Notre Dame is replacing a pair of two year starters along a defensive line that wasn’t exactly a strength in 2015. Despite that attrition the Notre Dame defensive line could very well be the strength of its defense in 2016. Yes, you read that right. The Notre Dame defensive line could be a strength this year.
There is no easy way to replace Sheldon Day both on and off the field. Day exemplified what it is to be a star student athlete on the field as the team leader with 15.5 tackles for loss and as a leader as one of the 2015 captains. Romeo Okwara was one of the few sources of any semblance of a pass rush last year and the team leader with 8.0 sacks. Both are pursuing their NFL dreams this August instead of bunking up at Culver Academy.
Even with Day and Okwara gone though, the Notre Dame defensive line could be better this year for a few reasons.
Notre Dame’s Strength Inside
Notre Dame has the potential to be stout on the interior of the defensive line this year. A healthy Jarron Jones combined with Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage both of whom are a year older, wiser, and stronger gives Notre Dame a potentially dominant trio to man the two interior positions. The loss of Jones in 2015 simply cannot be understated enough. In fact, I’ll go one step further. If Jones was healthy all last season, Notre Dame would have been in the playoffs even with the other injuries the Irish sustained.
Don’t believe me? Go back and watch the 2014 Florida State tape to see the type of player Notre Dame was missing last year. Jones had his way with the Florida State offensive line and was one of the main reasons the Irish were in a position to win that game at the end. Jones was collapsing pockets, stuffing the run, and essentially causing havoc all night. All against a team that was at the time undefeated and the defending national champion.
Brian Kelly has tempered expectation of Jones this year by stating he is only expecting about a modest number of plays out of him this fall. “I think if we can get between 20 and 30 plays, I mean, that’s an expectation that we would have for them in there that would be really good for us,” Kelly said on Friday at his opening presser for fall camp.
When pressed on Saturday, Kelly was again reserved, but a day later Jones’s play projection jumped up a bit. “I think 25 to 35 plays is a good number for a big guy like that,” Kelly repeated Saturday. “If he can give us explosive plays at that number – along with Daniel Cage – and they’re going to be key plays for us. That’s a good place to start. Anything more than that we’ll be really happy because I think they’re going to be impactful plays.”
Speaking of Cage, this will be an interesting year for the junior. In a perfect world, Cage would have redshirted in 2014 like the trio of freshmen interior linemen last year and would have only been counted on in a reserve role in 2015. Instead, injuries thrust Cage into a prominent backup role in 2014 and an even bigger role in 2015 when Jones went down. He is still a player who is developing and could be inline for a breakthrough season.
Jerry Tillery was the 2015 spring sensation but hit the inevitable freshman wall last fall. Like Cage, he played more than he should have last year out of necessity. Tillery was plagued by some inconsistency, but saved his best for last with a strong performance against Stanford. It didn’t show up in the stat sheet, but Tillery was a disruptive force in the Irish loss.
Now throw in some key reps from some of the sophomore linemen who all benefited from the redshirt seasons neither Cage or Tillery were afforded and the inside of the Irish line can be stout against any offensive line they face. Keep an eye on Elijah Taylor specifically. Technique wise the sophomore might still be raw but strength wise he is ready to play. “Elijah Taylor is extremely strong, can hold the point. May not be as dynamic yet, but is a guy you can’t move. He’s one of the stronger players on our football team,” Kelly said of Taylor on Friday.
A Healthy Isaac Rochell on the Strong Side
One of the most surprising storylines to come out of Kelly’s Friday presser that I’m still shocked no one is really talking about was Kelly stating that Isaac Rochell has been limited the last few years and unable to do all of the leg lifts. Rochell also reportedly had trouble maintaining weight throughout both 2014 and 2015. Even with that, Rochell was still pretty darn good both seasons racking up 7.5 tackles for loss in each season. Now imagine Rochell being able to do all of those lifts and playing more explosive and keeping his weight up.
Similarly Sheldon Day was limited over his first few years before finally being healthy as a senior in 2015. The result was a jump from 7.5 TFL all the way up to 15.5 last fall.
That thought ought to have Notre Dame fans excited and opposing offensive tackles quivering. Rochell isn’t going to a dynamic, speed pass rush specialist all of a sudden, but his game is brute strength and it sounds as though he was hindered in that department the last couple years.
Combine a healthy, stronger Isaac Rochell with the big bodied brutes he on the interior of the defensive line and this could be one of the strongest defensive lines Notre Dame has had in a long, long time.
Rochell’s backup – junior Jonathan Bonner could be ready to spell Rochell with some meaningful reps as well. Bonner has been a camp darling of Kelly’s the last two seasons but only played sparingly. 2016 could be the year he emerges.
Daelin Hayes: The X-Factor off the Edge
The weak-side defensive end position is still up for grabs with Jay Hayes running with the first team during the first couple days of camp and Andrew Trumbetti running with the twos. The x-factor here, however, is freshman Daelin Hayes. The 5-star recruit reported to camp at 250 lbs and could be the answer to the pass rush Notre Dame has been looking for since Stephon Tuitt left following the 2013 season.
Hayes is not an every down player just yet as a true freshman, but if he is able to provide a speed rush off the edge – combined with the power and strength of the other three linemen – then the Irish could have a pretty special defensive line. Hayes’ injury history combined with being just a true freshman, however, make him a huge variable in the defensive line equation this year.
Prince Shembo and Aaron Lynch both excelled in a similar role as true freshmen in past seasons. In 2010, Shembo racked up 4.5 sacks with only 15 total tackles. A year later Lynch posted 5.5 sacks and 7.0 TFL. Neither were every down players but both filled that niche. A healthy Daelin Hayes can do the same in 2016.
Even without Daelin Hayes, the combo of Jay Hayes and Trumbetti is intriguing as Jay Hayes teamed with Jones, Tillery, and Rochell would give Notre Dame some grown man strength along the line. That unit won’t be running around too many left tackles, but it would be collapsing pockets left and right.
For all of this to come to fruition, Notre Dame must stay healthy in the trenches this year. Notre Dame simply cannot afford an injury to a player like Rochell or Jones for the defensive line to be a strength this year. If the Irish can stay healthy, however, then line very well could be the strength of the Notre Dame defense this fall.