It’s an accepted cliché within the football world that defense wins championships, but a more accurate statement might be that defenses, led by an effective and consistent pass rush, win championships. NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers’ No. 1 offense looked like a runaway train of point-scoring until it was derailed by the Denver Broncos’ defense, with Newton spending most of the Super Bowl running for his life. That is why the Denver Broncos are currently champions, and it’s one of the biggest reasons why Notre Dame has failed to get over that final hump of winning a major bowl game since head coach Brian Kelly’s arrival.
Over the past three seasons Notre Dame has never been higher than No. 74 nationally in sacks produced, tying programs like Western Kentucky, Nevada and Hawaii, and trailing lower-tiered MAC programs like Eastern Michigan. And the prospects don’t seem too much rosier for 2016, either. The Fighting Irish defense recorded 25 sacks last season, nearly half of which were produced by two players who have since moved on to the NFL in Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara. Without them Irish fans have valid reasons to be concerned last year’s poor sack production might become even worse.
What’s the solution to Notre Dame’s pass rushing woes? The answer, which is to recruit better pass rushers, isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, although Notre Dame has taken a large step in the right direction.
Luring Daelin Hayes away from his native Michigan while Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh hauled in a top ten recruiting class was a coup. Hayes, a 5-star prospect rated as the No. 7 overall outside linebacker in the Class of 2016, was coveted by nearly every major college program in the country and held offers from the likes of Alabama, Ohio State and USC. While injuries plagued Hayes in high school – including a labrum injury that sidelined him his entire senior year – the Notre Dame coaching staff feels his potential is nearly unlimited, with Hayes even drawing comparisons to Notre Dame legend Justin Tuck, who holds program records for most career sacks (24.5) and most sacks in a single season (13.5).
Hayes has the talent to be a very productive pass rusher for Notre Dame, but in order for the defense to have a consistent pass rushing threat, Hayes will need help. And the coaching staff is scouring the depths of the Class of 2017 to find their man.
The Class of 2017 began with extreme promise with the commitment of defensive end Robert Beal in November of 2015. Beal, a 4-star prospect from Norcross, Ga., is rated as the No. 2 weakside defensive end in the nation and holds an elite offer that includes nearly the entire SEC. Plucking Beal away from the South was an impressive feat, and he possesses the raw pass rushing ability Kelly and his staff covet. It was not to be, however, and Beal decommitted from Notre Dame in February.
Notre Dame had another close call with the Class of 2017’s No. 1 overall weakside defensive end, Josh Kaindoh. A 5-star prospect and a Maryland native, Notre Dame made Kaindoh’s final four programs before he committed to the Maryland Terrapins, a program that was, oddly enough, not included in his final four schools. While Notre Dame may have missed on its first attempt, it’s still early in the process and the coaching staff will keep pushing for Kaindoh to make a visit to South Bend this fall.
The lack of a pass rusher in the commitment column may frustrate Notre Dame fans but the lack of early success is not predictive of the final result. It’s important to note that Daelin Hayes was on the verge of committing to USC at this point last year before eventually signing with Notre Dame, and like Hayes, Notre Dame is aiming for the nation’s best pass rushers in this recruiting cycle, which requires more time.
Case in point, Notre Dame received big news recently when 5-star outside linebacker Baron Browning announced his intention to be at the Irish Invasion next month. The Kennedale, Tx., native boasts offers from the likes of Alabama, Michigan and Ohio State, and has a highlight reel that shows his explosiveness when blitzing. And Irish fans shouldn’t forget Corey Malone-Hatcher – a 4-star weakside defensive end that has visited Notre Dame at least a dozen times – who most recently spent an additional day on campus for Notre Dame’s Junior Day to become better acquainted with current players.
The lack of an effective pass rush has plagued Brian Kelly since his arrival in South Bend but it’s clear it has become a point of emphasis in recruiting. If Notre Dame is able to sign an elite pass rusher in the Class of 2017 to pair with Daelin Hayes, Irish fans should look forward to lots of plays made behind the line of scrimmage.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter.