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.