Notre Dame has a depth problem along the defensive line in 2017. Shocking, I know. One position where Notre Dame has some solid depth though is at the strong side DE spot where the Irish are at least three deep heading into training camp. That little bit of extra depth could come in handy for the Irish as they try to patch together a defensive line to help spur a resurgence in the Notre Dame defense.
When news began to circulate last week that Daniel Cage was going to sit out 2017 – and possibly retire – due to lingering effects from concussions, it set off a ripple effect along Notre Dame’s defensive line. While Cage was not expected to be a starter this fall, he was the only true nose tackle on the roster ready to play September 2nd behind starter Jerry Tillery. The loss of Cage means Mike Elston and Mike Elko are going to need to get creative up front this fall.
If you look just at the interior defensive linemen on the roster right now, things look a bit dicey for Notre Dame. Senior Pete Mokwuah hasn’t flashed much to inspire hope in three years. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum haven’t played a single down between them. Junior Elijah Talyor flashed against USC and has the looks of a potential disruptive force at the 3-technique but he went down with a lisfranc injury in spring ball and his status is unclear. After that, Notre Dame has a trio of true freshmen who all could use time with Matt Balis before they are ready to make an impact.
Enter the strong side defensive end position.
Jay Hayes Ready to Shine
Notre Dame will open camp with Jay Hayes penciled in as the starter with sophomore Khalid Kareem and senior Andrew Trumbetti battling for the backup position. Hayes had the looks of a player ready to explode last year but after he got hurt in training camp he was lost in the shuffle of Brian Vangorder’s final failed attempt at fielding any semblance of a defense. After BVG was finally put out of his misery, Hayes saw more reps, but at that point he, like many defenders hadn’t received the development or the practice reps needed to tap into their talent. That should change this fall under Mike Elko.
With Hayes pretty much entrenched as the starter, Notre Dame has some options with Kareem and Trumbetti. After settling in last fall Kareem started to develop some. The scheme-first (scheme-only?) mentality of the previous defensive staff didn’t do him much help in that matter, but by season’s end Kareem was starting to flash. He continued to flash in spring ball.
What About Andrew Trumbetti?
Then there is Andrew Trumbetti. It was just three years ago that Trumbetti was battling with Romeo Okwara in fall camp for the starting weakside defensive end position as a true freshman. Okwara eventually held on, but Trumbetti still played quite a bit in 2014. In 2015, Trumbetti was fairly silent until the end of the season. Against Wake Forest Trumbetti intercepted a pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown. Then in the Fiesta Bowl he collected four solo tackles and his second career sack. It looked like a coming out type performance. It wasn’t.
In 2016 Trumbetti had just 0.5 tackles for loss. In fact his tackles for loss have decreased each year he’s been in the program. He had 5.5 as a freshman in 2014, 2.5 as a sophomore in 2015, and then just that 0.5 in 2016. Like too many players under Vangorder, Trumbetti didn’t just fail to develop, he regressed.
In the spring, Trumbetti saw time at the strong side defensive end position despite playing most of his career on the weak side. At 252 lbs on the official spring roster, he doesn’t have ideal size for the position, but at that size he could give Notre Dame some reps in passing situations allowing the Irish to move Jay Hayes inside.
Shuffling, Shuffling the Defensive Line
Moving Hayes inside on passing downs gives Notre Dame another body on the inside. The potential problem there is Hayes can’t play every down. Notre Dame overused Isaac Rochell out of necessity last year and as a result, he wasn’t as effective as he could have been throughout the season. In order to use Hayes inside and still have him be as effective as possible both Kareem and Trumbetti will need to take some reps at SDE.
Of course, the development of any of the upperclassmen interior DL’s could make that a moot point. If Micah Dew Treadway stays healthy this year he could be a good backup to Jonathan Bonner at DT. If Brandon Tiassum or Pete Mokwuah are able to spell Tillery to keep him effective, then maybe Notre Dame only looks at adding Hayes inside on passing downs if it makes sense and not just out of necessity as they did with Rochell last year.
The difference between Notre Dame moving Hayes inside this year and Rochell last year is that Hayes has flashed some pass rush ability in the past. Rochell was never much of a pass rusher for the Irish. He was excellent against the run, but just wasn’t really a pass rush threat. Hayes, on the other hand, spent time at the weakside defensive end position even when it was pretty clear he had the body of a strong side DE.
Getting Elijah Taylor back healthy at some point would be huge for Notre Dame as well, but I’ve written multiple times about the difficulty of recovering from a lisfranc injury for an interior defensive lineman.
Notre Dame’s strong side defensive ends should at least give Notre Dame some flexibility this fall assuming they all stay healthy. In an ideal world, that flexibility will only be used to give Notre Dame its best defensive alignment – not just out of necessity. Ideal worlds haven’t really existed for Notre Dame in a long time though.