Year 2 of Brian VanGorder’s pressure-heavy defensive scheme probably won’t feature any single player contending to lead college football in sacks.
Part of that is personnel — Notre Dame doesn’t have a bruising, bull-rushing defensive end like Stephon Tuitt or a consistent, dominant edge rusher on its roster. Notre Dame had 26 sacks in 2014, an increase of five from 2013’s total in the final year of Bob Diaco’s bend-don’t-break tenure as the program’s defensive coordinator.
But those 26 sacks were tied for the 70th most among FBS teams, and the team leader — defensive end Romeo Okwara — only had four sacks. What Notre Dame believes it has entering 2015 is a lot of guys who can chip in with a handful of sacks, though, to help turn up the pressure on opposing offenses.
“Really other than Sheldon (Day), I don’t think we have an absolute freak who can rush the passer and is natural at it,” defensive end Andrew Trumbetti said. “We really need to work together as a D-line to get sacks. There’s not going to be one guy who’s going to have, like 15 sacks.”
Coaches praised the development of rising junior Isaac Rochell during spring practice, saying the Georgia native could wind up being an effective pass rusher as soon as this fall. Rochell only had two and a half sacks as a sophomore last year, though that was the second-highest total for an Irish defensive lineman behind Okwara.
Jaylon Smith and Matthias Farley each had three and a half sacks, while Kolin Hill had two — though those came in Weeks 2 and 3, and he didn’t play in three of Notre Dame’s final seven games. The interior duo of Day and Jarron Jones combined for two and a half sacks.
It’s worth noting, though, that Notre Dame’s defense generated 52 quarterback hurries, a dozen more than their opponents. Add the 26 sacks to those hurries and Notre Dame totaled 78 pressures (six per game), just one fewer than the Tuitt-led Irish had under Diaco in 2012.
Farley, who had a strong season both blitzing and dropping into coverage as a nickel cornerback, said he likes the collective pass rushing strategy Notre Dame is deploying.
“I think it causes people to plan a lot differently when you don’t just have one guy you have to shut down and you can double-team and scheme and things like that,” Farley said. “When you have a lot of guys and sacks and pressures coming from a lot of different areas, it causes an offensive line, and offense to be real honest and take everybody seriously.”
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Notre Dame’s defense showed its youth last year, especially in November following Joe Schmidt’s season-ending ankle injury. But guys like Jones, Rochell and Trumbetti all experienced heavy workloads for the first time in their college careers while experienced players like Day and Smith were still having to learn a new defense.
If Notre Dame can get more pressure production out of those guys while working edge rushers like Hill and Jhonny Williams into the mix more, it could very well turn VanGorder’s defense into the kind of disruptive unit it can be at its best.
“They’re all understanding and learning how to work together,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “Pass rush is about effort, it’s not about a great move every single time, it’s about guys giving great effort, understanding their rush lanes, collapsing to the quarterback and getting sacks as a group."