With the departure of Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, Notre Dame’s defensive line will have a new identity. And if the Irish front four is going to return to its stout ways against the run, they’ll need Daniel Cage to be a major part of it.
Jarron Jones’ return will likely keep Cage out of the starting lineup. But if the Irish are going to play improved football on the defensive side of the ball—no easy task considering the personnel loses—it’ll be because Cage steps forward in the trenches.
A nose guard who is more than capable of playing physical at the point of attack, after two seasons hampered by injury, Cage will need to take a big step forward as a junior for the Irish to reach their goals.
6’1″, 315 lbs.
Junior, No. 75, DT
Late to his recruitment, Notre Dame beat out Michigan State for Cage on Signing Day, winning at the fax machine after a late-January recruiting visit.
Cage’s recruitment started when Brian VanGorder took over for Bob Diaco. The three-star prospect picked the Irish even without a long-established relationship, with the Cincinnati native putting his trust in Brian Kelly, VanGorder and then position coach Mike Elston.
Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, one of six true freshmen to do so on defense. Pitched in four tackles including a half-TFL against USC. Missed the Louisville game with a knee injury and didn’t play against LSU.
Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 11 games, making 18 total tackles including four for loss. Battled a late-season injury that hampered him, taking just 13 snaps against Stanford and only six against Ohio State. Per PFF College, Cage was the defense’s fifth-most productive player, earning a +7.5 rating, with excellent games against USC and Temple.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
This still feels like Cage is on track, even if an apprenticeship to Jones will happen a year later than expected.
It’s an important season for Cage, and really for the entire defensive line. We tend to forget the success of September and October, but the Irish defensive line was tough to run against, and that should be the case again in 2015.
But there’s no training wheels on to start this season, and that means Cage better be ready to go come jump street, because the opening seven weeks will test the Irish, especially against Georgia Tech and Navy. (Boston College, one of the nation’s best running attacks, is a November opponent as well.)
As for Cage, playing behind Jones will allow him to stay fresh and keep both players at optimal levels. And adding more importance to Cage’s play is the fact that Jones is still making his way back from a significant foot surgery, all but absent during spring drills.
Cage looks like a good one. We’ll find out if he projects to be great after this season.
Get ready to hear a whole lot about fitness, with “work volume” a phrase likely to be uttered by Kelly during August’s press conference season. Paired with Jones, it’s safe to think that Cage will find himself in the 30-40 snap range this season, after playing 25+ snaps in seven games in 2015. But that’ll necessitate a 100-percent Jones, something we haven’t seen in the past 18 months.
While the stat sheet doesn’t necessarily show this type of progress, Cage has the ability to be an impact player. He showed flashes against USC and Temple during an impressive October, wreaking some havoc behind the line of scrimmage while also showing himself to be a load in the middle. But an injury derailed the end of his season. He tried his best to play against Ohio State but ended up on the field for less than 10 snaps.
Ultimately, this is a season where Cage will either ascend, especially utilized in a specialty role, or level out. That could turn him into an NFL prospect or a middle-of-the-road BCS-level starter.
I think a season like the one Jarron Jones had in 2014 might be a nice ceiling for Cage, with a 7.5 TFL and 40 tackles being a really nice year. (Remember, that was done in 11 games, too.) Realistically, Cage might get some of his productivity eaten up by a highly-motivated Jones, who is playing a fifth-year that’s essentially an audition for NFL talent evaluators.
Reading between the lines, Keith Gilmore and VanGorder have talked about a larger rotation up front for the defensive line. That’ll likely be some by necessity—Sheldon Day isn’t walking through those doors anymore—and the fact that there’s some versatility among the group of linemen who will hopefully provide answers this season.
Cage is a huge piece of that ensemble. Even last season, he was Notre Dame’s fifth-most productive player, per the PFF College rankings. He’s got the bulk and strength to play in the trenches, assuming his fitness and health cooperate this year.
He’s not going to get confused for a NFL-sized monster like Jones, though he does have the ability to flash at the level of someone like Ian Williams—a guy who is wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey in the NFL right now. So all in all, Cage is a good player who could put together a great season.