Notre Dame DT Daniel Cage rounding into shape with early playing time

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- His blocking paved the way for teammate Marcus Davis to earn all-state honors last season in talent-rich Ohio. A short-yardage and goal-line weapon, Daniel Cage found the end zone four times last season playing at Cincinnati’s Winton Woods High School. His nickname early in his high school career, when he regularly played the position, was Big Back.

But Daniel Cage’s days as a running back, as much as he’d like to think otherwise, are most likely over.

“I don’t want it to be,” Cage acknowledged, “but yeah, it looks like it.”

Cage, though, isn’t fretting over lost carries or end zone celebrations that never will be. The freshman is proving a valuable commodity on the Irish defensive line, a line that, sans Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, ranks 25th nationally through three weeks by allowing an average of 99 rushing yards per game.

Cage thus far isn’t one of the headliners, but his role as a situational guy who can spell starting nose guard Jarron Jones has been huge. With Nix leaving a year of eligibility on the table to enter the NFL, the job fell to Jones, but who would serve as his backup was left in question.

That question became bigger when it was revealed at the start of fall camp that Tony Springmann, the likely backup and a key reserve on ND’s 2012 team, would have to give up the game because of a back issue. Junior Jacob Matuska began camp as the No. 2 behind Jones, but Cage quickly surged, despite a rocky start.

Near the end of ND’s first full practice at the Culver Academies, Cage experienced a stomach issue that indicated he may have been a little shy of tip-top shape. Asked this week about “leaving it all on the field,” Cage smiled, but that’s about as far as that issue (thankfully) went.

“Yeah,” Cage sheepishly offered.

Cage may have been a bit out of shape when he arrived, but he quickly got the message. The 6-foot-1 Cage is listed at 325 pounds but he said he actually came in at 345. He’s now at 315, with the goal to drop to around 300.

“As soon as I came in they saw my weight and they said you’ve got to get down,” Cage said. “I’m still losing and I’m in better shape than what I was when I came in.”

And that has resulted in reps, with Cage having recorded three tackles thus far. Still, he’s been on the field on important downs, and he’s provided Jones the rest needed to keep him fresh for not only later in games, but also later in the season.

“I think physically he was a lot more mature than people realized,” Winton Woods coach Andre Parker said. “I think the biggest thing we talked about was being coachable and understand what (defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston wanted from him, taking hard coaching, and his work ethic, coming to work every day and trying to get better.”

That approach has resulted in playing time, something Cage targeted the minute he signed.

“That’s what I was fighting for,” Cage said. “I didn’t want to redshirt. I wanted to come in and make an immediate impact on what’s going on with that team.”

A year ago at this time, Cage playing for the Irish seemed improbable. Cage said he was told that former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco “wasn’t really feelin’ me,” meaning an ND offer did not arrive under Diaco’s watch.

Diaco, however, left following the regular season to become the head coach at Connecticut and in early January was replaced by Brian VanGorder. The former New York Jets assistant liked what he saw of Cage on film, ND offered on Jan. 12 and a visit occurred 10 days later. On signing day, Cage picked the Irish over Michigan State, Illinois, Louisville and Missouri.

Much of the credit for the Irish staying in the hunt for Cage goes the way of Elston, who made regular visits to Winton Woods starting during Cage’s sophomore year.

“He was real with me, I was real with him,” Cage said. “It showed that he really liked me, he really wanted me to come to Notre Dame and that he had a plan for me.”

Plans with Cage in mind at Winton Woods began formulating when Cage was in junior high. Troy Everhart, who was the head coach at Winton Woods and left the school a year before Cage arrived, remembers noticing a youngster who was wise beyond his years, and got to know Cage a bit when he was in junior high.

“He acted like a senior in high school,” said Everhart, who worked at the University of Cincinnati and later was the head coach at another Cincinnati-area school, which allowed him to keep tabs on Cage. “He’s got his head screwed on straight.”

Everhart, now the director of player personnel at Army, marveled at how Cage was able, as a younger player, to work his way into shape quickly. And he sees in in Cage a guy who may not have the perfect physical traits, but a player who squeezes every ounce of talent out of what he has.

“I think that those are always the kids that really end up shining,” Everhart said. “I think Danny’s going to be that guy.”

Notre Dame’s Daniel Cage, center, hangs on to Michigan QB Devin Gardner and Michigan’s Jack Miller moves in during the Notre Dame-Michigan game on Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN