Because I’m very smart and know lots of things, I ranked the Notre Dame defensive line the second worst unit on the team prior to the season. This was in lieu of the assurances from the defensive coaches throughout the preseason that this group was going to be much better than people were expecting. I passed those words off as coach speak. We’ve been burned this way before by Kelly and I just wasn’t buying it. Low and behold, the front four, whoever it has been, has proven the faith in their coaches correct.
Not only have they been better than expected, they’ve been downright good. They’ve had some make good performances from their upperclassmen (Tillery, Jay Hayes, Andrew Trumbetti, and Jonathan Bonner) plus an explosion of youth from Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem. Even true freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish have provided quality snaps in key games, something no one saw coming prior to fall camp.
Their standard stats are about average; the defense is currently rated 48th in rushing defense and 46th in yards per carry. Much like the vaunted 2012 defense, the current group is also excellent at denying the opposition rushing touchdowns, leading the country with just a single touchdown given up on the ground.
Heading into the season, I would have attributed success against the run to the linebackers, which I considered the best unit on the team. And that thought hasn’t turned out to be off base, at least in terms of production. The top four tacklers on the Notre Dame defense come from the linebacker position, with 13.5 of the teams 35 tackles for loss coming from that group. But, a look at the advanced stats shows the defensive line is playing at a higher level.
Havoc And Success Rate
Bill Connelly at SB Nation comes up with the advanced stats for his S&P computer formula that includes “havoc rate” and “success rate” for units and individual defenders. The explanations of those two things can be found here. Havoc rate basically keeps track of tackles for loss, sacks, and passes broken up. In other words, all the good plays on the defense. Interestingly he doesn’t track quarterback hurries, because he states in college there is too much inconsistency in how they are recorded. Which, of course, would help guys like Julian Okwara and Daelin Hayes.
The defensive line has the best havoc rate nationally ranking them at 40th, with the linebackers coming in at 54th and the defensive backs a lowly 108th. This is all according to the corresponding position groups across the country.
Success rate tracks whether a play was successful or not, and a low number for a defender means they are holding the offense to a low success rate. Of the defenders who see extensive time, Andrew Trumbetti, Jay and Daelin Hayes, and Jerry Tillery, have the best success rates on the team.
Now, they should have the best success rates, because they have the best chance to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage, which is how it is measured. But, plays still have to be made, and we already know they are producing at a higher level than any other position unit on the defense compared to other teams nationally.
The Rise Of Daelin Hayes And Julian Okwara
We were given hints about what Hayes could do this year, but I’m not sure anyone saw Okwara emerging as such a force in both the run and pass game so soon in his career. It’s difficult for anyone on the defensive line to put up huge numbers, both players are in a heavy rotation with Trumbetti, Jay Hayes, and Khalid Kareem, but both players have made major impacts when given the opportunity.
Hayes has recovered two fumbles, registered two sacks, broken up two passes, and has accounted for 3.5 tackles for loss. He also has the second best success rate among key players at 14.3% (remember low numbers are good for defenders), and has a havoc rate effected by the lack of quarterback hurries being accounted for.
Julian Okwara has been a revelation, and might have the highest ceiling of anyone on the defense. He leads the team in quarterback hurries with five, as tracked by cfbstats.com, and has made a play about once a week that leaves us with wide eyes. This combination on the outside of athleticism and strength has the makings of a dynamic duo not seen since the Kory Minor and Bert Berry days.
I, for one, am excited about it.
Jerry Tillery Is Playing At A Defensive MVP Level
He won’t win the award, but he probably should. He’s been incredible the first six weeks and is the most indispensable player on the defense. They simply can’t lose him for an extended period of time. He’s sixth on the team in tackles, is tied for the lead in tackles for loss, leads them in sacks, and has been consistent week after week. It’s been a tremendous comeback for a player who left the Coliseum last season in shame after nudging a concussed player in the head with his foot as he lay on the ground. He vowed to change as a player and teammate and he has, not just in production but in effort.
Perhaps my favorite play so far this season was Tillery’s 40 yard sprint to track down a receiver screen that might have been a touchdown if not for his hustle. He had every reason to think someone else would make the play that he eventually made when he took off after the ball carrier. When people talk about leading by example, this is exactly what they are referring to.
For this line to be what the coaches claimed it would be heading into the season, they needed people to step up, Tillery most of all. He has delivered for his coaches and his teammates. That has set this team up for a chance at something special on the back end of the 2017 schedule. The assumption heading into the year was a team with a weak defensive front couldn’t possibly contend for anything in the game of football. But, if that assumption was wrong, we might have to re-evaluate what this team can be. If Tillery’s unit continues to play like the best unit on the team, this 2017 Notre Dame team could be onto something.