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Notre Dame’s defensive line depth once again proves itself, while the offensive line depth faces an unprecedented test

Wisconsin v Notre Dame

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - SEPTEMBER 25: Howard Cross III #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers at Soldier Field on September 25, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois. Notre Dame defeated Wisconsin 41-13. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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When Notre Dame lost the core of its 2014 defense to injuries in the season’s latter half, it collapsed to an 0-4 regular-season finish, falling in shootouts at Arizona State, in overtime against Northwestern and against Louisville before getting run over by USC.

The Irish simply did not have starter-caliber players to fill in the gaps, perhaps most notably along the defensive line.

With fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish sidelined this past Saturday by a concussion, and still in the concussion protocol this week, the same problem could have befallen No. 7 Notre Dame (4-0) against then-No. 18 Wisconsin. Instead, the defensive line was no worse for wear.

Sophomore Howard Cross (pictured at top) and junior Jacob Lacey each made two tackles, each including a tackle for loss on separate key first-quarter plays.

“We knew what we had with Howard Cross, and he was very difficult to block on Saturday,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “He was a guy that — they had an outstanding center and they had to double-team [Cross] all day, and that freed up Jacob Lacey. He was difficult to block and you’re playing without arguably one of your best inside guys in Kurt Hinish.

“The depth there — (sophomore) Rylie Mills was outstanding, (senior) Justin Ademilola was really, really good. (Sophomore) Alex Ehrensberger got some playing time. There’s a lot of depth there, and they play smart, they play to their traits, and (defensive line coach) Mike Elston does a really good job of keeping those guys ready to play.”

That may have been only one game, but it was against an offense intent on running the ball, and compare Cross’ and Lacey’s day to the 2014 interior replacements Jacob Matuska and Grant Blankenship.

Stepping in for tackle Jarron Jones in the season finale, a 49-14 debacle in Los Angeles, Matuska started but made no tackles while Blankenship made two with one for loss. Matuska finished the season with six tackles in seven games, while Blankenship racked up 12 tackles with one for loss in 11 games.

Through four games, Cross has five tackles and Lacey has four.

Even in the current Irish resurgence, defensive interior concerns have been costly. Back in 2017, Hinish and current fifth-year end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa were needed as contributing tackles from the first moment of their careers, not exactly ideal roles for a pair of three-star recruits. Hinish and Tagovailoa-Amosa rose to the occasion, ably backing up Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner.

There were a number of reasons Notre Dame lost two of its last three games that season, but an exhausted defensive interior did not help the cause.

“It’s a really good system that’s in there that [Elston] is keeping those guys ready,” Kelly said.

In the previous seven seasons, the Irish started three left tackles. Notre Dame has started three in the last four games.

In Kelly’s first 11 years, the Irish played five left tackles in competitive moments. Notre Dame has played four left tackles in close games this season.

The real takeaway should be amazement at the Irish health for more than a decade. Even when two left tackles started in 2010, it was because Zack Martin moved to right tackle because of an injury there to Taylor Dever. To now suffer two injuries in 2021’s first two games to two different young left tackles, that is both unfortunate and overdue.

Sophomore Michael Carmody may return this weekend against No. 7 Cincinnati (2:30 ET; NBC), his sprained ankle feeling about 95 percent on Sunday, per Kelly, at which point, Notre Dame may trot out three left tackles — along with sophomore Tosh Baker and freshman Joe Alt — and one right tackle, fifth-year Josh Lugg.

“That’s what we have on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “Those guys will continue to work together and continue to work to get better.”

It is no coincidence Kelly is facing his most recent former employer this weekend and Central Michigan, his stop before spending three seasons at Cincinnati, in 2023. It is a scheduling strategy, or even favor, often seen in college basketball, where schedules are not set a decade in advance, and it is a tangent to Kelly having made it a point to schedule some former assistants at their first head coaching jobs during his decade in South Bend. (Miami of Ohio, led by Chuck Martin, in 2017; UMass in 2015, though Charley Molnar had since been dismissed.)

“Just wanted to give those schools an opportunity, if there was an opening on our schedule and anytime we have those negotiations, the opportunity to play Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Usually, those schools are wanting to do that. … I just thought it would be, for me, an opportunity to give those schools that gave me an opportunity a chance to play Notre Dame.”

As was first reported by the Las Vegas Review-Journal earlier in September, and was predicted in this space’s 40 preseason predictions, Notre Dame announced Tuesday it will bring the Shamrock Series to Las Vegas in 2022, facing BY on Oct. 8.

The 11th rendition of the Shamrock Series, in which the Irish reached 10-0 after beating the Badgers last weekend, Allegiant Stadium will be the eighth venue of the neutral-site series and the first west of Texas.

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