Piecing together a new front

COMPILED BY ERIC HANSEN
ND Insider

Watching defensive end Romeo Okwara try to flatten out his growth curve still gives Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly palpitations.

Increasingly, though, they’re the good kind of heart flutters.

“What we’re hoping to see is what we’re seeing — steady improvement,” Kelly said of the barely 19-year-old junior. “Our expectations are that come time to play against Rice (Aug. 30), that we’re going to see a different player than we saw the first day of spring practice.”

Actually, it’s a familiar refrain throughout the defensive front seven, where sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith has more career starts (13) than the other six projected opening-day starters have combined (11).

Along the defensive line in particular, Kelly and new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder are relying on a formula of schematics, mixing and matching through specialized roles, a heavy dose of faith — and elite returnee Sheldon Day to prop up a run defense that slipped from 11th to 70th nationally (out of 123) last year.

Even more concerning are the pass-rush numbers — the 21 sacks in 2013 constituting a No. 96 national rating — by far the worst showing of a Kelly team in the 10 years he’s been coaching at the FBS level. And 19 of those 21 sacks came from players no longer on the Irish roster.

The lack of defensive pressure showed up too in a ND’s paltry turnovers-forced ranking (103rd).

“We're going to find other ways to bring pressure,” Kelly asserted. “Everybody across the country does. You have got to find ways to get after the quarterback, and it's not necessarily just those big guys that put their hand on the ground.”

This year, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Okwara will be one of those guys with his hand on the ground most of the time, after largely serving as a Band-Aid his first two seasons. Depending upon where depth became the most dire, the Nigeria native played anywhere from the now-defunct drop linebacker role to nose guard.

Last spring, the Irish coaches felt he was worth the investment and the predictable growing pains that went along with that to anchor him to a singular position and then watch him grow. The expectation is that Okwara’s bookend in ND’s expected base 4-3 look will do the same, though senior Ishaq Williams has only in small stretches matched his five-star recruiting pedigree to this point.

“Just playing with a consistency, playing with a grit, a toughness,” defensive line coach Mike Elston identified as the 6-5, 271-pound Williams’ biggest challenge at a position he dabbled at the past two seasons in third-down packages under the old defensive regime.

“You’re lined up on an offensive tackle — 315, 320 pounds — every single snap.”

The closest things to absolutes up front are Day, a 6-2, 290-pound junior whose intermittent injuries in 2013 mitigated his dominance, and 6-5, 310--pound junior nose guard Jarron Jones, a former enigmatic end who accelerated into a solid contributor once he kicked inside in what started as a move out of desperation.

Day’s calculated move inside, at least from those scouting him from the NFL, could make him a star — as it fits and enhances his skill set better than serving as a 3-4 defensive end. Not that the 3-4 is being retired.

“Sheldon Day is the hardest player on the defense to block, for sure,” Irish offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley offered. “But all of them, they’re definitely a more aggressive defense. They’re more penetrating.”

Behind the front-line front four are plenty of numbers, but it’s unproven whether that constitutes actual depth.

Two of the most intriguing reinforcements are a pair of senior comeback stories — backup nose guard Tony Springmann, who missed all of the 2013 season and all contact work last spring recovering from knee surgery, and Day’s backup — Chase Hounshell — who hasn’t played since 2011 as a freshman.

There was a point that Kelly figured three surgeries on the same shoulder would eventually lead to Hounshell becoming a medical hardship case.

“There was no question in his mind,” Kelly said. “He had made a decision that I don’t think he know exactly what was going to happen, but he knew he was going to get himself back on the field.”

Among the seven defensive line newcomers, some of whom could migrate to hybrid linebacker positions, Jay Hayes figures to be the most game-ready among the interior guys. Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship and Jhonny Williams are the most-likely to earn a niche role among the new edge players.

“We weren’t going to wait for them to arrive in June to have conversations about who could help us and how,” Elston said. “I don’t think we’re going to have guys in that group that can play all three downs right away, but I do think it’s realistic to train them for certain jobs.

“Is there a guy who can help us on first and second down? Are there guys who can be pass-rush guys on third down? Hopefully, some of the young guys coming in can add some value there.”

Notre Dame offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley, left, blocks linebacker Romeo Okwara during the Blue-Gold Spring Game on Saturday, April 12, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER via FTP