New Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko has his work cut out for him with the Irish defense but nowhere is that more apparent than the defensive line. Despite featuring two veteran, potential star linemen in 2016, the Notre Dame defensive line was a flop. Heading into 2017, Elko won’t even have those two – Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones – to build around. What will he have?
Elko will have a lot of bodies to sift through once he starts working with the Notre Dame defensive line this spring. Notre Dame has recruited in quantity along the defensive line if not in quality at all times. For a coach who is used to working with two and three star players, that might not be a daunting task given most of the linemen on the Notre Dame were at one time rated as four star recruits.
Filling out a depth chart with unproven and underachieving players is not an enviable task either.
The New Coach Bump & Not Knowing What We Have
Before jumping into all of the pieces Mike Elko has to work with, don’t discount the “new coach bump” factor with the Notre Dame defensive line. The current group of linemen were misused and poorly developed under Brian Vangorder. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Keith Gilmore did a poor job though – just that the Vangorder’s scheme & stubborn refusal to rotate in multiple bodies limited the development of the group across the board.
Bringing in a new defensive scheme that is much more college player friendly, has a track record of getting a lot out of lower rated high school recruits, and rotates freely could bring out things in this group we haven’t seen. It would be very easy to discard some of the linemen on the current roster as busts but until we see them at least through a full spring under Elko, we really just don’t know for sure what we have here.
In the Starting Mix
Notre Dame will have seven players likely fighting it out for a starting spot on the 2017 defensive line. Heading into spring football, none of these positions should be considered locks as no current defensive lineman has done enough to this point to cement themselves as a starter even if the Irish were not undergoing a scheme change.
Daniel Cage (Sr) – The Cager has flashed at times for Notre Dame over the last three years but has never been able to play at a high level for extended stretches of time. After picking up 4.0 TFL as a sophomore in 2005, his total fell to just 0.5 in 2016 in part because of the return of Jarron Jones. Many expected Cage to take a jump in 2016 , however. It just didn’t happen. In an ideal world, Cage would still have two years of eligibility left but recruiting misses and injuries forced him into action as a frosh. He’ll get a crack at starting as a nose tackle for Elko. Cage has talent, but he is a wild card heading into 2017. He missed the final four games of the 2016 because of a concussion – a reoccurring problem for him.
Jerry Tillery (Jr) – Tillery started 11 games in 2016 but failed register a single sack. He did pick up 37 tackles overall but just 3.0 went for loss. That’s not quite the production you want out of your interior DL. Tillery also ended his 2016 season in embarrassing fashion with two ugly personal foul penalties against USC. He later apologized, but both plays looked really dirty and he’s got some making up to do. He’s an extremely athletically gifted lineman but the importance of football has always been questioned for him. He can be a dominant force for Notre Dame if he really wants to be but that will take an off-season makeover. Notre Dame will have a new defensive coordinator and a new strength & conditioning coordinator. Perhaps the combo will be able to get more out of the gifted former 4-star recruit.
Daelin Hayes (So) – The heralded recruit played as a true freshman but didn’t provide the instant pass rush most were praying he would be able to provide. After suffering multiple shoulder injuries in high school, however, just making it through his freshman season healthy should be considered a win. Hayes has the most potential to be a pass rushing threat on the current roster and could be an impact player in the fall.
Andrew Trumbetti (Sr) – The New Jersey native started 7 games in 2016 but didn’t register a single sack and had just 0.5 TFL on the season. After a promising Fiesta Bowl performance, many thought he would take a lap forward in 2016. Like Cage, it just didn’t happen. Trumbetti is not a prototypical rush end and is better suited on the strong-side. He wasn’t going to overtake Isaac Rochell there last year, however, and could be hard pressed to seize that role in Elko’s defense. Trumbetti may be more of a depth player in 2016 as opposed to a starter without a major leap this off-season.
Khalid Kareem (So) – Only played 15 snaps as a true freshman, but is easily one of the most promising young players on the roster. Remember, Kareem was a one-time Alabama commitment before signing with Notre Dame. He is a great fit at SDE in Elko’s defense and it would surprise no one if he was an opening day starter vs. Temple in the fall.
Jay Hayes (Sr) – Finally cracked the lineup in 2016 after redshirting in 2015 and spending some time in Kelly’s doghouse. Hayes played some WDE, but like Trumbetti it was more out of necessity. Hayes could play either SDE or DT in Elko’s defense with his flexibility. He is more a power player so playing on the interior may suit him best.
Jonathn Bonner (Sr) – Like Hayes, he could potentially play SDE or DT in Elko’s defense. Bonner’s been a bit of an enigma over the last few years. Every spring he receives praise from the staff but has yet to see that translate into success on the field. Every time there is a coaching change there’s almost always one player who emerges after not having a big impact previously. Bonner could be that player with this defensive coaching change.
Role Players & Backups
Notre Dame has a lot of bodies along the defensive line for Elko to work with. In addition to the seven players vying for starting gigs, these six players will all be in at least their second years in the program and could provide some depth or play niche roles.
Pete Mokwuah (Sr) – The Jersey native has played sparingly over the last two seasons but could see a bump in playing time if Elko uses a true NT in this defense. If he does, Mokwuak would get the first crack at backing up Cage. Should Cage not be able to play because of the concussions, Mokwuah could even get a chance at starting in the fall.
Julian Okwara (S0) – Okwara could be another future pass rusher for Notre Dame. Still probably a year a way from really being able to be an impact player, but could be pressed into action in the fall. The younger Okwara has a lot of potential, but like his brother, he needs some time to develop. Still, a role as a pass rush specialist could be in the cards for Okwara in 2017.
Adetokunbo Ogundeji (So) – Another potential pass rusher for the Irish, but unfortunately the furtherest away from being a regular contributor. When he was recruited it he was a bit of a project. Elko has a track record of getting a lot of out diamond in the rough recruits just like Ogundeji, but his best days are probably still a ways off.
Elijah Taylor (Jr) – Reportedly one of the strongest players on the team, the time could be now for Taylor. He’s entering his junior year but only played sparingly as a sophomore after redshirting as a freshman. He could be a force at NT and will battle with Mokwuah to back up Cage.
Brandon Tiassum (Jr) – Hasn’t played much but he was recruited as a bit of a project on the interior DL. Tiassum could provide depth behind Tillery and Hayes at DT this fall.
Micah Dew Treadway (Jr) – Has impressed at times in practice, but injuries derailed the start of his 2016 season and he never quite recovered. A full off-season to get healthy should have him ready to contribute in the fall.
Notre Dame currently has three defensive linemen in the class of 2017 but will be desperately trying to add another between now and Signing Day.
Darnell Ewell (DT) – Currently the most heralded DL in the class of 2017. Ewell has a bright future at Notre Dame but as with all freshman interior defensive linemen its tough to project what impact they may have as a frosh. Of the current verbals for ’17 though, Ewell is the most likely to see the field in the fall.
Jonathon MacCollister (DE) – SDE prospect out of Florida who is a likely redshirt candidate in 2017.
Kurt Hinish (DT) – Interior defensive lineman who is also a strong candidate for a redshirt season.
Baring some sort of crazy last minute flip by the Notre Dame coaching staff, an immediate impact defensive line from this year’s freshman class looks unlikely.
How The Defensive Line Could Shake Out
In an ideal world, Daniel Cage will be cleared after his concussions and he and Tillery would form a stout duo on the interior of the Notre Dame defensive line. The pair have played the most on the interior and would provide experience to a green unit. Neither has shown the ability to be disruptive on a consistent basis. Odds are Notre Dame ends up playing a lot of interior linemen and uses some sort of rotation of Tillery, Cage, Bonner, Hayes, Taylor, and Mokwuah at least. There’s talent and depth here. Maybe not All-American type talent, but enough talent to have a pretty sold interior line.
One the ends, the situation is not quite as rosey. Notre Dame is going to need someone to really step up this off-season. The best bet is Daelin Hayes. Another full off-season in the weight room and a defense that fits his skill-set well could unleash the sophomore. If he doesn’t Mike Elko is going to have to get creative at rush end.
Khalid Kareem is one reason to be excited along the defensive line though. The rising sophomore could be next year’s Newcomer of the Year at the 2017 Echoes Awards if he puts in the time this off-season. The fate of the defensive line really hinges on the development of Kareem and Hayes. If the two sophomores step up into full time roles similar to how Stephon Tuitt did as a sophomore in 2012, the defensive line has some hope.
If not? Well, hopefully Elko really is as good of a coach as he’s been given credit for.