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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Jacob Lacey (54) battles with Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets offensive lineman Jakiah Leftwich (75) during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed measurements: 6-foot-1 ⅝, 275 pounds.2022-23 year, eligibility: A senior, Lacey has two seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the universal pandemic eligibility waiver.Depth Chart: Lacey should start preseason practices atop Notre Dame’s depth chart at nose tackle, backed up by Harvard transfer Chris Smith and sophomore Gabriel Rubio.Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Lacey was the first commit in the Irish class of 2019, doing so in July of 2017. The No. 21 defensive tackle in the class, per, Lacey chose Notre Dame over finalists Clemson, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee.

Lacey’s 2020 was undone more by the pandemic than most players, struggling a bit with the coronavirus in the preseason and then impacted by a balky shoulder. Yet, he played in 11 games as a sophomore, the same number he played in as both a freshman and a junior. The interior presence has been just that, a presence, available and ready as much as he can be.

He backed up Kurt Hinish ably in 2021, but now with Hinish gone …

2019: 11 games; 14 tackles with 1.5 for loss including half a sack.2020: 11 games; 4 tackles with one for loss and one pass broken up.2021: 11 games with 12 tackles including two for loss.

Notre Dame’s study abroad options are among the best in the country, and the University’s ability to make some of that available even to football players is impressive. That does not need to be supplemented with a sponsorship deal, but a good travel agency could see some reward on investment in one, no?

Lacey’s setbacks in 2020 may be a distant memory by now, but they hold some value to reflect upon, both for Lacey and from the outside. A lack of progress as a sophomore, after an impressive debut campaign, bode poorly in the moment, but given the circumstances behind that temporary plateau, those worries lose traction.

In an unexpected way, the time spent worn out and beaten up gave Lacey an opportunity to improve.

“I would be lying if I said I wasn’t very frustrated going through that year, battling through that injury,” Lacey said in November. “I’m glad I didn’t just stop playing. I’ve definitely grown a tremendous amount from that. It allowed me to drop weight and focus on gaining muscle, things I needed to do from the beginning, just really rehabbing, focused on things I should have done before coming to college.

“I’m very happy to be healthy now. … Every opportunity I get on the field, whether it’s four plays or 20 plays, I know I can make a play that can help the defense.”

“It starts with health, more so than every other case in football. Shoulder injuries have replaced most knee injuries as the trickiest to repair and come back from. Rushing Lacey back from his would only serve to further hamper his career.

“But once healthy and strong enough to keep that shoulder healthy, Lacey will be a vital piece of Notre Dame’s interior defensive line rotation. Working through Hinish, Cross and Lacey will allow the first two to preserve their legs for the season’s grueling October stretch.

“It will also allow Lacey a chance to prove himself once again. His 2019 was promising, but that optimism has been mitigated by these shoulder concerns. To become someone the Irish will lean on in years to come, Lacey needs to prove once again he can put together a full season. …

“Presuming that health and season-long contribution, Lacey and Cross should then form a pertinent (and quite possibly potent) duo in 2022 and presumably 2023. Whereas Cross (and Hinish) displays an intuitive sense of penetration from the nose tackle position, and thus demanding blockers’ attention, Lacey is more a wide body that occupies the space and thus clogs up an offense.

“Neither skill set is inherently better than the other. Rather, that change of pace can further frustrate an offense, having to adapt its blocking scheme as Notre Dame gladly rotates defensive linemen.”

The praise will come to Lacey belatedly. Playing behind Hinish, an ironman himself, for years kept Lacey from much notice. When Hinish did not play against Wisconsin last year due to a concussion, Lacey filled the role against the rushing attack. The Badgers gaining 81 yards on 27 carries (sacks adjusted) was not a coincidence, even if Lacey finished with only two tackles.

Those two tackles may have shown all they needed to. Lacey stuffed a Wisconsin rush for no gain on a fourth-and-one, and then he dropped the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage on a first-and-goal from the 10-yard line.

Of Hinish’s many qualities, he was never that kind of run-stopping force in the middle. Frankly, Lacey wasn’t always, either, when his shoulder continued to plague him. But now he is, to such an extent that he is keeping talents like senior Howard Cross out of the starting lineup, and Cross has no choice but to recognize why.

“Jacob is a brick wall,” Cross said. You can’t move him, at all. Crazy fast off the ball, crazy fast with his hands, I mean, every time we watch film, no matter what, even if he takes a wrong step, they’re still not moving him. He’s extremely good at what he does.”

That is all while Lacey weighs significantly less. Last season, Notre Dame listed Lacey at 293 pounds, though he says 300 would have been more accurate. Now, he is at 275, perhaps 280.

Lacey has never lacked for strength. Now he enjoys health and quickness, too, along with opportunity. That latter aspect should yield great results for the Irish defense. Those results coming from Lacey may not be widely anticipated, but the source will reveal itself in retrospect.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame NG Jacob Lacey rediscovers fun in football

Lacey has already graduated. If he falls behind Cross or Rubio this season, a transfer will be a welcome chance for his final season of eligibility.

But more likely, Lacey starts for the Irish for two full seasons after serving as Hinish’s understudy for three. Gradual defensive line developments can produce memorable players just as much as immediate stars can.

From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 89 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77* Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65* Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59* Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 57* Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain

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