The biggest difference between Notre Dame reaching the College Football Playoff this season and finishing 2-2 in November a year ago is not its improved quarterback play; Alabama remained in title contention for years before finding a worthwhile quarterback. It is not the influx of playmaking at safety; questionable safety play has not prevented Clemson from making a run this year.
The biggest difference is a dynamic, physical defensive line. It was a good one in 2017, but it was not as deep or as dangerous as it has shown to be this season. To have such development at the most important position in college football, well, that’s how you get to 12-0.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
By no means was little expected of this defensive line. It returned every piece from a year ago but for part-time starters Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes, and even if he had not transferred, Hayes would have been a rotation player at the most this season. Such was the obvious development of junior end Khalid Kareem. Even in the preseason, it was clear the line was genuinely two-deep, and the starters were of top-tier quality.
If they played to those abilities, then envisioning an unbeaten run from the Irish made more sense. And Jerry Tillery has. Kareem has. Julian Okwara has.
A parlor game of sorts has emerged as they have met expectations — combining for 23.5 sacks and innumerable quarterback hurries counts as meeting expectations. Who first realized how good this defensive line could be? Back in August, position coach Mike Elston raised a few eyebrows by claiming it would be better than 2012’s. Head coach Brian Kelly argued last week those thoughts may have first arose in the spring.
“We had probably an inclination in the spring that was coming together,” Kelly said. “Their offseason work gave us a good indication that we had some things that were going to continue on that same path. We saw some real good signs.
“You could see the percolation of those guys. You were seeing Khalid kind of start to show himself last year late and then in the spring Julian to start to show himself. … Maybe you have to strain a little to see it, but from the inside we could start to see that stuff come together.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
That all presents like none of this has been a surprise. Okwara has been. He was expected to be good. He has, at points, been SEC-esque. (The at points qualifier prevents that from being hyperbolic.)
Tillery slowed in November. The opening-week loss of sophomore Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa put an undue amount of stress on Tillery’s legs. Freshman Jayson Ademilola eventually picked up some of those snaps, but only a small amount and only as the season progressed. Tillery carried a significant load this year, and presuming this month restores some life to his limbs, he could return to September’s form come Dec. 29.
Kareem fought a sprained ankle all season, one that will likely heal this month. Hayes dealt with a shoulder stinger that kept him out of one game and apparently limited him in a few more.
These nicks are where the depth kept the Irish in the Playoff chase all season. Yet, well, this gets ahead of ourselves. So first, the pertinent stats:
Khalid Kareem: 39 tackles with 10 for loss including 4.5 sacks; 5 pass breakups, one forced fumble.
Julian Okwara: 37 tackles with 11.5 for loss including 7 sacks; one interception, one pass breakup, one forced fumble.
Jerry Tillery: 30 tackles with 10.5 for loss including 8 sacks; three forced fumbles.
Daelin Hayes: 29 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 2 sacks; one pass breakup, one fumble recovery.
Jonathan Bonner: 20 tackles.
Ade Ogundeji: 20 tackles with 2 for loss including half a sack; one pass breakup, one forced fumble.
Jayson Ademilola: 17 tackles with one-half for a loss.
Kurt Hinish: 12 tackles with 2 for loss including 1.5 sacks.
Jamir Jones: 11 tackles with one for loss; one fumble recovery.
WHAT NOTRE DAME WILL NEED AGAINST CLEMSON
Those four to play well and those four in particular. The alignment of Okwara – Tillery – Kareem – Hayes was the package Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea trotted out on any given passing down. As an example, think back to the Pittsburgh game. Notre Dame managed just one sack: It came on the Panthers’ last gasp when Kareem broke through the line seemingly untouched.
He did so because the offensive line was spun by a stunt from Hayes.
That package offers four genuine pass-rushers. The argument could be made Tillery is the least of the bunch in that regard, and he led Notre Dame in sacks this season.
If those four get extended run against the Tigers that means two things: Clemson’s run game — ranked No. 8 by advanced metrics, the best the Irish have faced this season — has been kept somewhat in check; and thus, Lea’s pressure packages may have a chance to frazzle freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Losing both Tillery and Bonner will sap this unit of quite a bit. Even if not often noticed, Bonner handles his role well enough to allow the rest of the line to shine. Replacing them will fall to Tagovailoa-Amosa and fellow sophomore Kurt Hinish with assists from Ademilola and fellow freshman Ja’Mion Franklin.
Otherwise, this could again be a vaunted unit, especially if both Okwara and Kareem return for their final seasons of eligibility. Consider that likely but not quite a foregone conclusion.