Is The Notre Dame Front Four The Best Unit On The Defense?

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, 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.


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  1. Well, your logic is compelling, Greg, as are your facts, but there is a dissenting view.

    Many feel that if you don’t have a true Two Deep PLUS ONE (Total of 10 for a 4-3), then you cannot contend for excellence.

    Notre Dame is thin, extremely thin at Defensive Tackle. Sure there is Myron Tagavailoa, but he is a frosh, and many frosh, cf Tillery, Jerry, hit a November wall. Hinish has a bright future. FUTURE.

    Well, can’t the starters just play more?

    Warren Sapp disagrees. His contention, when he was leading the Tampa Bay defensive line, was that:
    “We’re a great defense for 55 plays, after that we’re iffy.” Or words to that effect.

    This is exacerbated in College. Because college teams run more plays.

    Last year in the Championship game Clemson ran 99 plays. Deplorable lunkheads ignore that fact, and hyena the following: “Bama choked in the fourth quarter, giving up 21 points.” No, hyena, they were TIRED, and Saban, enchanted with his first team defense, neither developed nor played his backups sufficiently. (Mike Elko is gutsy, he plays his subs early, let the devil take the hindmost!)

    The hyenas, undaunted and smugly ignorant, then moved on to analyze the Super Bowl. In that game the Patriot’s ran 93 plays to ONLY 46 for the Falcons. They hyenas again yapped that the Falcons choked. Other folks, and I’m not picking sides here, contend that the Falcons were tired. And that fact, and weary legs is why the Pats scored the last 25 points to win the Super Bowl.

    The defensive line depth is there at DE. Kareem, Tumbetti and Okwara are a solid threesome to backup those non-fraternal twins Daelin and Jay Hayes.

    But Elko and Elston and Kelly are whistling past a daunting graveyard (forgive the Halloween metaphor) with the lack of sufficient depth at DT.

    This chicken may come home to roost in the 13th game. Notre Dame’s 13th opponent will have plenty of time and rest to analyze this weakness.

    But, but, but……..can’t the players just drink more Gatorade and suck it up for one game???????

    Well, ask Nick Saban. Ask Dan Quinn.

    Fatigue, like Father time, remains unbeaten.

  2. Southside, EJS,
    Meant to say , such a wicked Donald Pleasence change. We could argue all day about Butkus, but does He have any rings to show, college or pro? Its tit for tat everytime against the Trojans; RexMoore shoving mud in Alans Pinketts face, Paul McDonalds incomplete pass, Michael Harpers “push back td. To bad we didn’t have replay boxes then. I’m hoping for crummy SB weather to dampen the hopes of this west coast offense.

    1. GK , when you say a “wicked Donald Pleasence” you got my attention. Butkus is no match for this sicko. I think Mike Singletary of ’85 Bears Super Bowl team had that horror look in his eyes when staring at the QB across line of scrimmage— not a pleasant or “Pleasance” sight to see. I’m hoping for more than crummy weather in South Bend to dampen the hopes of USC. I can’t say what exactly what I want the Irish to do to the Trojans — for fear of being called a sicko on this UHND web site.

  3. Like that word “Havoc” Greg. This D-line is causing disruption , chaos up front — in turn enabling line backers and rover Tranquill to make their presence felt sooner at line of scrimmage. True , quite a few of us were skeptical at start of season about the D-line. That loss to Georgia is what started the D-line believing in themselves. Keeping the Dawgs two running backs in check was quite a feat– considering that Chubbs is running like a maniac now.

  4. I, for one, did not believe that Tillery would ever be able to make a “comeback” after nudging someone with his foot. Wonders never cease!

  5. The defense has been a pleasant surprise. I give Elko and his staff all the credit in the world for making the defense at least respectable. I’m still waiting for the upcoming games to see if they are truly playing at a great level. But at the very least they are handling the fundamentals much, much better. With the way the defense is playing right now, I feel like ND has a real shot at winning some of these big games coming up. It’s nice not having to bite your nails every time the defense takes the field.

    1. Greg , Damian —- what’s with the word “pleasant.” I can’t recall Dick Butkus using that word in regards to football or at home with the wife and kids. Forgive me , this is going to be a long break before USC game.

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