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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 75 Daniel Cage, defensive tackle

Rice v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30: Daniel Cage #75 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jowan Davis #3 of the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Rice 48-17. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 ½, 329 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with only one season of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Cage fell behind junior Jerry Tillery last season and remains the primary back up at the defensive tackle position.
Recruiting: A three-star prospect, Cage popped up on Notre Dame’s radar late in the 2014 recruitment cycle. A combination of defensive coordinator change (from Bob Diaco to Brian VanGorder) and positional need led to Cage getting a late offer. Cage committed on National Signing Day, surprising many who pegged him for a Michigan State likelihood.

The stats tell a misleading story when it comes to Cage’s career. When on the field, he has consistently performed, but injuries have hampered his playing time. A knee injury cost him a game in his freshman season, a concussion kept him from two games in 2015, and concussion issues last season again cut short his season.

2014: 11 games, four tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss
2015: 11 games, 18 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss
2016: 8 games, 10 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble

Cage’s concussion issues last season lead to muffled conversations about him to date. Until he shows he is back in football shape and entirely good-to-go, the Irish coaches will likely not publicly place too much of an emphasis on him, and understandably so. Thus, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s only reference specifically of Cage this spring came in passing more than anything else.

“Daniel Cage has had his best spring,” Kelly said in April. “I think that’s going to continue to transfer [over].”

I think a season like the one Jarron Jones had in 2014 might be a nice ceiling for Cage, with a7.5 TFL and 40 tackles being a really nice year. (Remember, that was done in 11 games, too.) Realistically, Cage might get some of his productivity eaten up by a highly-motivated Jones, who is playing a fifth-year that’s essentially an audition for NFL talent evaluators.

“Reading between the lines, Keith Gilmore and VanGorder have talked about a larger rotation up front for the defensive line. That’ll likely be some by necessity—Sheldon Day isn’t walking through those doors anymore—and the fact that there’s some versatility among the group of linemen who will hopefully provide answers this season.

“Cage is a huge piece of that ensemble. Even last season, he was Notre Dame’s fifth-most productive player, per the PFF College rankings. He’s got the bulk and strength to play in the trenches, assuming his fitness and health cooperate this year.

“He’s not going to get confused for a NFL-sized monster like Jones, though he does have the ability to flash at the level of someone like Ian Williams—a guy who is wearing a ‘C’ on his jersey in the NFL right now. So all in all, Cage is a good player who could put together a great season.”

This is a tricky spot to project. Concussion issues don’t follow a set timeline. If they are indeed in Cage’s past, his senior season could be a surprising success. If they are not, his time would be better spent tending to those than anything football-related.

For this spot’s sake, let’s operate as if Cage is past any health concerns.

In 2017, he will have abundant chance to contribute, and his track record indicates he will make the most of those moments. Rather than focus on tackle totals, the best measurement of Cage’s success will be how he fills the holes, theoretically stemming an opponent’s running attack. Similar to the Louis Nix/Manti Te’o dynamic, if Cage does his job properly, senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini will see the benefits on the stat sheet. Cage fits that role much better than Tillery or even senior Jonathan Bonner.

From the first game of his freshman season, Cage has shown ability. That has never been the question. It is simply a matter of him staying on the field.

If Cage were to suffer an injury, a fifth year would be possible. Otherwise, this is it. To this point, he does not present as an NFL prospect, but agile 320+ pounders are not found easily, so his playing career could have more of a future than necessarily presumed.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State