When an over-performing defensive line returns three starters and four more notable contributors, too much is known to find a specific hook for discussion. Of Notre Dame’s top-nine tacklers from the defensive front last season, seven return. Once fifth-year tackle Jonathan Bonner announced his intention to return a day after senior tackle Jerry Tillery (pictured above) made the same decision, the only expected departure was that of end Andrew Trumbetti, now a free agent signee with the Chicago Bears.
Trumbetti’s top backup last season — really a part-time starter — Jay Hayes opted to transfer before the end of spring practice, first declaring his destination as Oklahoma before changing course to Georgia.
Aside from that, Notre Dame returns all of the unit that turned out to be a surprising strength in 2017. A year ago, this conversation centered on the lack of playmakers or even somewhat-worthwhile contributors along the defensive line. After all, not a single returning player made a sack in 2016. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko and defensive line coach Mike Elston nonetheless put together a unit that headlined a defense that more than held its own for the majority of the season.
Elko’s exit does not alter that group’s now-expected rise. With greater opportunities for the likes of juniors Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji — filling in the exact holes Trumbetti and Hayes left, if with slightly different skillsets — and the arrival of three more big-bodied freshmen, describing the defensive line as returning seven of its top-nine rotation players feels a bit like underselling. That grouping of seven does not include Ogundeji, for example.
Kareem and Ogundeji deserve the focus of any hesitant speculation, along with junior linebacker-turned-end Jamir Jones. If it shows itself this fall, the loss of Hayes will be most prevalent against the run. Neither Kareem nor Ogundeji have the experience or the body types to set the edge like the fifth-year senior did with his 6-foot-3 frame holding 289 pounds. (The spring roster lists Kareem at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds with Ogundeji at 6-foot-4 and 251 pounds.)
The duo had nonetheless cut into Hayes’ snaps this spring, at least part of the reason for his transfer. What they do not offer in raw physicality, they compensate for with pass-rushing abilities. Especially in the fall’s first half, Kareem showed that, making one sack against Miami (OH) and two against USC.
It may be Jones ends up handling some of those third-down responsibilities. He is listed at only 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, but his summer will almost certainly be spent adding weight. The former linebacker already looked the part of defensive end this spring. If nothing else, that should assuage any depth concerns at the position.
The opposite end will continue to showcase juniors Daelin Hayes (no relation) and Julian Okwara. If they continue their upward progressions from last season and this spring, then any questions are essentially moot. Both are exceptionally-athletic pass-rushers who, when engaged, can adequately drop into coverage.
That leaves the middle of the Irish line. Tillery and Bonner will flip tackle positions, putting Tillery into more of a playmaking role. Sophomores Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish back up each, respectively. If Bonner’s wrist does not heal in time this summer for him to get back up to full-strength, Hinish showed a capacity as a freshman that indicates he should be able to handle the added workload this fall.
Even senior Micah Dew-Treadway sparked consideration of potential this spring. After not recording a tackle in nine games as a junior, he just may contribute this fall. While he often lines up in Tillery’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s shadows, Dew-Treadway’s availability could help stem any concern about Bonner’s wrist.
This all sounds like a view of a glass three-quarters full. The fact that there is anything in the glass at all is the greatest difference between Notre Dame in 2018 and a year ago.
Sophomore end Kofi Wardlow, sophomore tackle Darnell Ewell, incoming-freshmen tackles Jayson Ademilola and Ja’Mion Franklin and incoming-freshman end Justin Ademilola may not be needed, but they fill out the position grouping, some offering more pertinent depth than others. In all likelihood, the two freshmen tackles may see the most action of the reserve quintet, a result of both the position and their presumed physical readiness.
The glass is not entirely full because, again, of the run-setting concerns in Jay Hayes’ absence and the lingering wrist injury limiting Bonner in the weight room.
Drop end: D. Hayes; Okwara; Wardlow.
Three-technique tackle: Tillery; Tagovailoa-Amosa; Dew-Treadway; Ja. Ademilola.
Nose tackle: Bonner; Hinish; Ewell; Franklin.
Strong end: Kareem; Ogundeji; Jones; Ju. Ademilola.