Getty Images

Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s defensive line only as strong as its tackle rotation

26 Comments

The strength that pushed Notre Dame to a Playoff berth is back if looking at only the statistics. Most of the sacks and tackles for loss from the Irish defensive line returned, but things will be far from that simple in 2019, and one of the biggest questions of the entire spring roster will underscore that.

Spring roster of defensive ends:
— Starting senior ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem.
— Backup senior ends Daelin Hayes and Ade Ogundeji.
— Unproven depth in sophomore Justin Ademilola, junior Kofi Wardlow and senior former-linebacker Jamir Jones.
— Sophomore Ovie Oghoufo, likely to move up from linebacker to drop end.
— Early-enrolled freshman NaNa Osafo-Mensah

Spring roster of tackles:
— Junior three-technique tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, presumably fully healthy after a broken foot in the 2018 opener sidelined him until some spot action in the Cotton Bowl.
— Junior nose tackle Kurt Hinish.
— Sophomore nose tackle Ja’Mion Franklin, not fully healthy this spring and a question mark, at best, in the fall thanks to a torn quad in 2018.
— Sophomore tackle Jayson Ademilola, a three-technique naturally but a possibility at nose, as well, given the depth concerns incurred by Franklin’s absence.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey.

Another injury of distinct note:
— Early-enrolled freshman tackle Hunter Spears tore his ACL in November, meaning he will not get any on-field work this spring and a season preserving eligibility and getting healthy would be logical if not for the depth concerns at the position.

Summer arrivals:
— Incoming freshman ends Howard Cross and Isaiah Foskey.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
The initial top-line is pretty clear: Kareem and Okwara starting on the edges with Tagovailoa-Amosa leading the way in the middle with Hinish at his side. Perhaps Franklin would challenge Hinish if fully-cleared to go, but that will not be until the preseason, at the earliest.

Their backups are apparent, as well: Hayes and Ogundeji will see load shares not far off from starters’, while Jayson Ademilola will be leaned on heavily in the middle, depending on Franklin’s and Spears’ health. With that view, Lacey will be in the mix from the outset, as well.

Those tackle concerns could lead to an influx of a pass-rush package, one frequently seen on passing-specific downs in 2018 to much success. In those situations, Kareem moves to a tackle position, now likely alongside Tagovailoa-Amosa, and Hayes would line up alongside him. The Irish regularly put pressure on opposing quarterbacks with that alignment with Jerry Tillery in the middle, most memorably with a Hayes-Kareem stunt confounding Pittsburgh’s offensive line on the Panthers’ final drive. Kareem got the credit for that 14-yard loss on first down, but the hard work was done by Hayes, and the moment was created by the scheme.

It is a ploy not to be used too often, one that will be discussed frequently between now and when it is really needed (Sept. 21 at Georgia), but it is also one that may be needed more often this season just to have someone else filling a bit of the tackle rotation.

Jacob Lacey (rivals.com)

Biggest question …
Which is all to say, can Notre Dame find tackle depth from an unexpected source this spring? Perhaps Lacey shows himself to be a contributor in April 13’s Blue-Gold Game. That alone would put four healthy bodies into the tackle rotation. Another may be preferred, but that could be Franklin and/or Spears in October once healthy.

Rarely is an early enrollment’s timing so apt.

2018 statistically speaking:
Kareem: 42 tackles with 10.5 for loss including 4.5 sacks.
Okwara:38 tackles with 12.5 for loss including eight sacks.
Tillery: 30 tackles with 10.5 for loss including eight sacks.
Hayes: 31 tackles with five for loss including two sacks.
Jonathan Bonner: 23 tackles.
Ogundeji: 23 tackles with three for loss including 1.5 sacks.
Jayson Ademilola: 19 tackles with 1.5 for loss including half a sack.
Hinish: 13 tackles with two for loss including 1.5 sacks.
Jones: 11 tackles with one for loss.
Justin Ademilola: Nine tackles.
Tagovailoa-Amosa: Two tackles in the Cotton Bowl.
Micah Dew-Treadway: Two tackles.

2018 departures:
Notre Dame very well could have lost all four of its starting defensive linemen this offseason if not for the decisions to bypass the NFL draft for another year from both Kareem and Okwara. Nonetheless, the Irish lost both Tillery and Bonner, their mainstays in the middle.

In a typical year, that could be survived without too much concern, and that is not to discount Tillery’s playmaking and penetration or Bonner’s reliability and toughness. In an offseason when a thin tackle position already has to recover from two injuries — three if counting Spears’ torn ACL, which, frankly, probably should be included — losing the starting duo brings more repercussions than usual.

Those circumstances make it difficult to separate the losses of Tillery and Bonner from the coming struggles at the position as a whole.

Notre Dame gets the letter: NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Notre Dame gets the letter: Jacob Lacey
Notre Dame gets the letter: Hunter Spears
Notre Dame gets the letter: Howard Cross

Spring Outlook: Defensive backs
Spring Outlook: Linebackers

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.