With the start of Notre Dame preseason camp approaching fast, we’re looking at what to expect from each unit that’ll take the field Sept. 5 under the lights against Texas.
Depth chart (DE-NG-DT-DE)
1. Romeo Okwara (Senior)
2. Andrew Trumbetti (Sophomore)
1. Jarron Jones (Senior)
2. Jerry Tillery (Freshman)
1. Sheldon Day (Senior)
2. Jay Hayes (Sophomore)
1. Isaac Rochell (Junior)
2. Grant Blankenship (Sophomore)
The key for this unit is keeping its interior players healthy. Both Day and Jones were injured during Notre Dame’s disastrous November last fall, with Jones’ foot injury requiring season-ending surgery.
Day and Jones played 11 games each and combined for 80 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss, two and a half sacks and 16 quarterback hurries. At their best, they broke into the backfield and terrorized opposing running backs and quarterbacks, but without them, the Irish defensive line lacked much of a push down the stretch.
Okwara led the team with four sacks, though he wasn’t credited with a single other pressure on an opposing quarterback. Rochell did a good job stepping in for Ishaq Williams — whose 2015 status remains in question — and serving as a solid run stuffer. As a true freshman, Trumbetti showed flashes of skill (five and a half tackles for a loss) while Hayes’ redshirt was burned in November.
Still, the only player who won’t back from a young 2014 group is reserve Justin Utupo, and guys like Blankenship, Daniel Cage and Jacob Matuska all played on Saturdays.
Biggest question: Can this group generate help pressure on the quarterback?
Despite Brian VanGorder’s reputation as a blitzing whiz, Notre Dame averaged a pedestrian two sacks per game in Year 1 under its new defensive coordinator. That’s not all on the defensive line, but when nickel back Matthias Farley nearly led the team in sacks (three and a half), it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this group’s ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks.
There isn’t a Stephon Tuitt in this unit, but new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore talked during spring practice about getting a collective pass rush — so maybe a guy like Okwara leads the team with only five or six sacks, but everyone else pitches in with more, or at least hurries quarterbacks frequently.
“Really other than Sheldon (Day), I don’t think we have an absolute freak who can rush the passer and is natural at it,” 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.”
A good secondary led by Cole Luke and KeiVarae Russell may be able to cover for an average pass rush, but having another year with a below-average sack total would put a ton of strain on that cornerbacking duo as well as safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate.
No defensive player impressed more during spring practice than Tillery, who was initially recruited as an offensive lineman but was permanently flipped across the line of scrimmage upon arriving in South Bend. Even with Cage getting a good number of reps as a true freshman, Tillery blew past him on Notre Dame’s depth chart and took plenty of first-team reps during spring practice.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound Tillery showed coaches and ability to play with “unique” leverage, VanGorder said, for a player his size. He’s a quick study and possesses outstanding athleticism.
And if all goes right, he’ll be the only true freshman in Notre Dame’s front seven to play this fall, a year after far too many young players had to be used to make ends meet with that group.
Opposing teams averaged 4.24 yards per carry against Notre Dame last year, putting the Irish defense squarely in the middle of the pack among FBS teams. But behind that number is a major late-season regression: Notre Dame held teams to 3.30 yards per carry in August/September (39th), 2.87 yards per carry in October (11th) and 4.77 yards per carry in November (86th). And LSU, behind all-world freshman back Leonard Fournette, averaged 7.5 yards per carry in December’s Music City Bowl.
This is a group that, when healthy, showed it can stop the run. But while its depth is better than it was last year, it still remains to be seen if it could sustain its success after another key injury or two.
They said it
“The thing that I’ve seen more of and am really excited about is he doesn’t get rattled. Like a lot of young kids, they make a mistake and you rip their tails and they’re in the tank. He doesn’t do that. He shakes his head, okay, coach, I got it and go to the next play and act like nothing ever happened. That’s a big plus.” — DL coach Keith Gilmore on Jerry Tillery