Notre Dame DL coach Keith Gilmore hunting for more help

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Keith Gilmore inherited a defensive line with few key contributors and plenty of unproven youth. 

Now it’s Gilmore’s task to improve the stock of his position group through recruiting.

The Notre Dame defensive line coach has been recruiting at Notre Dame for nearly six months and has gained verbal commitments from four-star defensive end Julian Okwara, three-star defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji and three-star linebacker Jamir Jones, who likely will play defensive line at Notre Dame.

All three have potential to develop into edge rushers, but none are likely instant impact players. The same could have been said about the 2015 class of defensive linemen which was heavy on defensive tackle projects and included zero defensive ends. That changed when Jerry Tillery flipped from offense to defense. Now Tillery is in line contribute and potentially start at defensive tackle in the season opener.

Gilmore admits he owes offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, who helped recruit Tillery to Notre Dame.

“I should take him out to dinner,” Gilmore said with a laugh. “He got us a good one.”

Finding more prospects like Tillery could help take Notre Dame’s defensive line to a championship level. With early returns in the 2016 class, Gilmore likes what the Irish have done.

“It’s been good,” Gilmore said. “You can’t comment on guys (until they sign), but we have some people that will help us. We’re trying to look for speed guys. We have enough true big men in the program to sustain us. Our focus has to be on guys with speed and outside rushers.”

Gilmore has a short list of traits that he looks for while evaluating defensive end recruits.

“You want guys with some length. If they don’t have that, they better be super quick, super sudden and guys that have a knack for it,” Gilmore said. “The other thing I look for is a guy with a great first step. How does he come off the football? Is his first step really effective? Is he a guy that gains ground? Once he gains ground, does he know how to counter and do those things?”

In the 2016 class, the Irish missed on a number of their early defensive end targets, including five-star prospect Oluwole Betiku (UCLA), and four-star recruits Josh King and Auston Robertson (both Michigan State), Khalid Kareem (Alabama) and Xavier Kelly (Clemson). But Notre Dame’s struggles with defensive ends in the last couple years haven’t been limited to the recruiting process.

Defensive end Bo Wallace and Notre Dame parted ways three months after signing with the Irish in February. Also in the offseason, defensive ends Jhonny Williams and Kolin Hill transferred following their freshman years.

Wallace was an Irish target for a substantial amount of time before he committed to Notre Dame, but Williams and Hill were offered late in their senior years when the Irish needed defensive ends badly in the 2014 class. So is there anything to learn from the recruitments of those three players?

“Nothing that I’d really want to comment on in that regard,” said recruiting coordinator Mike Elston, who coached the Irish defensive line for the previous five seasons. “Our evaluation process is pretty solid. It’s just an individual basis that we lose a guy or two here or there.”

Gilmore wasn’t involved in the recruitment of any of those players, but he said he hasn’t seen any apparent flaws in who the Irish are targeting since joining the staff.

“I don’t think what you look for in a player has changed any. Those guys were individual cases,” Gilmore said. “What it’s done is made our numbers short.”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the type of players they were. It just wasn’t a fit for them. That’s unfortunate. The traits that those guys had, we’ll continue to look for those. Hopefully we’ll just make a better decision with guys that fit and want to be at Notre Dame.”

Senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who chose to return to Notre Dame instead of entering the NFL Draft, doesn’t understand why elite defensive linemen don’t want to come to South Bend.

“Some guys just don’t want to play for the best team in the country,” Day said. “I can’t blame them for not wanting to come here and just have fun and a really good college experience. You choose for yourself.”

A strong performance from Day and the rest of the Irish defensive line this season could help give Gilmore more recruiting momentum. He can’t simply rely on his 30 years of coaching experience and the players he’s developed along the way. Gilmore needs to be able to show recruits what they could become in the Irish defense.

“For the guys that we’ve targeted, we’ve had some fairly good success with them,” Gilmore said. “We’ll continue to grow it. It’s new for me. A lot of guys don’t know who I am, so for them to see my body of work and see what we put on the field this season will be critical.”

tjames@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame defensive line coach Keith Gilmore during Notre Dame football practice on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)