In the latest installment of the Better or Worse series, we get into the nitty gritty: the defensive line. This is where titles are won. Up the middle, in the trenches, among the big uglies, as they say. Let’s be honest, the skill positions are fun and exciting, but tell me how good a teams lines are and I’ll tell you how good a team is. I wrote about the offensive line yesterday, who I expect to be somewhere between very good and elite. I’m far less optimistic about the defensive line, although it’s not all doom and gloom.
Let’s get into it.
Notre Dame has developed a reputation for not being able to recruit defensive ends and pass rushers. This area is actually the strength of the Notre Dame front four.
Daelin Hayes is widely seen as a rising star at drop end, not just at Notre Dame, but around the country. Andrew Trumbetti has reportedly begun to flourish now that he has been unshackled from the confinement that was Brian VanGorder. For reasons that most likely won’t be known publicly, VanGorder simply wasn’t a fan. Jay Hayes is having another great camp, just like last season (which led to absolutely nothing), but again, no VanGorder gives everyone hope for a different result.
Between those three, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem, and the steady emergence of Ade Ogundeji, Notre Dame has some good options at end that are capable of playing winning football. And when I say capable I mean we can count on them week after week.
The ceiling, in my opinion, is a breakout season for Daelin Hayes to emerge as a national presence, Jay Hayes to be a slimmer Kapron Lewis-Moore/Ethan Johnson type, and Trumbetti to be a utility guy spelling both of the Hayes’ at various times.
I think in a perfect world, Trumbetti and a guy like Khalid Kareem or Julian Okwara could develop enough to where Jay Hayes could move inside to the three technique (basically play over the guards), where there is a weakness. Brian Kelly shot down this idea on Wednesday saying that Hayes is a SDE for them, but it still something that could be explored if needed.
All in all, the mere fact that Notre Dame has a prospect like Daelin Hayes, who could be a legitimate edge rushing force, is reason enough to be excited.
You’ll notice I expect a lot of things to be better about the Notre Dame team this year. And that isn’t just pre-season optimism. They were 4-8 last season, an objectively bad team. They should be better, especially after so many program adjustments.
I just can’t get there with this defensive line. Gone are the two best players, by far, inside in Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones. Gone is nose guard Daniel Cage with concussion issues and knee trouble.
The Irish are left with the enigmatic Jerry Tillery, the unproven Jon Bonner, a trio of completely unknowns in Micah Dew-Treadway, Brandon Tiassum, and Elijah Taylor (who isn’t full-go till September), and a trio of freshmen, only one of whom was expected to contribute–Darnell Ewell–and is also the least prepared technique wise.
It’s not a great situation.
As I referenced above, if Jay Hayes was able to move inside and bump Bonner to a backup role, it would give Notre Dame two legitimate division one starters at defensive tackle, at least on paper. It would also enhance the effectiveness of Bonner, who would be most effective in a limited role, 20-25 snaps. It doesn’t sound like that is an option right now though.
The amount of pressure this puts on Jerry Tillery, who has been anything but completely accountable in his first two years on the field for the Irish, is tremendous. Any guess on how he will handle the responsibility of being one of the most important players on the entire team, is just that, a guess. And there hasn’t been a ton of signs he’s ready to take his game to the Isaac Rochell or Sheldon Day type level.
The hope lies in the ability of Mike Elko and co. to develop this group and the strength program changes at least gives them a chance to compete physically. And look, these aren’t terrible prospects, there are some big time offers for these guys. Maybe Elko can find four guys inside who he is ready to go to battle with. Maybe he can bring out the immense potential in Jerry Tillery. I’m just not counting on that.
The unit lost three front line players inside, including the two best players, of an already bad unit. I like Mike Elko a lot, but a complete change after one offseason would be remarkable. And I love that Daelin Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Jay Hayes are looking good, but Georgia is going to try and run the ball 50 times. That doesn’t play into the strength of this defensive line and I don’t see how Notre Dame withstands any similar team who is willing to run at the Irish defense consistently.
They are better at end, worse at tackle, and if you can’t hold up against the run, then things are bleak.