classmate Julian Okwara followed his older brother’s footsteps to Notre Dame, though he was and presumably is further along developmentally than Romeo was at the same point in his career. The younger Okwara’s four tackles last season may be underwhelming, but the fact that he earned playing time at all is promising.

Seniors Jonathan Bonner and Jay Hayes and sophomores Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem will complete the springtime competition at end, with the younger two primed to pass their elders thanks in part to the fresh slate presented by new defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

The cupboard at tackle this spring is even leaner than at end, at least once past Tillery and Cage. Only senior Pete Mokwuah (one tackle) and junior Elijah Taylor (three) made it onto the field last season, and as their statistics bely, neither of which was in much of a notable fashion. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will provide further spring depth, but both could be passed by freshman Darnell Ewell on his first day in the summer. Of the entire incoming freshman class, the four-star Ewell may have the best chance to contribute in 2017, aside from the top-flight tight end duo. That is both a testament to the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ewell’s talent and a commentary on Notre Dame’s depth chart at defensive tackle.

For that matter, it is the facts supporting that commentary that make the potential addition of Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano so intriguing. Pagano visited Notre Dame over this past weekend.

Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailo-Amosa will join Ewell in the middle, while Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will attempt to further the youth movement started by Okwara and Hayes when they arrive this summer.

Somewhere in this mix of 18 linemen—19 should Pagano see fit to join the fray, but only 13 for the spring—Elson, Elko and Kelly would like to find seven or eight genuine contributors to fill out a full rotation. When only five returning linemen recorded double-digit tackles last season, identifying those contributors becomes the challenge. That process begins tomorrow.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Defensive Backs
Linebackers
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Amid mixed results in drills, Rochell & Jones look back at Notre Dame’s 2016

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Whether or not combine drills affect defensive linemen’s draft status can be debated. If the drills do, former Irish end Isaac Rochell did himself a favor Sunday at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Former Irish tackle Jarron Jones, however, may hope the drills are largely for show. After all, how often does a defensive tackle need to sprint 40 yards? And if that is a necessity, what might it say about the defense as a whole?

Jones’s 40-yard dash time of 5.33 seconds placed him No. 49 of the 51 defensive linemen at the combine. Rochell’s 4.89 put him in the middle of the pack at No. 30. Rather than discuss those times, though, most questions for those two focused on Notre Dame’s struggles last season.

“My biggest thing with our season last year is we had an identity issue,” Rochell said. “We lost a lot of really good players. This time last year you had eight, nine guys here [at the combine]. We had a lot of positions that had to be filled with younger guys.”

Counting both offense and defense, Notre Dame sent a total of 10 players to the 2016 combine, an invite-only event, including defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara.

“A lot of people were switching positions, some playing positions they weren’t used to,” Jones said. “…Each and every week, we had someone new on the d-line. We had a hard time, especially the young guys, figuring out who we were.”

Some of that turmoil may help Jones improve his draft stock, as he maintains hopes of going in the first two rounds of the late-April Draft. During his Notre Dame career, the 6-foot-6, 316-pounder played in both a 3-4 scheme and a 4-3 alignment.

“I understand defenses a lot more,” he said. “I understand both schemes. I’m versatile enough to play any position.”

Jones logged only 22 reps in the bench press and offered a mere 20.5-inch vertical jump, a distant last among defensive linemen. His prodigal wingspan, though, may help compensate for the difficulty jumping over a desk char. Jones blocked six kicks in his Notre Dame career.

Rochell, meanwhile, delivered 25 reps on the bench press, good for 13th among the 49 defensive linemen who did the drill, and a 31.5-inch vertical. He measured 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds.

Jones on Notre Dame’s 2017 defense
Jones’s brother, sophomore linebacker Jamir, has kept him apprised of events back on campus.

“They’re gonna be really good next year,” the elder Jones said. “I have great faith in that. I’ve been talking to my little brother Jamir, and he says the new d-coordinator is really whipping them into shape with the strength coach.”

Asked who he sees stepping forward this fall in the wake of his and Rochell’s departures, Jones mentioned seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Daniel Cage, as well as junior Jerry Tillery.

2 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Linebackers

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A year ago, Notre Dame returned two of its top 10 tacklers from the previous season. Defensive end Isaac Rochell finished fifth on the team in 2015 with 63 tackles, and cornerback Cole Luke rounded out the listing with 41.

This season, the Irish return four of their top five and six of the top 10, led by senior Nyles Morgan and his 94 tackles—including six tackles for loss and four sacks. The exception within the top five is linebacker James Onwualu and his 75 tackles, including 11.5 for loss and three sacks.

Onwualu’s departure will be noticed, but Morgan makes this first part easy: He will not only start but also lead the Notre Dame defense.

Rounding out last season’s top-five, junior Te’von Coney (62 tackles) and senior Greer Martini (55, with seven for loss and three sacks) make this second part simple: One of them will line up alongside Morgan.

This third part is neither easy nor simple. It is, in fact, one large question only to be answered by time observing new defensive coordinator Mike Elko: Who will start at his rover position, and what will that role entail? The best bet is last year’s second-leading tackler, senior Drue Tranquill (79 tackles). Any answer to the question of his role hinges largely on conjecture at this point.

In Elko’s past, the rover has aligned more with the linebackers than with the safeties, though its entire premise is to be a hybrid of the two. When Elko’s defense is described as a 4-2-5, the rover is among those 5, so it really is a 4-3-4. At times, however, the rover can slot in among the front line, either as an additional pass-rush threat or in place of one. This theoretical flexibility is the rover’s chief allure, somewhat diminishing the adverse effect an up-tempo offense hopes to garner by minimizing defensive substitutions. If one player can be effective at all three levels, the defense can adjust to the offense’s personnel without relying on players racing in from the sideline.

At 6-foot-1.5 and 225 pounds, Tranquill plays physically enough to fill this role, hence the presupposition he will get the first crack at it. After him, junior Asmar Bilal and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan figure to at least study the position.

Freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah will join those ranks come summer and fall.

Bilal will also provide depth at the linebacker position behind Morgan, Martini and Coney. To a lesser extent, junior Josh Barajas will, as well, while sophomores Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones (no relation) represent unknowns to date. Jamir saw action in 10 games last season, recording eight tackles. New linebackers coach Clark Lea may find unknown capabilities in either or both of the two, always an ideal possibility with a new coach and defensive scheme.

Freshmen David Adams and Drew White will further the depth at linebacker, though not this spring.

As was noted in regards to 2015’s passing statistics, a football season’s small sample size makes any even smaller grouping of games ripe for manipulation to prove any preferred point. Nevertheless … last year the Irish gave up 2,189 rushing yards at a 4.14 yards per carry and 182.4 yards per game clip, good for the No. 72-ranked rushing defense in the country.

After defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s firing four games into the season, Notre Dame allowed 173.1 yards per game over eight games, which would have ranked No. 66 in the NCAA over a full season. Among those final eight games, the Irish played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane and faced two option-dependent offenses in Navy and Army. The game against the Wolfpack would not usually find itself in this disclaimer, but the weather forced State to run the ball 51 times, compared to its average of 37.75 times across its other 12 games.

Remove those three games and their combined total of 706 rushing yards, not to mention five touchdowns on the ground, and the post-BVG rushing yards allowed per game falls to 135.8, akin to the No. 30-best rushing defense in the nation. Perhaps just as impressively, in that five-game sample, Notre Dame allowed only five rushing touchdowns.

Lastly, just as a note to fill out the earlier listing regarding returning tacklers: Of 2015’s top 10, Notre Dame also returns sophomore cornerback Julian Love (45 tackles) and sophomore safety Devin Studstill (38). They finished ninth and 10, respectively.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Defensive Backs
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

2 Days Until Spring Practice: A Look at the Defensive Backfield

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In many respects, looking at last year’s defensive performances, both as a team and as individuals, is time spent in folly. Four games into the 2016 season, the Notre Dame defense shifted drastically when Greg Hudson took over the duties of defensive coordinator after Irish coach Brian Kelly dismissed Brian VanGorder. Mike Elko will now install a new scheme, likely moving some players around and evaluating others differently than his predecessors did.

While spring practice is far from as enthralling as the fall in any respect, what it can show in situations like these makes it genuinely intriguing.

In the defensive backfield, that intrigue focuses on the deep but unproven cornerback position. Cole Luke’s graduation will be noticed, not that safety Avery Sebastian’s won’t be, but it will not be as significant as the exit of Luke’s 38 career starts.

For these purposes, discussions of Elko’s rover position—and those most-likely to fill it, being senior Drue Tranquill and sophomores Spencer Perry and D.J. Morgan—will be included in a later look at linebackers. In theory, that new wrinkle will fit in more with the Nyles Morgans and Greer Martinis of the world than the Nic(k)s Watkins, Colemans and Fertittas.

All of the Irish defensive backs returning from 2016 will also be able to return next season. Only Nick Watkins is a senior, and he will yet have a year of eligibility remaining after this season. That holds true even if including the rover position, with Tranquill there fitting the description just applied to Watkins.

Notre Dame returns 19 starts from last fall at cornerback, though two come from junior Shaun Crawford who tore his Achilles tendon in the season’s second game, a 39-10 victory over Nevada. While Crawford’s ability is real and his value to the depth chart tangible, he is superfluous to this conversation until proven healthy, and that will certainly not be this spring. For a reminder’s sake, one reader followed the commitment of consensus four-star cornerback Kalon Gervin by asking, “When was the last time ND got a true CB in Gervin ranked this high?” Only two years ago, Crawford is the answer. He was the No. 7 cornerback in the 2015 class, per rivals.com.

Two more of those starts come from junior Nick Coleman, who fell down the depth chart after starting two of last season’s first three games. Barring unforeseen growth, his contributions at cornerback are likely in the past, though he may yet remain in the defensive backfield.

That leaves Watkins, who also missed last season due to a broken arm, and sophomores Julian Love (eight starts), Donte Vaughn (four) and Troy Pride (three). This spring may not reveal which two among those four will start come fall, but it should give a strong indication as to any comfort level within Elko’s defense.

Love would seem a frontrunner—his eight starts were the season’s final eight games—while Vaughn and Pride remain more theoreticals than proven commodities. Vaughn started against Syracuse, Stanford, Navy and Army. Pride started against Stanford, Miami and USC.

No defensive coordinator will gripe about having this variety of options, especially in today’s era of football when a third cornerback is needed on the field as often as not. Notre Dame may have as many as five viable possibilities at the position. This spring four will look to impress.

Safety brings less uncertainty. Sophomore Devin Studstill started nine games in his debut campaign, making 38 tackles and one interception, also forcing one fumble. With Tranquill’s anticipated move to rover, Studstill may be counted on as the veteran of the defensive backfield.

His counterpart will presumably come from the trio of juniors Coleman and Nicco Fertitta, and sophomore Jalen Elliott. With the afore-discussed five-some of corners, Coleman may get a look at safety. The same goes for junior Ashton White.

Ferttta and Elliott both chipped in at the position last season, each appearing in all 12 games and tallying 17 and 14 tackles, respectively. The former would provide a lower floor, the latter a higher ceiling.

Early enrollee Isaiah Robertson will further the depth a safety this spring, and playing time does appear to be available if he proves himself worthy of it. If not, he will undoubtedly contribute on special teams under new special teams coordinator Brian Polian.

Freshman Jordan Genmark-Heath will join the safety ranks come summer and fall.

Last year, the Irish gave up a total of 2,357 passing yards at a rate of 7.53 yards per attempt and 196.4 yards per game (No. 21 in the country). After VanGorder’s departure, that last figure fell to 168.13 yards per game, which would have been the NCAA’s sixth-best, but statistics can be manipulated any which way to prove one’s desired point. In the season’s final eight games, Notre Dame played North Carolina State in a literal hurricane, as well as two option-dependent teams in Navy and Army. Remove those three games and their combined total of 102 passing yards, and the post-BVG passing yards allowed per game average jumps to 248.6., in line with the No. 87 passing defense over the entire season.


Previous Positional Group Spring Previews
Offensive Linemen
Tight Ends/Receivers
Running Backs
Quarterbacks
Wednesday, March 8: Spring practice begins

Kizer’s combine interview looks back while his 40-time runs forward

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DeShone Kizer might be looking toward April’s NFL Draft, but the questions about Notre Dame’s disappointing 2016 kept coming Friday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. Attending the combine requires each player to meet with the media, so Kizer had no recourse to avoid the questions. Then again, doing so likely would have raised a red flag on teams’ draft profiles.

“I didn’t make enough plays,” the former Irish quarterback said. “The ball is in my hand every play. It’s my job at Notre Dame to put us in a position to win games, to trust the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make the plays with me.”

By the end of the session, Kizer pivoted slightly from that look directly into the mirror, acknowledging the quarterback competition with Malik Zaire may have distracted him more than would have been ideal.

“I do think I spent too much time thinking about that rather than developing the guys around me, developing the trust.

“The 2015 team and the 2016 team were completely different. We almost had a completely different roster on offense. I think there should have been a little bit more time spent with me trying to develop that trust, develop the guys around me to make those plays in the fourth-quarter drives.

“At times, I was looking over my shoulder too much and I think that’s probably my biggest regret this past season.”

Kizer does not embellish when he points out the offensive turnover between the two seasons. Heading into 2016, the Irish were without 2015’s leading rusher (C.J. Prosise, 156 attempts for 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns), three leading receivers (in order of catches, most to fewest: Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle) and three offensive linemen who started all 13 games (Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer and Nick Martin).

Nonetheless, Kizer finished with 2,925 yards and 26 touchdowns on 212-of-361 passing with nine interceptions. He added 779 yards and eight scores on 104 rushing attempts when not counting sacks and their yardage lost as the NCAA does. Kizer fumbled five times, losing three of them.

But the NFL already knew all those numbers unlike the numbers learned over the weekend.

Kizer measured 6-foot-4 ¼ and 233 pounds with a hand 9 7/8 inches in length. (How to measure your hand at home? Spread it on a flat surface. Measure from the tip of your pinkie to the tip of your thumb. Michael Jordan’s measured about 11 3/8 inches.)

Kizer clocked an official 4.83 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

With those oh-so-key figures logged, Kizer spent Saturday morning throwing to receivers also looking to impress NFL scouts.

The combine includes interviews with teams, as well. In a quarterback-needy league, Kizer and the other top prospects—from North Carolina, Mitchell, neé Mitch, Trubisky; from Texas Tech, Patrick Mahomes; from Clemson, Deshaun Watson—are not only popular in those 15-minute meetings, but also chess pieces in the conversations afterward. When San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch raves about Kizer, it may be a genuine indication of the quarterback-desperate 49ers’ thoughts as they hold the draft’s second-overall pick. It could also be Lynch putting on a front for the other 31 teams of the league.

Kizer reportedly met with the Bears (No. 3 pick, likely about to release incumbent starter Jay Cutler), the Jets (No. 6, no entrenched starter) and the Chiefs (No. 27, incumbent Alex Smith has long presented a high-floor, low-ceiling situation), as well.

Scouts will have another chance to see Kizer in an orchestrated setting at Notre Dame’s pro day, March 23. Quarterbacks often perform better in those throwing sessions thanks to the more-familiar targets who are not necessarily trying to make each catch look as impressive as possible.