Defensive line doubts disappear for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Remember the last play of Notre Dame’s win over Stanford last week?

Cardinal ball on their own 35. Irish up by three. Just a couple ticks left on the clock.

Instead of a soft “prevent” defense, something the players call the “victory defense,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder threw the kitchen sink at quarterback Kevin Hogan. The Stanford QB was mauled by the avalanche of defenders and flagged for intentional grounding as time ran out.

That’s why Irish defensive guys love playing football for VanGorder. He refuses to take his foot off the pedal.

Heading into Saturday’s battle with North Carolina, the Irish defense ranks 21st in the country, allowing 316 yards a game. Notre Dame is ninth against the run, giving up just under 96 yards an outing.

A unit loaded with question marks in August is playing lights out in October.

To a man, they’ve all bought in.

The defensive line can be used as the face of the renovation project. Despite losing Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix to the NFL, then shifting the scheme from three down linemen to four, while on top of all that liberally using freshmen who were hardly five-star recruits, the line has held up to every challenge sent its way.

There had been flashes of dominance through the first four games, but Stanford was supposed to be the ultimate proving ground. Nobody flinched. The Irish generated seven tackles for loss, four of which were sacks, against a Cardinal offensive line that was supposed to be solid.

The polarizing moment of that battle in the trenches was Notre Dame defensive tackle Isaac Rochell, a 6-foot-4, 287-pound sophomore bull-rushing over Stanford’s best lineman, left tackle Andrus Peat (6-7, 316).

“It was cool,” Rochell said with a smile. “But, at the end of the day, there were still a lot of things in the game that I need to improve upon. I wasn’t even focusing (on the destruction of Peat), because there are so many corrections that need to be made.”

“(Rochell) is extremely powerful,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “I've alluded to this on a few occasions. One of the more powerful players that I've coached, and he's only going to get better.

“Now, is he a dynamic pass rusher? No, he is not. But I'm telling you what, he is hard to move, and he allows linebackers to fill. Again, you don't see a ton on the stat line from him. But when you can't move (tackle Jarron) Jones and you can't move Rochell, the net result is, you're going to play pretty good run defense.”

One way to gauge the effectiveness of the defensive line is to measure the production of the linebackers. When Manti Te’o had his amazing senior year, he gave a lot of the credit to Tuitt, Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

While Jones (15 tackles), Rochell (13), Sheldon Day (23), Romeo Okwara (18) and Andrew Trumbetti (9) have combined for 78 tackles, inside linebackers Jaylon Smith (45) and Joe Schmidt (37) have combined for 82.

Thus, the system is working.

This sort of production is coming from a defensive line that had guys like Tuitt (NFL), Nix (NFL), Aaron Lynch (transfer to South Florida, now NFL) and Eddie Vanderdoes (transfer to UCLA) all leave the Notre Dame program with at least this season of eligibility left on the table.

“First of all, in developing your program, you can never leave yourself short in recruiting,” Kelly said. “We worked really hard at making sure that we had enough pieces there. Even though sometimes you feel like you'd like one more guy here or there in a recruiting cycle, it's never just one year. It's the four or five years together that make that depth happen. Then you have to develop your guys at those positions.

“As it relates to the defensive line, we felt like we had enough guys there that we're going to be able to give us the kind of play necessary. It was just a matter of giving them the opportunity.”

Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship (6 tackles) and Kolin Hill (6) have all played significant minutes with the outcome in the balance as freshmen. VanGorder’s fearlessness to use unproven rookies is as compelling as the nature of the attack that he runs.

Liberal substitutions adjust to new packages and schemes on a regular basis.

“(The substitutions packages are) much more down and distance for us,” Kelly said. “It's first, second and third down. You know, we probably had with Tuitt, he was a guy that could play all three downs for us. As I mentioned before, Isaac and Jarron, not necessarily guys that would be on the field for all three downs. So you've seen our packages. We're nickel, we're dime (extra defensive backs), we're into more situational substitution. So those guys don't play as many reps.”

When those big guys are in there, they’re going full-throttle.

The Notre Dame defense’s tussle with the North Carolina running game should be lopsided, if statistics mean anything. The Tar Heels are ranked 89th in the country, averaging just under 139 yards. Their leading rusher is quarterback Marquise Williams (243 yards on 57 carries).

North Carolina’s offense is much different from Stanford. The Cardinal relied on a power game until the Irish defense (which allowed just 47 net rushing yards) forced it to throw. The Tar Heels are a spread offense that will necessitate open field tackling to be crisp.

“Defending the run is just being tough in the front seven; doing what you’re supposed to do; gap integrity,” Rochell said. “(VanGorder’s) an aggressive coordinator in general, schematically. It challenges us to always play aggressive and come off the ball. It challenges us to match his aggressive attitude.

“His coaching style: He’s a stern coach and gets on you, but he’s a loving coach. He coaches in a way that, ‘OK, I’m not a bad player. I can do this.’

“It’s a cool mix: A hard-nosed coach who also loves his players.

“I wonder, ‘When I’m a senior and (if) he’s still here, will he have the same affect?’ He definitely will.

“He has that vibe that it’s a personal thing. If you mess something up, you don’t want to let your coach down.”

Scheme and attitude – and a lot of VanGorder – has been able to will the Irish defense to a point few on the periphery of the program felt was attainable.

“We’ve been good,” Rochell said. “There were question marks in people’s minds, which was fair. We lost a lot of guys. We lost a coordinator (Bob Diaco). Question marks were going to be there, no matter what. We’ve always grinded. We’ve always worked hard to be the best d-linemen we could possibly be.

“The biggest thing is you don’t even think about it. We didn’t think about people questioning our abilities.”

Nobody’s questioning now.

Notre Dame defensive end Isaac Rochell celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-Syracuse game on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)