Spring Solutions: Defensive Line

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In a showdown with the defending national champions, most neutral party observers were shocked when Notre Dame’s defensive front dominated Florida State’s veteran offensive line.

So were most Irish fans.

With Jarron Jones breaking loose and Sheldon Day causing problems, the Irish’s two interior defensive tackles showcased their abilities. Patched together by players young and old, Brian VanGorder and Mike Elston managed to get productivity out of the defensive end spot as well.

But as the season continued and injuries hit, the critical lack of depth showed itself as Notre Dame’s front fell apart. Behind Day and Jones was little experience. An already inexperienced defensive end spot looked more and more lost as reserves playing reserves turned the final product into a group held together by string and glue.

The depth chart returns largely unchanged, with reinforcements (perhaps young and old) on their way. With new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore infusing a new voice into the meeting room, let’s take a look at the defensive line before spring practice starts next week.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph.
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.*
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr.
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr.
DE: Romeo Okwara
DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph.
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph.
DT: Jon Bonner, Soph.*
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph.
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.*
DE: Jhonny Williams, Soph.*
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.*
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr.
DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr.

*Denotes fifth-year available

This group could also still add Ishaq Williams, who needs to do some academic work before reapplying to the university for summer school. Technically, it could also include Anthony Rabasa and Chase Hounshell as well, though it’s assumed that both will be moving on after graduation, either to another program or to life after football.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Andrew Trumbetti: After a solid debut season, Trumbetti needs to take the type of step forward we saw from Isaac Rochell last year. Likely, that’ll come in the weight room. But ideally, it’ll come from a speed, quickness and pass rush ability as well.

Notre Dame is desperate for a pass rusher. They’ll add Jhonny Williams and Jon Bonner into the mix this spring with Bo Wallace coming in this summer. Most think that’s not enough, but after being thrown into the mix early, Trumbetti establishing himself this spring would be key towards this defensive line stepping forward on generating heat on the quarterback.

Jarron Jones: There are still screws in Jones’ foot, meaning any on-field work this spring isn’t happening. And after this coaching staff already worked through a similar injury a few years back with Braxston Cave, it’ll be key for Jones to keep his strength and conditioning up to par while he continues his recovery.

While he’s got a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, a big senior season could set up Jones for the option to head to the NFL. But he’ll need to do his best in rehab and fitness if he’s going to hit the ground running heading into next season. We saw an offseason surgery derail Stephon Tuitt’s junior season. Let’s see if the Irish training staff learns their lesson as they deal with Jones.

Sheldon Day: After making the smart move to stay in school, Day needs to prove he can stay healthy. He’s got the confidence of his coaches. And now he’ll be working with Gilmore, who has a track record of producing NFL defensive linemen.

Day led the team in “almost” plays last year, a stat less valuable than Monopoly money. Getting through spring and supplying leadership for a young position group should be what’s most important for the veteran captain, who will likely find comfort as a more vocal leader heading into his final season.

Isaac Rochell: If you’re looking for a defensive lineman to feel good about, Rochell is your guy. Early comments from Brian Kelly last year gave us a hint that Rochell was ready to take on a bigger role. And after losing Ishaq Williams in August and Tuitt to the draft, Rochell played as well as you could have hoped coming off a mostly anonymous freshman season.

It’s hard to learn much from a Vine video, but Rochell out-quicked Sheldon Day in an agility drill. He’ll likely come into spring inching closer to 300 pounds. Big, strong, fast and agile isn’t a bad skillset. Getting more comfortable as a versatile piece on the defensive line, Rochell could be a great candidate for a next-level season.

Romeo Okwara: This is it for Okwara at Notre Dame, with a redshirt season never possible after depth problems forced him onto the field. But as Okwara enters his second season at defensive end, finding more comfort at the position will be key.

You could win a lot of money by knowing that Okwara quietly led the team in sacks last season with 4.0. That says more about Notre Dame’s struggles generating pressure on the quarterback than maybe anything Okwara may have done, but it’s a nice place to start from.

Grant Blankenship: That the big-bodied freshman stepped onto campus and played spoke to the lack of depth up front. But it also should be a credit to Blankenship’s preparations.

With a few more months in the weight room, it’ll be interesting to see what Blankenship weighs on the updated spring roster. There’s plenty of room to grow, which will only help the Texan’s versatility up front.

It’s hard to have a firm grasp on what Blankenship’s best skill is. With the length that made him an early target of Bob Diaco’s for his 3-4 system, we’ll see how Keith Gilmore plans to use another nice piece of young talent.

Daniel Cage: After being on Notre Dame’s recruiting radar for just weeks, Cage stepped in at defensive tackle and played a key role in short yardage situations, a stout player at the point of attack.

Battling through late-season injuries, spring will serve as a progress report for Cage, who will be counted on to take plenty of snaps without Jones in the mix. At his best, Cage can be the type of run-stuffer that would’ve fit in just fine in a 3-4 scheme, capable of doing more in VanGorder’s system.

But starting from scratch with a new defensive line coach, Cage will be asked to prove it this spring, likely part of the next wave of young players who need to take a big step forward if the front four is going to be considered a strength.

Jon Bonner: After jumping out early last training camp, Bonner started his career as a 269-pound outside linebacker, a position listing that may have been a pipe dream, but still is quite telling about the youngster’s athleticism.

Bonner never saw the field, keeping the redshirt on as depth issues surfaced. But capable of fighting his way into the mix this spring, it’ll be curious how Bonner looks knowing that the field is only as far away as he allows it to be.

Likely a candidate to be Day’s understudy at tackle, Bonner may also have the ability to add some pass rush to the mix.

Jay Hayes: After being thrown into the mix after injuries took hold, Hayes suffered a hard-luck injury against USC, rallying to return for the bowl game, but not an ideal development considering the thought that went into burning a year of eligibility.

But that decision was ultimately a compliment to Hayes’ ability, with the assumption that he’ll be around for five seasons one Kelly and company weren’t willing to make. That means Hayes will enter spring not just as a redshirt expecting his first taste, but rather as a veteran looking to prove something.

Keep an eye on the New York native.

Jacob Matuska: Thrown into the fire when injuries piled up, Matuska struggled with his own health and it showed late in November. A big body expected to battle in the trenches, he wasn’t able to do that successfully late in the year, with a stinger limiting him in the season’s final games.

We’ll see this spring if Matuska is an emergency depth player or a guy who can do more than that. You can’t teach nearly 6-foot-5 and 290-pounds, but that doesn’t help if you get blown off the ball. After learning what it takes to make an impact, Matuska will decide whether or not he’s a contender for a spot in the rotation.

Jhonny Williams: He looked like a bean pole when he committed to the Irish. Around a year later, Williams is hardly the former basketball and track athlete that committed to the Irish late in the process. He also could be an answer for some of the Irish’s pass rush woes.

Expect some growing pains for Williams, part of the reason he didn’t see the field last year. But he’s also capable of making an impact off the edge, making Williams’ progress worth watching.

A new voice in his ear can’t hurt with Gilmore ready to get something out of Williams. So add him to a list of intriguing redshirts ready to help.

Pete Mokwuah: One of two late defensive tackle targets by Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly, Mokwuah committed to the Irish sight unscene, turning his back on Rutgers to join the Irish roster.

Listed at 325 pounds on the fall roster, we’ll see where Mokwuah measures in this spring. That’s a big body to work with, and one that’ll likely be transformed after nine months with Paul Longo.

Jerry Tillery: Count me among the believers in Tillery. He’s an elite athlete, and even though he’ll be learning how to grow into his frame, he’s expected to help up front, part of the reason why the transition from offensive lineman to defense appealed to the Irish coaching staff.

For as mature as Tillery is, there’s still likely an acclimatization process taking place right now. But with winter ending and spring football nearly here, Tillery will have this week’s spring break as a battery recharge before establishing his spot in the depth chart.

Micah Dew-Treadway: It’s hard to expect anything from Dew-Treadway this spring, especially after seeing where he was at the Semper Fidelis All-American game in January.

But Dew-Treadway is on campus to get a jumpstart on his career in South Bend, and the number of stars next to your recruiting ranking are all wiped out to zero regardless of who you are once you’re on campus.

He’s big enough and has intriguing game tape. We’ll see how he deals with Keith Gilmore, and likely spends these 15 practices learning the game on his way to a redshirt season.