No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons.
With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is the biggest wildcard on the roster.
Talented personnel exist (Sheldon Day is a moment away from being an elite player), but how the group bonds together under the direction of Mike Elston and new coordinator Brian VanGorder this spring will be one of the determining factors of the season.
Let’s take a look at the spring depth chart and the group tasked with rebuilding the defensive front this spring.
DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
Justin Utupo, DE -- GS
Chase Hounshell, DE -- Sr.*
Tony Springmann, DE -- Sr.*
Sheldon Day, DE -- Jr.
Jarron Jones, DT -- Jr.*
Jacob Matuska, DE -- Soph.*
Isaac Rochelle, DE -- Soph.
Andrew Trumbetti, DE -- Fr.
*Fifth year of eligibility available.
Justin Utupo: After playing very little football his first four seasons, Utupo took advantage of his opportunities when injuries forced him into action. A tweener that’s bounced between linebacker and defensive line positions, a shift to a one-gap philosophy could really help utilize Utupo’s talents.
It will be interesting to see where Utupo weighs in on the spring roster. He was listed at 290 pounds last year, plenty big to play as a defensive tackle. Even though he’s just a shade over six-feet, he’s a disruptive guy. He’ll have his chances to make his mark this spring with a relatively shallow depth chart.
Chase Hounshell: Eventually, good luck needs to come Hounshell’s way. Multiple shoulder injuries have derailed Hounshell’s career at Notre Dame, to the point where we really don’t know what he can bring to the Irish defense.
If there’s an objective for the spring, it’s staying healthy. Beyond that, it’s providing some quality depth at a position that’s pretty thin. Hounshell was a well regarded prospect who turned down Florida to come to Notre Dame. Getting something out of the 6-foot-4.5, 271-pound defensive lineman would be huge.
Tony Springmann: Another crucially important veteran. Springmann was poised to breakout last season before an ugly knee injury ended his season. There were true worries about the severity of things, especially when an infection in the surgically repaired knee had some wondering if his career was over.
Springmann will be one to watch this spring as Kelly wasn’t sure how much work he’ll do during these 15 practices. An early start definitely doesn’t help, but there’s a belief inside the Gug that Springmann is a really good football player. He’ll be needed in the fall, making health and recovery the main objective.
Sheldon Day: The future is now for Day. (And I’m on record saying the future is very bright, as well.) The rising junior’s 2013 season was derailed after a high ankle sprain nagged him for much of the season. But a new system and a healthy Day could be a breakout performer next season.
There’s an argument to be made that Day’s one of the two most talented defenders on the field for the Irish. (Rising sophomore Jaylon Smith being the other.) Always a bit undersized at defensive end in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system, watching Day this spring move find a spot in VanGorder’s system will be revealing.
Jarron Jones: After spending most of his first two seasons anonymously on the bench, Jones answered the bell against BYU with a breakout game at nose guard. Irish fans exhaled deep relief that life might just be okay after Louis Nix.
Jones is far from a finished product, but it’s clear something clicked at nose guard for him. He’s a big, strong player at the point of attack who will need to hone his craft this spring. He understands now what it takes to play and be great. This spring will be about achieving that.
Jacob Matuska: With his redshirt off, Matuska enters a depth chart with room to move. A relatively unknown commodity, it’ll be interesting to see how Matuska attacks the depth chart, with playing time certainly available.
Listed at 6-foot-4.5 and 275 pounds as a true freshman, there’s no question that Matuska’s a big boy. Now we’ll get a chance to see how a season under Paul Longo’s watch went.
Isaac Rochell: Good enough to see the field as a freshman, Rochell learned on the job last year. Now he’ll need to elevate his play if he’s hoping to grab a starting job. Rochell chipped in 10 tackles while playing in 11 games last season. There isn’t a lot on tape to suggest that he’s ready to start, but he just might be the best option available.
We’ll likely hear from Brian Kelly about Rochell’s progress, as the defensive line will certainly be a discussion point on Friday. Rochell almost embodies this unit: Promising, but unproven.
Andrew Trumbetti: The early enrollee freshman will have plenty of opportunities to state his case for immediate playing time. Whether he’s athletic enough and a good enough pass rusher to take that role remains to be seen.
A very real issue for this group is rushing the passer. Where are the sacks going to come from? Trumbetti might have the best skill-set among the personnel to be that guy. It’s just a matter of determining whether or not he’s got the speed and skill to make the immediate leap forward.