Pass-rush production paramount for Notre Dame in 2015

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It wasn’t the seven career tackles and two career sacks impending transfer Kolin Hill will take with him when the sophomore quasi-defensive end eventually finds a new landing spot.

It’s the dots that are connected — perhaps egregiously, perhaps not — to fellow transferring sophomore defensive end Jhonny Williams and relocated February signee Bo Wallace, another pass-rusher recently self-deleted from the Notre Dame roster, that spark some uneasiness in the Irish fan base about where the position group is headed in the near and distant future.

The unharsh reality is that it’s unlikely Hill, Williams or Wallace would have more than subtly impacted the 2015 season. The harsher truth is Irish head football coach Brian Kelly may feel their absence in, say 2017, if he doesn’t pluck a couple of Stephon Tuitt/Aaron Lynch fast-trackers in this and the next recruiting cycle to supplement some of the existing and arriving projects.

Even the broader subject of pass rush in general came up only sporadically Thursday morning during Kelly’s first press conference of the preseason, a media give-and-take that was so protracted (roughly 70 minutes), you could almost see the evaporation beginning inside Kelly’s unopened Gatorade bottle on his lectern.

But amid a deluge of tidbits that included a flurry of positive injury news, wide receiver Justin Brent’s coming audition at running back and reports of which freshmen were already ascending with the opening of training camp still hours away, the most relevant undercurrent in the upcoming 23 practices that lead up to game week vs. Texas is the pass rush.

The current state of the pass rush.

And on a team loaded with standout individual pieces and unparalleled experience and depth at most positions during the Kelly era, only quarterback depth can rival the pass rush’s potential to either clearly define Notre Dame as a real playoff contender or just as decidedly distance itself from that status.

“I’ve definitely been impressed with the improvements they’ve made after (last) season,” offered senior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, whose avalanche of preseason honors include being named one of the top 10 players in the nation regardless of position.

“As a group, I think they’re better pass-rushers in general, just using better technique, having better motors. Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell, those two guys are definitely the toughest guys on the defense to block, without a doubt.”

Still in limbo is whether former five-star recruit Ishaq Williams will be able to join that group that includes six healthy and cleared scholarship players. The 6-foot-6, 284-pound senior, whose most recent practice was Aug. 14 of last year, is still awaiting word from the NCAA on whether he’ll be able to play in 2015 for the Irish.

Until there’s finality, Kelly has decided to hold Williams out of practice. The Brooklyn, N.Y. product was one of five players implicated in ND’s internal academic fraud investigation last year. He has been readmitted to Notre Dame and attended summer school.

“In talking to him, (Williams) has the thought and the goal to play in the NFL,” Kelly said. “And if we can accommodate him after a decision has been made, whether it's pro or con … if it's pro, and we hope it is, he plays.

“If it's con, we'll have to evaluate whether it helps him to practice and work out for that next level, and those are decisions that we'll have to make once we hear something from the NCAA. I think I have a general understanding that this is not going to be a long process for us.”

Knowing exactly what he has in his pass rush group overall may take a little longer, but Kelly knows the importance of it.

The one season of the 10 that the NCAA has been charting team sacks in which ND finished in the top 25 in that category (22nd) happened to be the only one of those years that the Irish were also in the national title picture.

That was 2012. The next season, with much of the same personnel but minus Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o, they were 96th.

Last season, with players that had accounted for just two career sacks among the starting front seven going into 2014, ND settled in at No. 74.

“Can you be an elite defense if you don’t have at least a pretty good pass rush?” ESPN analyst David Pollack chewed on the question in the ND Insider 2015 Football Preview.

“If you’ve got an elite secondary, sure. They both make each other look really good. But if you don’t have one or the other, then it becomes a game of guessing.

“You have to bring an extra guy. And if I bring an extra guy, I have to play a little tighter on coverage. If I play a little bit tighter on coverage, guess what happens? Now I could give up the big play. But there’s nothing better than having a guy who can put his hand on the ground and go and get the quarterback.”

Not always are they vaunted prospects as Tuitt and Lynch were for ND. In fact, the top pass-rushers nationally in recent years tend to profile more closely to the three in the current Irish recruiting class — Julian Okwara, Jamir Jones and Adetokunbo Ogundeji.

Of the 26 players who ranked among the top five pass-rushers nationally over the past five seasons (1 repeat, 2 ties), there were only four who ranked among the top 250 prospects nationally in their respective classes coming out of high school.

In fact, there were as many players who changed their names (3) in college — two legally — as there were five-star prospects in the group (3). There were only three four-star prospects as well, but 14 three-stars and six two-stars.

“You have a very thin profile when you’re recruiting to play fast, spread offenses,” said Mack Brown, former Texas head coach and current ESPN analyst and Kelly confidant. “He has to be strong enough and play with enough leverage to stop the run and be quick enough to chase down the screen and draws. And at the same time, rush the passer.

“That’s why those guys in the NFL and in college have become such a priority. And if you can’t find them, then you have to find players you hope can turn into one.” | 574-235-6112 | Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Defensive tackle Sheldon Day should play a big role in Notre Dame's effort to turn up the heat on opposing quarterbacks. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)