SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- A few days before an injury-depleted Notre Dame traveled to Los Angeles to play USC last year, coach Brian Kelly was asked if senior defensive end Chase Hounshell was able to play defensive tackle. Kelly said thought Hounshell wasn't big enough to slide inside.
But as even more injuries hit Notre Dame's defensive line during that 49-14 blowout, Hounshell -- who offered to move to tight end to play a fifth and final year at Notre Dame this spring -- had to play some snaps at defensive tackle. That may be the best indication of how bad things got for Notre Dame from a depth standpoint last year.
That 35-point loss to USC is somewhat of a festering wound for Notre Dame heading into this weekend's primetime tilt with USC (6:30 p.m. CT, NBC). Kelly called it a "red letter day" for the program, not necessarily because of the depth issues, but because the across-the-board effort in that game may have been the worst for an Irish team in the sixth-year coach's tenure.
Kelly has no concerns about his team's level of effort for Saturday's game against the in-turmoil Trojans, but just as important is the much-improved state of the Irish defense. Sheldon Day, the senior defensive tackle and second-year captain, has plenty to do with that turnaround.
"He’s definitely someone you can count on being in the right place at the right time making plays," linebacker Jaylon Smith said. "That’s something that we’ve seen a lot more this year from Sheldon."
Through six games, Day already has eight tackles for a loss, eclipsing his total from last year. He leads Notre Dame with nine quarterback hurries, the same number he had in 11 games in 2014. With veteran USC center Max Tuerk out for the rest of the season due to a knee injury, Day should have an optimal opportunity to park himself in the backfield to pressure Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler and muffle running back Tre Madden.
"He wants his last year to be his best year," coach Brian Kelly said. "He wants to help this football team as a captain, and I think he came back for a reason. He came back so this would be his best year and help Notre Dame and help himself, and I think he's living up to all those things."
Day's presence extends not only to on-field production, but into the murky realm of leadership. Last year, Day was a junior captain who was hesitant to speak out at times, deferring to some of Notre Dame's seniors and graduate students (it didn't help matters that fifth-year captain Austin Collinsworth only played five games due to a brutal spate of injuries).
But Day said he took it upon himself to become a more vocal leader this year, which defensive end Romeo Okwara said has forged a far more cohesive defensive line group. While the closeness of that unit hasn't led to many sacks -- the Irish defense is averaging fewer than two sacks per game -- it has had some effect on Notre Dame averaging a solid 6 2/3 tackles for a loss per game.
"I think Sheldon is probably playing his best football," safety Matthias Farley said. "... He's playing with his hair on fire, and I think that's infectious for the D-line. It's infectious for the front seven. I think it's something that our defense really pulls a lot of energy from because Sheldon has been balling."
All Day could do last year was watch as an unhurried Kessler took a flamethrower to Notre Dame's defense, completing 32 of 40 passes and throwing for six touchdowns. The combination of lack of depth and effort dealt Notre Dame its worst loss to its intersectional rival since the nadir of the Charlie Weis era.
This is a team, with Day as one of its leaders and best players, that hasn't forgot the embarrassment of that afternoon in California.
"Last year is just bad taste in our mouth," Day said. "It's kind of what we had to go into and kind of deal with leading up into the bowl game (a 31-28 win over LSU). We had that taste in our mouth for about a month until we actually could play somebody else, but it's always in the back of our minds how bad they did beat us."