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Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Nevada v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 10: James Butler #20 of the Nevada Wolf Pack gets tackled for a loss by Shaun Crawford #20 and Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the first half of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on September 10, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.”

Presumably, Cage leads those four or five. He made it through the spring healthy and appears to be working his way back toward game shape, but by no means did he or any other tackle separate from the pack to line up alongside Tillery. Junior Elijah Taylor missed most of spring with a foot injury—he is expected to be healthy come fall. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum filled in with Taylor absent, and Dew-Treadway received occasional public praise from Irish coach Brian Kelly, but the position could still use an influx of talent.

Well, talent or an improvement in physicality, per Elko.

“We’re going [to need] to be a group that recreates the line of scrimmage,” he said. “That’s where your run disruption comes from, from your d-line recreating the line of scrimmage. I think at the beginning spring, it was clearly being recreated on our side. It’s gotten more even as the spring has gone on to where maybe last practice we had a few more on their side.”

The inexperienced Notre Dame defensive line faces a veteran offensive line in those practices. Some difficulty should be expected, but with that comes the growth inherent to a challenge.

“All of our guys benefit from playing against this group,” Elko said. “Our offensive line is very talented, very physical. Every day we go out there and play against those guys, you feel you have to do it right or you’re going to struggle.”

The options opposite Hayes remain varied and intermixed. Heading into the spring game, Trumbetti and senior Jay Hayes (no relation) seemed ready to determine a pecking order. Add Okwara to that mix.

RELATED READING: Four defensive positions to watch in Notre Dame spring game

“I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge,” Kelly said after the scrimmage.

Incoming freshman Darnell Ewell may provide the needed boost in the middle come fall. He will be joined by classmates Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailo-Amosa in the interior. The four-star Ewell’s 6-foot-4, 295-pound size leaves him not far from being ready to compete on the line of scrimmage. Some time in the revamped Notre Dame weight room could, theoretically, get him to a point where he could complement Tillery more than the other options available. Time there has already played a role in the defensive line’s progress, per Elko.

At end, Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the ranks.

“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front? If so, who will those linemen be?”

Perhaps not enough did, but Daelin Hayes most assuredly did, and Okwara presents an intriguing possibility on the other side, maybe in a rotation of sorts with Trumbetti and Jay Hayes.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

At defensive tackle, Tillery will need to continue to mature. If he does, he could hold the point of attack well. Who aids him in that task remains a pressing concern heading into the downtime of summer.

A week ago Kelly specifically praised Elston’s growth as a coach this spring. His deliberate and detail-oriented approach stood out.

“I really liked Mike Elston’s teaching progression this spring,” Kelly said. “The way he’s laid out a consistency to working off the sled and then to the boards and talking about his programming in terms of you’ve got to step with this foot because if you don’t step with this foot when we get to Temple, and you step with the wrong foot, you’re not going to be able to hold up in that gap. I love sitting down with Mike and reinforcing that teaching progression and how it’s going.”