Notre Dame Football’s Thin DL Depth Gets Thinner

According to numerous reports, senior Daniel Cage will be sitting out the 2017 season and may not suit up again.  Lingering effects from concussions reportedly have Cage headed for a medical redshirt season this year with no guarantee that he will step back out on the field in 2018.  Without Cage, Notre Dame’s thinnest position just got thinner for the fall.

Ever since last season ended there had been rumors that the multiple concussions Daniel Cage has suffered over the last three years could force him off the field.  A few months back, however, Brian Kelly stated that Cage was cleared for spring practice and the staff was expecting him to be a part of the team moving forward.  Apparently that has now changed.

In today’s game, concussions are not anything to mess with.  Even when Kelly announced that Cage was cleared in the spring the news was met with a bit of skepticism.  Still, Notre Dame had Cage in spring practice backing up Jerry Tillery at nose tackle and were headed into the 2017 season with him as the only player with any experience behind Tillery.

With Cage reportedly out for 2017, Jerry Tillery now becomes one of the most indispensable players on the Notre Dame roster.  There isn’t any way to sugar coat the depth behind him. There hardly is any.  Notre Dame just doesn’t have any true nose tackles outside of incoming freshman on the roster.

Notre Dame’s Lack of Options

Elijah Taylor could potentially provide some depth behind Tillery but he suffered a Lisfranc injury in spring practice and despite the overly optimistic recovery time frame that Brian Kelly gave for Taylor should be taken with a huge grain of salt.  Lisfranc injuries are tough to recover from at any position, but they are especially tough recoveries for defensive linemen because of their size.  If Notre Dame got anything from Taylor this year it should be considered a bonus.  At the time of Taylor’s injury I wrote that it was a bigger deal than most Notre Dame fans realized.  Taylor flashed at the end of 2016 and had the looks of a potential player for the Irish this fall.  The injury casts that very much in doubt.

Senior Pete Mokwuah was the 3rd team nose tackle in the spring but to this point in his career, he has not shown much to inspire hope that the light will turn on in fall camp.  When he was originally recruited we knew he was more of a project.  Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Brian Vangorder was not the guy to take on any projects.  Hell, Vangorder had a tough time utilizing a generational talent like Jaylon Smith.  Perhaps that changes under Mike Elko’s guidance.

Juniors Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew Treadway are more natural three technique players, but one of them will most likely move to the nose to back up Tillery who himself may be better suited to play the three technique.  Of the two, Dew-Treadway has had more buzz surrounding him though injuries have slowed his development.   Neither has played a down of football for Notre Dame to this point in their careers.

Frosh Might Not Be Ready

Notre Dame does have three incoming freshman along the interior line but it would be a stretch to expect any of them to provide many meaningful minutes at the nose tackle position.   All three – Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish, and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa – would benefit from a redshirt season but it looks like they might not be afforded that luxury now.

It’s right about now that it would have been really nice for Notre Dame to have landed Clemson graduate transfer Scott Pagano, but that didn’t quite work out for Notre Dame now did it.

Notre Dame should still be fine depth wise on the ends and at defensive tackle where Jonathan Bonner started to establish himself as the starter in the spring.   On the ends Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes look locked into starting roles as well.  And with Andrew Trumbetti, Julian Okwara, and Khalid Kareem behind them, the Irish are OK on the ends.

When it comes to the interior of the line though, Notre Dame is going to have to hope that the combination of new strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis’s new S&C program and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s new scheme can mask the depth problems Notre Dame faces inside heading into the season.

Can Elko & Balis Make The Difference?

Mike Elko is used to making more with less from his days at Bowling Green and Wake Forest, but he and Mike Elston have a tough task on their hands heading into fall camp.  Tillery has been an enigma to this point in his career.  He’s flashed at times but his career has been known more for inconsistencies and his meltdown against USC in the 2016 season finale.  And that is who the Notre Dame defensive line now hinges on almost completely this season.

Unlike the loss of Ashton White that Greg wrote about on Thursday, Notre Dame isn’t in a good position to replace Cage on the two-deep.  Recruiting misses and losing out on the Scott Pagano sweepstakes gave Notre Dame very little margin for error heading into the season.  A couple weeks before the start of fall camp they are already down a man in the one area they could least afford it.

Best Case for Notre Dame

Notre Dame has had less than ideal depth charts at specific positions in years past and still thrived.  Remember when the secondary looked like a train wreck around this time 2012 – and that was before the Irish lost Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter.  So there is still a chance the line holds up fine for Notre Dame.  Here’s what Notre Dame needs to happen.

  • Stay healthy.  Notre Dame can’t afford any more major injuries on the DL to starters.
  • Jerry Tillery to finally become a consistent force.  He’s flashed at times the last two years but he needs to become more than just “a guy” for the Irish.
  • Jonathan Bonner to continue his ascension.  Bonner has been a spring football warrior for years.  They need that to show in the fall.
  • Elijah Taylor to be healthy enough to provide 10 or so snaps a game this fall.  If he was 100% I’d love to see him be at 20, but given the lisfranc injury, that is likely too optimistic.
  • Pete Mokwuah to develop into a guy Notre Dame can put on the field.  Notre Dame needs Tillery to become “the man” but if Mokwuah can just become “a guy” that would be good enough.
  • One of Brandon Tiassum or Micah Dew Treadway to move to nose tackle behind Tillery.
  • One of the true freshman to come in be able to provide depth.  Of the three, Kurt Hinish might actually be best suited for such a role as a frosh even though the other two have higher ceilings long term.

That is a lot to have to go right for Notre Dame, but none of it is really that far out of the question either.  The biggest thing is Notre Dame needs a little luck here.  Luck on the injury front and luck on the development front.

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  1. How many top 30 teams have no legitimate NT or backup headed into the season? Tillery has been playing out of position since he arrived- so don’t include him as a NG- recruited as an outstanding incoming OT until Kelley and VanGorder got a hold of him.
    Inadequate recruiting, and a D’ Staff without a plan results in one long-standing Cage condition/ injury devastating the middle of your d-line. And with Georgia in game two, and LJScott w/MSU early on in the season ? ND will need to score more to win more or it could turn ugly early.

    DL Haiku Blues
    A plea from the D’ to the Wimbush O’

    TDs not FGs
    Score lots more, like 44
    While foes run all day

    Maybe at least one more year feeling the fallout of Van Gorder, clueless as to what D’ to run, or how to maximize the talent he had instead of forcing them into a D’ scheme that regularly failed, and incapable or uninterested in recruiting to the needs of your unit, which could result in another season of VG hangover – consumed and gone, but its ill-effects could linger.

    Could see some Frosh DLs playing early!

  2. My defensive line observations.

    First my understanding of the defensive line in a 4 man front. ( feel free to correct me if I’m way off)

    NT/1 tech: Usually a 320 + pounder lined up on the inside shoulder of the guard and he should possess the brute strength to over power a guard or center alone. Thus he should consistently draw double teams effectively clogging up the middle of the field. A secondary effect would be the ability of the buck or mike linebackers to run free.

    DT/3 tech: A 285 to 300 pounder charged with penetrating the line of scrimmage, disrupting either the pass or the run. His coveted traits would be speed and agility.

    LDE/ power rush: Required to set the edge in the run game or beat the RT/TE to put pressure on the QB in the pass. He must be powerful enough to handle a double team and still hold the edge.

    RDE/ speed rush: Lines up wide of the offensive line and uses speed and technique to beat the LT or TE. Drops to cover the TE/RB in specialized blitz packages.

    Tillery- His strengths appear to be strong use of his hands and wing span to keep blockers from bodying up on him and surprising agility in a man his size. Putting him at NT would seem to nullify his strengths being that the NT “should” be trying to body up two defenders in a double team. I also question whether he will have the strength to hold up at the point of attack in a double team.

    Taylor- I wouldn’t expect to see him until mid way through the season, at best. His body type and burst suggest to me a 3 tech though his reputed strength might lend it self to the NT position if he were to add some poundage.

    D. Hayes- He would seem to be the prototypical rush end, especially if he were to add 5 to 10 pounds of muscle over the next couple of years without sacrificing any speed.

    J. Hayes- Here again would seem to be your prototypical power end. If the reports of his strength are true he should stamp his name all over this position for the next two years.

    Bonner- With his decent burst and adequate size, 3 tech should be where he begins to thrive. His frequent appearances in the back field when receiving playing time need to become finished/impact plays.

    Dew- Treadway- I wish someone would talk him into about 15 pounds of solid muscle as he has always appeared to slow for the 3 tech to me. I just don’t see that Day/ Lynch type burst which would seem necessary for a man that size playing 3 tech.

    Tiassum- A slower version of MDT.

    Mokwuah- He would from the outside to be the perfect NT, but who is to say how much of that 326 pounds is muscle.

    Kareem- I just hope he isn’t starting to head down that Doug Randolph Memorial Highway.

    Okwara/ Ogundeji- Probably just need to add a few pounds this year, as their respective positions demand it. Their turns will come fairly soon.

    Wardlow/ MacCollister/ Amosa/ Hinnish and Ewell look quite promising.

    4 variables: 1) The starters who managed to amass a whopping 14 sacks last year, tying Charlotte and coming in right behind Vanderbilt and Akron, are mostly gone this year. 2) Elko and his new scheme. I liked what I saw at Wake with a horde of 3 stars. Fingers crossed that he can develop our 3, 4, and 5 stars as well. 3) the wild card in my opinion will be the success of Balis and the enthusiasm for his new program in the weight room. As mentioned above in several places an appreciable gain in weight/Strength this summer could drastically change the outlook for our line this fall. 4) The blame for a 4 and 8 season being mostly tossed in the defense’s lap (perhaps rightfully so) VS. Their hunger/pride/ desire for change.

  3. Yeah, Frank, it is a “kitchen sink” situation. They need all hands on deck. Tiassum and Dew-Treadway have to be protective.

    In the class behind them, Kareem was listed as 6’4″ 267 pre Spring practice. He needs to bulk up to 285 and move to
    defensive tackle.

    And the three frosh will have to be ready to play, whether they are ready or not. It is still 60 days before Georgia.

    They may even need to slide somebody like Byrne or Ruhland over for 10 snaps a game.

    This is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the team’s Achilles Heel. Crisis management is called for, but oddly, it won’t be a problem a year from now, when the three frosh have a year under their belt and Ademilola and Franklin arrive.

    This staff, unlike so many staffs before, know they can not wear Tillery and Bonner out early in the season.

    The cost for that is there may some ugly plays by the DTs early in the season. The rest of the team must compensate and overcompensate.

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