Depth on defensive line a welcome surprise

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For Notre Dame fans that have been following the team for the past decade or so, there’s every reason to be confused. That confusion arose again last week, when the Irish accepted the commitment of defensive line prospect Sheldon Day, an Indianapolis native that’s among the nation’s best and most versatile prospects. That the Irish beat SEC powers like LSU for a defensive linemen — even one from in state — has the Notre Dame faithful mystified at their good luck under head coach Brian Kelly, who has seemingly reeled in every big name defensive lineman he’s looked at since arriving in South Bend. In retrospect, maybe we should’ve seen this coming. Kelly (with a big assist from Tony Alford) landed Louis Nix before he even accepted the head coaching job.

But Day’s commitment meant the Irish had to tell four-star defensive tackle Tommy Schutt that the bus is full, a move that had some Irish fans apopleptic that Kelly and his coaching staff (a group that’s spent over 18 months evaluating 2012 defensive line prospects) would have the nerve to turn down a player that recruiting websites had rated higher than Day. (Michigan would tell Schutt the same thing 24 hours later, supporting the claim that Schutt might be overrated by websites like Rivals.)

With the Irish corralling Day to go along with the sizable defensive line haul in the last recruiting cycle, the coaching staff have been able to focus on other positions of need as they balance recruiting with a full 85-man scholarship allotment. (Jordan Prestwood officially became No. 85 last week.) More importantly, for the first time in recent memory, the strength of the defensive roster is a stacked defensive line.

Here’s a quick look at the first official two-deep depth chart along the defensive line for the Irish.

DE: Ethan Johnson: 6-4, 300, Sr.
DE: Aaron Lynch: 6-6, 265, Fr.

NT: Sean Cwynar: 6-4, 285, Jr.
NT: Louis Nix: 6-3, 326, So.
NT: Hafis Williams: 6-1, 295, Sr.

DE: Kapron Lewis Moore: 6-4, 300, Sr.
DE: Kona Schwenke: 6-4, 285, So.

Not listed on that depth chart is the most physically imposing defensive end on the roster, freshman Stephon Tuitt. Also missing is Brandon Newman, a guy that in the past would be anchoring the interior of this defensive line, and freshmen Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell, both of whom have impressed the staff early in camp.

All of that means choices and options for defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and defensive line coach Mike Elston. As you’d expect, Elston tried to dampen the enthusiasm for his two signature freshman defensive ends, Tuitt and Aaron Lynch.

“Even though the kid can sack the quarterback, he’s still going to have to know how to sack the quarterback within our scheme,” Elston said. “If he’s going in the wrong gap and pressuring the quarterback, everbody else around him is in a weak situation. Yeah, we’ve got some guys across the front that could be difference-makers, but they still have so much to learn.”

Nobody can blame Elston for trying to tamp down expectations, but in reality, the Irish have more playmakers in their front seven than they’ve had in a decade. Those options allow Diaco to experiment with odd and even fronts, helping the Irish to get four pass rushers in the game along the defensive line, only to be complemented by guys like Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, two of the top pass rushers on the roster.

The Irish finished 55th in the country last season in sacks, finishing with 26 in 13 games on the season. Whether Diaco and Elston will admit it or not, there’s every reason to believe that number should sky-rocket in 2011, as the Irish will have a full allotment of options both young and old to choose from.

It might be confusing, but here’s hoping Irish fans can at least enjoy the splendor of good fortunes along the defensive line.

 

 

 

Monday’s Leftovers & Links: Consensus four-star guard gives Notre Dame four OL commits

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Notre Dame hosted a promising group of recruits over the weekend, and the effort has already paid a handsome dividend. Consensus four-star offensive guard Zeke Correll (Anderson High School; Cincinnati) cut short his selection process with a Monday morning commitment to the Irish.

Correll had been expected to visit Ohio State this coming weekend and make his decision after that. Instead, Correll chose Notre Dame over the Buckeyes, Stanford and Clemson, becoming the 14th commit in the Irish class and fourth offensive lineman. Rivals.com rates Correll the No. 11 recruit in Ohio and No. 14 guard in the country.

Three of those four linemen are four-star prospects, including Correll, as are all four of the pledged defensive line recruits. If iron sharpens iron, then those practice sessions in the trenches should lead to many sparks flying the next few years.

That is especially true of the offensive quartet, as the practice work may be the vast majority of work they see for a couple seasons. Current Notre Dame junior Tommy Kraemer should remain a starting guard through 2021, and the freshman and sophomore classes have a few guard possibilities, as well, in the likes of sophomores Josh Lugg and Dillan Gibbons and freshman John Dirksen.

At 6-foot-4 and 275 pounds already, Correll has the muscular frame wanted on the inside of the offensive line, and his discipline in blocks sets him apart from most high schoolers.

Continued mailbag request
A litany of reader questions were received in the last week. A handful were set to be answered this morning, but Correll’s commitment bumped those thoughts down the editorial calendar a bit. In the meantime, any more criticisms, questions or meanderings are welcome at insidetheirish@gmail.com.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING:
— If Notre Dame is 33-to-1 for the title, what does that actually mean?
No. 52 Bo Bauer, four-star linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
Indiana LB stays close to home with commitment to Notre Dame
No. 33 Shayne Simon, four-star linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
Notre Dame adds commitment of four-star linebacker Ekwonu to stellar defensive line haul
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker
No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

OUTSIDE READING:
Notre Dame reels in Rivals250 LB Osita Ekwonu
Can Notre Dame contend for the national championship? ($)
D1 football to offer more participation opportunities
‘Bull Durham’ at 30

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ¾, 292 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Hinish will back up fifth-year nose tackle Jonathan Bonner, though there are conceivable scenarios where Hinish takes on a starter’s workload, even if not officially starting.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect out of Pittsburgh, Hinish committed to Notre Dame early in the recruiting cycle and never waffled despite the 4-8 season from the Irish in 2016.

CAREER TO DATE
Somewhat unexpectedly, Hinish became an interior staple as a freshman. The injury losses of Daniel Cage and Elijah Taylor created a need for a snap-eater, a role Hinish proved ready for. Though he finished the season with only eight tackles, he held the point of attack whenever seeing action and kept junior Jerry Tillery — then at nose before flipping to the three-technique position this offseason — fresh throughout the year.

Hinish saw action in 12 games, adding half a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

QUOTE(S)
The depth chart attrition a year ago put Hinish in position to provide an impact as a freshman, but he still had to make the most of that opportunity in preseason practices.

“His ability to play with great pad leverage — he gets low, gets underneath linemen,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in mid-April. “[He] can physically handle himself when he has to extend and use his hands.

“I think it starts with being very smart. He knows the defense extremely well. He knows his responsibility. He just plays with great leverage. Strong enough and leverage is going to allow you to play the [nose] in most defenses.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hinish will likely preserve a year of eligibility in 2017. Injuries could certainly force him into action, but all signs indicate he will not be needed on the defensive front this season. The talk of a lack of depth on the interior is not necessarily referencing a lack of bodies, but rather a lack of proven talents. The former does not need yet another name in the mix, and as an incoming freshman, it will be difficult for Hinish to establish himself as a proven talent.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hinish will be a vital piece of Notre Dame’s defense this season. At the absolute least, he will remain Bonner’s backup, ahead of classmate Darnell Ewell and incoming freshman Ja’Mion Franklin. In that situation, Hinish should be primed for a solid dozen tackles, if not more.

Bonner was held out of contact drills this spring to protect his recovery from a wrist injury. The immediate effect of that was Hinish spent time with the top-line defense. The long-term result could have Hinish still with the starters as often as not if Bonner’s fitness or strength is limited due to this prolonged rehab.

That may not be the ideal in Kelly’s mind. In fact, it certainly isn’t. Bonner starting and holding his own in his final season of eligibility would be the best-case scenario for the defense as a whole, but having a contingency plan of giving half the snaps to Hinish is not a terrible spot to be. The Irish know what he is capable of, which could not be said of any defensive tackles at the beginning of 2017.

DOWN THE ROAD
As long as Ewell remains on Notre Dame’s roster, speculation about his high-profile recruiting and his potential becoming reality will persist. It should, but it should not get in the way of an honest discussion praising Hinish. With Bonner out of eligibility after this season, not to mention Tillery as well, Hinish will be in position to start in 2019 and 2020.

Until some of Ewell’s potential actually becomes reality, beginning with competing through the whistle on multiple plays in one series, Hinish will be well ahead of him on the depth chart.

Franklin may be more of the threat to Hinish’s future playing time. His ability to shed blocks will be a step ahead of Hinish’s skill of holding his ground against them. The latter is the expectation of a nose tackle, but the former can set apart a defensive interior.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 230 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: While Okwara remains behind classmate Daelin Hayes on the depth chart at the drop end, he is more of a complement than a backup.
Recruiting: A rivals.com three-star prospect, Okwara chose Notre Dame over offers from Clemson, Georgia and his homestate North Carolina. Rivals listed Okwara as the No. 18 defensive end in the class of 2016 and the No. 17 recruit in North Carolina. His time with the Irish missed overlapping with older brother Romeo by a few months but having that connection certainly aided the wooing.

CAREER TO DATE
Just like his brother, Julian Okwara saw action in his freshman season due to a Notre Dame roster short on defensive playmakers. He had a bigger role last year, similar to the one he should have this season.

2016: 11 games; four tackles.
2017: 12 games; 17 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception, an athletic play against North Carolina in which he batted up a pass and caught it mid-air in the same stride. He did not play against triple-option dependent Navy. (See the 0:24 mark in the below video.)

QUOTE(S)
The only real mentions of Okwara this spring came in discussions of his weight, down from an August measurement of 235 pounds.

“He fluctuates,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “You might find the difference between 10 pounds for these athletes is post-workout to a good weekend and a Monday weigh-in.

“… It’s a challenge for [Okwara]. He knows he has to put on more weight. One of the things is, he’s a bit of a unique player. He’s as strong as anyone we have on the team. We know about his ability to bend and come off the edge. He knows he can’t play at 230 pounds. He needs to be bigger and he’s working at it.”

Adding and maintaining some weight would help Okwara survive the natural attrition of fitness in the season and perhaps put together a stronger November.

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Hayes was the talk of spring practice, and deservedly so. The flipside of that hype is it diminished Okwara’s likelihood of impact this season. That said, Hayes will not man the edge for every snap. Keeping fresh pass-rushers is a luxury Notre Dame can enjoy thanks to the triumvirate of sophomore rush ends — a quartet when including Khalid Kareem on the other side of the line — and Okwara is a vital piece of that.

“Knowing he will have those opportunities, Okwara will also know if he makes the most of them, more will be afforded to him. He may not surpass Hayes this year in snaps or production, but providing a tangible complement would mean the Irish pass rush really has improved immensely, something perhaps most notable if it results in exceeding last year’s disappointing total of 14 sacks.”

2018 OUTLOOK
It will be more of the same from and for Okwara. Given another year of development and work in Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, that may be even more of more of the same from Okwara.

There were points in 2017 when former Irish end Andrew Trumbetti would flip to the rush end spot from his usual role at strong-side, cutting into some of Okwara’s opportunities. Theoretically, that should set up Okwara for a few more snaps this season. Combine that with his continued development, and building on last year’s numbers makes complete sense.

Projecting a defensive lineman’s stats is a difficult gambit, considering how much they depend on the unit as a whole, and doing so for a complementary piece is that much more difficult, but there is no reason not to fully expect Okwara to end up with at least 25 tackles and four or five sacks, although the turnovers may not be replicated if the ball does not bounce just right. If Okwara shines in pass-rush situations, that handful of sacks could become twofold, but anticipating such would just be greedy.

DOWN THE ROAD
Okwara and Hayes should continue to progress in-step as a threatening duo, relieving each other to keep their legs fresh, into 2019. Splitting reps like that may reduce their personal profiles, but it will best behoove the Irish defense.

Okwara undoubtedly holds NFL aspirations, buoyed by his brother’s success. In many respects, Romeo playing well in 2018 and 2019 would raise Julian’s draft profile, with front offices knowing Julian had three more years of Stateside development than Romeo did.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 44 Jamir Jones, linebacker-turned-defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-3 1/8, 242 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Junior with two seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2018.
Depth chart: Jones finally made the long-hinted-at move to defensive end this spring, now behind classmates Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji at strong-side end.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Jones chose Notre Dame over offers from Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. The East Coast emphasis makes sense when remembering Jones comes from upstate New York, not exactly the most-fertile football recruiting ground. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 43 outside linebacker in the class of 2016 and the No. 2 prospect in New York.

CAREER TO DATE
Mired deep down the linebacker depth chart the last two seasons, Jones’ greatest impacts came on special teams.

2016: 10 games; eight tackles.
2017: 12 games; four tackles.

QUOTE(S)
Irish head coach Brian Kelly had been publicly anticipating Jones’ move to the defensive line since last year’s spring practices, so when he slipped in an acknowledgement of it actually happening at the start of this year’s spring practices, it hardly warranted a follow-up question or any elaboration.

“We’ve decided to move Jamir out to the drop position,” Kelly said. “We feel like he’ll be best suited at the end position.”

By the end of spring practice, Jones had moved to the strong-side position, perhaps partly to provide depth after the outgoing transfer of fifth-year Jay Hayes.

“It’s probably, from top to bottom, our most steady position group right now,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said in mid-April of the defensive line as a whole. “They have good depth, experienced depth. A guy like Jamir Jones has stepped in and solidified that. He’s done a great job.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“It is tough to project more than special teams action for Jones this season. If injuries severely limited Notre Dame’s veteran linebackers … then perhaps Jones would be needed, but even that scenario would include competition from incoming freshmen David Adams and Drew White, both more traditional linebackers than Jones.

“If his transition to the defensive line were to be expedited this fall, there is already a quartet of sophomores fighting for playing time alongside senior defensive ends Jay Hayes and Andrew Trumbetti.”

2018 OUTLOOK
Hayes’ departure makes Jones’ position move suddenly more worthwhile. His experience at linebacker should have him prepared to set the edge against the run, a skill both Kareem and Ogundeji still need to further develop. It may not be enough to make Jones a frequent contributor, but he could find a role in specific situations.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kareem has grown into a player from whom much is expected. That will limit the opportunities Jones sees. To compound that concern, Ogundeji was discussed as part of the playing time crunch which led, in part, to Hayes’ transfer — Jones was not.

The best hope for Jones is to follow a similar trajectory as his older brother, Jarron, former Irish defensive tackle and a recent signee by the New York Giants as an offensive tackle (a one-year, $480,000 non-guaranteed contract). Jarron took a few years to develop into the troublesome inside defensive presence he flashed as. Jamir lacks his older brother’s length, but his underlying athleticism is reminiscent of Jarron’s.

This space makes a habit of advocating for defensive line depth and rotations. If Jamir can develop over the next three-to-15 months and aid those causes for one or two years, that would become a veritable need solidly filled.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 93 (theoretically) Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 90 (theoretically) Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 79 (theoretically) Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 77 (theoretically) Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 73 (theoretically) Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 (theoretically) John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 48 (theoretically) Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer