Notre Dame has done a pretty good job restocking its cupboard over the last few recruiting cycles, but one position that the Irish head into 2019 with some perilous depth is on the interior of the defensive line. Notre Dame lucked out big time in 2018 getting both Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner to return, but with both out of eligibility, they have serious depth concerns on the interior of the defensive line this year.
As Notre Dame moves through spring practice, they have just three fully healthy reserves on the inside of the defensive line. On the edges, a place Notre Dame has notoriously struggled, the Irish suddenly have a surplus of talented outside linemen. Inside is a completely different story.
Notre Dame should be good with starters Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Hinish really started to flash towards the end of his sophomore year in 2018 and Lord Myron looked primed for a breakout year last fall before an injury in week one essentially cost him his entire sophomore campaign. Both look ready to hold down the starting positions for 2019.
Sophomore Jayson Ademilola was going to force his way onto the field as a true freshman even if Tagovailoa hadn’t been hurt in week one. That injury just accelerated his timeline. Notre Dame should be able to count on a lot quality reps from the New Jersey native this fall. In fact, Ademilola should be able to push Tagovailoa-Amosa throughout spring and fall camps. He has an extremely bright future and has All-American potential written all over him.
In terms of depth, Ademilola is the one player I have zero concerns with heading into the season. He and Tagovailoa will give Notre Dame one heck of a one-two punch at defensive tackle.
After Ademilola though, there will be some hoping and praying going on. Early enrollee Jacob Lacey is currently Notre Dame’s backup nose-tackle. Lacey also looks to have a very bright future, but it is almost never a good thing to have a true freshman be the backup nose-tackle. It’s a position that requires a level of strength and physicality almost no true frosh is ready for.
Luckily Notre Dame got Lacey on campus early in January and into the weight room with super strength coach Matt Balis, but even still, it is A LOT to ask of a true freshman to give quality reps at such a demanding position. Early reports out of spring are that Lacey isn’t looking overwhelmed but the concern here is that by November, the wear and tear on a true freshman kicks in. It happened to Hinish in 2017.
A major wild card in the equation here is former big time recruit Darnell Ewell. Two years ago Ewell was considered one of the jewels of the Notre Dame recruiting class of 2017 and the future of the inside of the Irish DL. Fast forward to today and Ewell has largely been an enigma since arriving at Notre Dame.
Reports out of fall camp in 2017 were that Ewell arrived out of shape and that it was very clear that he was headed for a redshirt season. This was after almost every publication highlighted Ewell as a potential instant impact freshman. Instead he saw his classmates Hinish and Tagovailoa thrust into the lineup in prominent reserve roles.
Ewell had such a difficult time one the defensive line in 2017 that he was moved to guard last fall. He never cracked the two deep there either and has now moved back to the defensive line out of need. Add all this up and it’s clear to see that anything Notre Dame can get out of Ewell this year will be a bonus at this point. There is always the hope that the switch flips on for him, but Notre Dame can’t bank on that right now.
Injuries Impact Notre Dame’s DL Depth
Notre Dame isn’t in this situation just because of some recruiting misses. Injuries are playing a role in the depth issues facing the Irish on the interior DL this year as well.
Jamion Franklin was an underrated recruit who I have been very high on ever since he was offered a scholarship by Notre Dame. Problem is, Franklin suffered a very serious injury against Wake Forest last fall and is still in the recovery process. Overall he will have missed a lot of work in the weight room as a result and in reality, it is going to take him a while to build it all back up.
When healthy, I think Franklin has the potential to be a monster on the inside. I just don’t know how much Notre Dame will be able to count on him in the fall given the severity of his injury and the length of his recovery. He’s another player with a bright future for the Irish here, but it might be a little while before we see that potential on the field.
Hunter Spears enrolled early for Notre Dame, but he is coming off back to back serious knee injuries from high school. He tore his ACL in both 2017 and 2018 causing him to miss his entire junior season and then the high school playoffs last fall. When he was healthy in 2018, he had a huge season, but back to back ACL injuries is tough to come back from – especially at a position where leg strength plays such a core role.
Like Franklin, it’s not clear what Notre Dame will be able to count on from Spears in terms of reps this fall and anything they do get will be a bonus.
Help Arriving in the Summer
Almost all of Notre Dame’s impressive defensive line haul from the class of 2019 is already on campus. One player who’s not, however, is Howard Cross. Recruited as a strong side defensive end, the 4-star recruit is said to be moving inside once he arrives on campus to provide some additional depth.
Cross was listed at 265 lbs on his signing day bio by Notre Dame. That’s on the lighter side for an interior defensive linemen. If Cross can pack on a few pounds prior to arriving on campus though, he might be able to see the field this fall given the depth in front of him.
Long term Cross was probably going to move inside anyway so this move makes a lot of sense. Whether or not he’s able to make an impact as a true freshman at the position is another story though.
One thing should stand out here. The future on the inside of the defensive line is pretty bright. Problem is, Notre Dame is going to be counting on some true freshmen and players recovering from some pretty serious injuries this fall – especially if they suffer any injuries on the inside. The future is now. Hopefully it’s ready for Notre Dame.