Young defensive front up for another challenge against USC

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It appears that Notre Dame’s already youthful defensive line is going to be getting even younger on Saturday. After losing Jarron Jones essentially on the first play of Saturday’s 31-28 loss to Louisville, a Sunday MRI will determine the severity of the injury and whether he can play again this season.

“We think it’s a Lisfranc sprain, and we’ll just have to see what kind of separation there is in that Lisfranc to determine what his status will be,” Kelly said Sunday. “So we’ll get a little bit better read on his situation within the next couple hours.”

A report at IrishSportsDaily.com has the injury a season-ender, with reported surgery on tap next week for a ligament repair. We’ll find out tomorrow in Brian Kelly’s Tuesday press conference, but it’s looking more and more like the starting tackles on the defensive line, both Jones and fellow junior Sheldon Day, who will go through a checkup Monday, but was still in a full leg brace on Saturday, won’t be available for the all-important rivalry game.

That means fifth-year senior and Southern California native Justin Utupo will return to the starting lineup. The former Los Angeles Times lineman of the year will have a chance to make his mark against a USC offensive line that was under siege against UCLA’s pressure front.

It likely means another week on the inside for Isaac Rochell, who has been taking key reps at tackle with the depth chart plundered. That duo will be joined again by sophomore Jacob Matuska. In the first significant action of his career, Matuska played a productive game, making five tackles including his first career sack.

Freshman Jay Hayes made the stat sheet in his first collegiate game, notching a single tackle from defensive tackle. Kelly talked about his performance on Saturday, reaching the benchmark they wanted for snaps played for the first-timer — helped along by the immediate loss of Jones.

“We’re glad we activated him. We had to activate him,” Kelly said. “We didn’t want to, but he’s ready to play, and he contributed nicely for us on Saturday.”

Kelly is optimistic that he’ll have Daniel Cage back at tackle to give the depth chart a boost. The freshman would add some much-needed heft on the interior of the defensive line, giving the group an anchor up front as they need to find a way to slow down Trojans’ running back Buck Allen.

“We’re hopeful. We moved him around today,” Kelly said of his 325-pound freshman. “He looked good.  We’re expecting to practice him on Tuesday, so my best guess here would be that Cage would be available.”

A fifth-year senior who was a reach to be in the program this season is now making the third start of his career (and season). A sophomore defensive end sliding inside. And a slew of freshman figuring things out as they go. That’s just the defensive tackles. Joined by junior Romeo Okwara and freshmen Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill and Grant Blankenship at defensive end, there is young and then there is this defensive front.

“I think the thing that’s really made this encouraging is that playing freshmen that physically can hang in there and hold their own with veteran players. That obviously is the most encouraging,” Kelly said. “Where we have to grow is in the football intelligence department, and we’ve got to make time for it.

“As you know, there’s a lot of rigors for these guys, and a lot of work that has to go into the classroom, and we’ve got to carve out more time in the offseason for these guys to continue to learn football and understand the game.  That’s going to be the next point of development for especially our defensive players and some players on offense, is understanding the game, and that development has to take place in the off‑season.”