Entering the season, Notre Dame’s defensive line may have been the biggest positional question on the roster. Entering bowl preparations and the subsequent offseason, the Irish front is now the unit with the fewest questions around it.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Let’s pull a quote from the “Things to Learn” preceding preseason practice, which adds an emphasis to wonderings about the defensive tackle spot, although the broader concerns applied to the entire line.
“Will someone step forward and make an impact at defensive tackle?
“… Junior Jerry Tillery and senior Jonathan Bonner are the presumptive starters at the moment. Tillery has shown the talent necessary to provide the desired effect, but it has been on display inconsistently at best. …”
Tillery was the most-established lineman in a group returning zero sacks from the 2016 season. Note: That is not an exaggeration. No defensive lineman still on the Irish roster recorded a sack a year ago. In April’s Blue-Gold Game, a pass rush was visible, but it was taken with a large grain of salt due to the red jerseys worn by the quarterbacks.
The summer departure of senior tackle Daniel Cage due to health reasons did not help the lack of confidence in the defensive line’s depth, experience or talent pool.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Let’s start with that stat. The Irish managed 22 sacks this year, led by Tillery’s four and up from last season’s 14 total. Fifteen of this year’s quarterback takedowns came from the defensive front. That alone marked improvement, but it hardly illustrates the reasons for optimism moving forward.
The aforementioned preseason practice ponderings pointed to the three freshmen defensive tackles — Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Darnell Ewell — as possibilities to supplement Tillery. Ewell arrived at Notre Dame the highest-rated recruit of the trio, but it was Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa who contributed greatly this season while Ewell preserved a year of eligibility.
Joining the youth movement, sophomore end Khalid Kareem broke out, surpassing classmate Julian Okwara as a notable threat for seasons to come and possibly pulling even with sophomore Daelin Hayes.
In all these instances, with the arguable exception of Hayes, their stats are worth mentioning, but they do not encompass how many snaps these young players handled, almost all of them competently. (Hayes stands out in a good way: His stats are better.) As a whole, they transformed the defensive line from a position seemingly lacking both talent and depth into the source of the Irish defense’s strength.
In 2016, Notre Dame allowed 182.4 rushing yards per game (No. 72 in the country), 378.8 total yards per game (No. 42) and 39.0 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 60). This season, the Irish have given up 153.2 rushing yards per game (No. 48), 366.7 total yards per game (No. 44) and successful third downs only 33.5 percent of the time (No. 28). Clearly, each metric improved in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s first season with the Irish.
Jr. tackle Jerry Tillery: 52 tackles; 8.5 tackles for loss; 4.0 sacks
So. end Daelin Hayes: 28 tackles; 6.5 TFLs; 3.0 sacks
Sr. end Andrew Trumbetti: 27; 4.0; 0.5
Sr. tackle Jonathan Bonner: 27; 3.5; 2.0
Sr. end Jay Hayes (no relation): 26; 3.5; 1.0
So. end Khalid Kareem: 18; 5.5; 3.0
So. end Julian Okwara: 16; 3.5; 1.5
Fr. tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa: 12; 1.5; 0
Fr. tackle Kurt Hinish: 7; 0.5; 0
Of the above nine-man rotation, only Trumbetti has used up all his eligibility. His was a successful and productive senior season, but not so much so there should be any concern about the combination of Kareem and Okwara seeing more playing time and suitably replacing him.
Both Tillery and Bonner have decisions to make. Each has another year of eligibility remaining. Tillery’s size alone makes him an intriguing NFL prospect. If he were to declare for the NFL Draft, it would be conceivable he be a mid- to late-round pick. Bonner, meanwhile, has said he does not intend to pursue a fifth year, but those things can change when a coach expresses an interest.
As far as forward-looking unknowns, though, the Notre Dame coaches undoubtedly have strong ideas of what to expect in both instances. This is not a position group hinging on a player making some dramatic leap in spring practice to fill an unforeseen hole in the roster. The two Hayes and the bevy of first-year contributors created an established commodity, one Elko will lean on in 2018.
On top of that, add in Ewell. A full season in a collegiate weight room brought the tackle enough development he was being featured in strength and conditioning highlight videos by season’s end. He will play next season, with or without Tillery and Bonner, and he could quickly reestablish himself as the lead force in his class.
A season ago, it was normal to doubt if enough defensive linemen could earn playing time for the Irish. A fall with a nine-man, youth-heavy rotation proved that answer to be a yes, a certain and resounding yes moving forward.