When Brian Kelly addressed the media on Tuesday to kick-off Spring Practice for 2017, Notre Dame’s defensive line got a boost when Kelly stated that nose tackle Daniel Cage was cleared for spring ball. Lingering questions over Cage’s long term availability loomed this off-season after multiple concussions caused Cage to miss time throughout his career.
With Daniel Cage officially back in the fold for the Irish the defensive line should begin to take shape. Numerous questions still need to be answered, but as long as Cage is healthy, he is Notre Dame’s unquestioned starter at nose tackle. That is, unless of course Scott Pagano decides to transfer and then Notre Dame will have a pretty great problem to have at the position.
Having Cage available is huge for Notre Dame because without him – and without the potential transfer of Pagano – Notre Dame was going to be in a bit of a bind at the nose tackle position. Senior Pete Mokwuah has not shown a lot to this point to suggest he could handle starting. Jerry Tillery played some nose as a freshman but doesn’t look like an answer at the position either.
That would have left Notre Dame to turn to someone like Elijah Taylor or Brandon Tiassum. Taylor is better suited for the three technique and in this writer’s opinion could push Tillery this spring and fall. So Notre Dame’s options were limited.
With Cage available though, not only does Notre Dame have more flexibility with the defensive line, but it also has a bonafide starting nose tackle and not just a space eater on the field. Notre Dame will, however, need Cage to really step up this year.
Daniel Cage missed four game due to the concussion problems in 2016, but even taking into account that lost time, his production was way down. In 2015 Cage picked up 4.0 tackles for loss but had just 0.5 tackles for loss a year ago. Cage was playing behind Jarron Jones last fall, but Jones missed time as well and his work volume allowed for plenty of opportunities for Cage prior to his injury.
As long as Cage stays healthy, Notre Dame has one potential answer on the defensive with plenty of others to answer this spring and fall. Who will be the weakside pass ruisher? Is sophomore Daelin Hayes ready for a starting role in that capacity? Who will started on the strong-side in Isaac Rochell’s footsteps? Is another sophomore, Khalid Kareem ready for that role or does Jonathan Bonner take it over? And what about Tillery? Is his safe spot or does Taylor rightfully get a chance to take over the starting DT position?
Lots of questions and not a whole lot of time for Mike Elston and Mike Elko to answer them. At least for today though, we have one answer along the defensive line. We’ll have 15 spring practices and all of fall camp to get an idea on how the Irish will answer the rest of them.