Lost in the sea of injuries and big plays surrendered by the Notre Dame defense in the second half of the season, was the lack of pass rush from the Irish defense. The leading sacker for Notre Dame a year ago, Romeo Okwara, brought down opposing quarterbacks just four times making finding a pass rush one of Brian VanGorder’s most pressing needs this spring and fall.
Notre Dame didn’t land and instant impact pass rusher in the Class of 2015 like they did a few years ago with a player like Aaron Lynch. Louisiana native Bo Wallace has some great upside potential as a pass rusher for the Irish, but given his current frame, a year on the scout team chasing quarterbacks in red jerseys seams more likely than a season chasing opposing quarterbacks.
So if VanGorder is going to find answers for the Notre Dame pass rush in 2015, he is going to have to look to the current roster for them. Here’s a few players that could potentially cause a few more fist pumping internet meme’s to surface of VanGorder next fall.
Jhonny Williams. After redshirting as a freshman and adjusting to the college game, Jhonny Williams could be ready to fill a pass rushing specialist role for the Irish. Ever since he committed to Notre Dame in December of 2013 I compared the lanky Michigan native to Justin Tuck who also reported as a tall and thin prospect in need of bulking up. Tuck redshirted as a freshman in 2001 and then played a reserve role in 2002 collecting 5.0 sacks in the process. If Notre Dame were to get similar production from Williams in his sophomore season, they would be thrilled. He’s a similar frame to Tuck, but whether or not he is able to replicate Tuck’s rapid ascent will remain to be seen.
Kolin Hill. During the Notre Dame defense’s hot start to the 2014 season that saw the Irish shut out Michigan for the first time in the history of the rivalry, Hill was one of the biggest surprises. Hill had a sack and a half in the blanking of Michigan and then picked up another half sack the following week versus Purdue, but was shut out of the stat sheet sack wise for the rest of the season. He flashed real pass rushing potential early, but saw his role diminish as the season progressed. Hill is going to be a really interesting player to watch this spring since he can still end up playing a couple of different roles for this defense. Whatever role he ends up playing, however, he’s got the chance to provide some punch to the Irish pass rush along the way.
Jaylon Smith. Smith is easily the best defender on the Notre Dame roster and is very likely the best player regardless of position. Depending on where he lines up though will determine how much of a pass rush threat he brings. The progress of the other linebackers on the roster might actually impact how much blitzing Smith gets to do as a junior. If the young linebackers grow up and prove they can be trusted in coverage more, perhaps VanGorder starts unleashing his best player on opposing quarterbacks with more frequency. As is, Smith was second to only Okwara with 3.5 sacks a sophomore.
Romeo Okwara. He led Notre Dame in sacks a year ago, but his 2014 campaign would probably be labeled as a bit underwhelming when looked at in its entirety. Okwara has shown he can get to the quarterback and is still relatively young for a rising senior so there is still a chance Okwara puts it all together and ends up being a nightmare off the edge, but to do so he’s going to have to fight off Andrew Trumbetti and potentially Ishaq Williams if the later is admitted back into Notre Dame.
Andrew Trumbetti. Speaking of the sophomore from New Jersey, Trumbetti played pretty well for a true freshman in 2014 with 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.o sack. Another off-season in the strength and conditioning program could have Trumbetti ready to step up his game and giving Okwara all the competition he can handle for the starting defensive end position opposite Isaac Rochell. Trumbetti made his first start against LSU in the Music City Bowl and it would surprise no one if he made his second career start against Texas.
Grant Blankenship. Among the freshmen who played in 2014, Grant Blankenship might have been one of the least heralded even though he played in 11 games and made some plays along the way including a sack in the rather forgettable season finale against USC. Blankenship was one of our hidden gems in the class of 2014 with only Rivals ranking him as a 4-star prospect, but the Texas native has a lot of talent. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Blankenship carved a niche for himself in the Irish defense next year.