Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Spring Preview: Defensive Line

March 3, 2017

18tackles for loss and 3 sacks.

That's what Notre Dame is losing in terms of production on the defense line. Those aren't prolific numbers, but they feel that way next to what is coming back. Despite having two starters return and three with starting experience, there is only 5.5 tackles for loss and 0 sacks coming back from last season.

You read that right. What's even scarier is that out of those 5.5 TFLs, it came from five different players. Only one player from the D-line recorded more than a single TFL.

The only word I can think of to describe that is frightening. There are seven former 4 star recruits who are on the roster this spring. Eight if you include one that was ranked as an offensive lineman. For all of those stars, that's incredibly poor production.

Mike Elston has his work cut out for him this spring. He'll have a new scheme to coach in that is built to generate disruption in the backfield, but these players have not proven to be productive players at the college level.

There needs to be some progress this spring with several players raising their game.

What will happen at one tech?

I think we'll know more on Tuesday when Brian Kelly steps to the podium for his press conference before spring ball. As of right now, we don't know what the status of Daniel Cage is. Will he be healthy enough to participate? If he is, then he's the obvious starter. If he's not, then the Irish could be in big trouble.

There is zero experience behind him. Pete Mokwuah is finishing his third year and Brandon Tiassum his second, but neither has played any important snaps. Tiassum has actually played zero snaps up to this point. We also have never seen anything in practice to make us confident that they are ready to play a big role in this defense.

Regardless if Cage is there, it's important that one of these players shows some progress. Can they show consistency holding up against the double team versus the inside run? If not, then the staff is probably going to hope Darnell Ewell will be ready to compete when he arrives in the summer.

There is also the possibility that Jerry Tillery or Micah Dew-Treadway could be forced to move there. Tillery at least has some experience there, but if he moves to one tech, then that leaves a hole at the other interior spot.

Who will push Tillery?

The answer to this might just end up being Elston or Mike Elko, but I'm referring to who is going to push him to take his starting job. I think one of the biggest reasons why Tillery did not find consistency last season was that there was no one there to challenge him at three technique. It was almost handed to him by default.

I don't see Tillery as the dirty player he was in the USC game. Hopefully he has earned his way out of the doghouse with a good off season and can be that player he showed he could be versus Michigan State. I don't think anyone can count on that, though, so there needs to be someone that can actually push him to be the guy.

It's probably too much to expect Dew-Treadway to be an option until we see more of him on the field. If he's healthy, it's assumed that he will get an opportunity at three technique. The other options are big ends like Jay Hayes, Elijah Taylor, and Jonathan Bonner.

I think Hayes and Taylor both have potential to develop into good interior pass rushers. We'll see if they can provide a spark if given a chance to line up there.

Intriguing options at Drop

One of the new positions in this defense is the Drop. It's a defensive end/linebacker hybrid that can line up in a three point stance on one play or line up in two point stance and cover on another. This might not get Notre Dame fans too excited thinking about Romeo Okwara running down the field chasing a tight end instead of rushing the passer, but from what I saw from Mike Elko's defense, the Drop will be doing what he does best most of the time.

All it does is give the defense options when it comes to different pressures and fortunately the Irish have some athletes that should be a great fit for the scheme. Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara are both the kind of athletes who can do multiple things. It would be ideal if one or both could end up becoming a great pass rusher. They certainly have the traits to do so, but traits only show up if they are developed. There needs to be some development from them this spring.

The forgotten man at Drop is Andrew Trumbetti. After a couple of disappointing seasons, I'm sure expectations for him aren't high. Most expect Hayes and Okwara to pass him on the depth chart.

I'm going to be interested to see where he is at physically under the new strength and conditioning staff. Perhaps he'll end up playing end opposite of the Drop. Then maybe we'll see the player he looked like he was going to be after a promising freshman season.

A darkhorse for Drop is Jamir Jones. So much depends on his size and how big he is, but anyone who has seen him knows he has the long body type that would suggest he could grow into an edge defender.

The other end

I'll refer to it as the "other" defensive end spot because it's a little less glamorous in terms of the personnel who will be competing there. It doesn't have those twitchy athletes like Drop does. However, this is not a traditional strong side end in the sense that it's expected to be a big bodied run-stopper. Duke Ejiofor played this position for Wake last season and he put up 10.5 sacks and 17 TFLs.

Is there someone competing at this spot that can play a similar game to Ejiofor? It would be great to see that this spring, but there has been no indication that someone can do what he did. We'll need to see a lot more finish from Bonner, a lot more consistency from Jay Hayes, and a lot more of what we saw from Taylor that he flashed against USC. The Irish need at least one of these guys to take the next step at end.

It would be a surprise if Ade Ogundeji is ready to compete for a big role, but the chance may be there if those three veterans aren't getting it done. No one has more physical potential than him. It's just a question if Matt Balis and his staff as well as Mike Elston on the field can get him going to push this spring.
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