Almost isn't enough for Notre Dame's defensive line
Sheldon Day doesn’t want to be an ‘almost’ guy.
That’s why, when the two-time captain evaluates tape of Notre Dame’s 38-3 throttling of the disheveled Texas Longhorns, he doesn’t take solace in his constant presence in the UT backfield — the way he systematically imploded an overwhelmed opponent. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive tackle doesn’t dwell on his second quarter sack of Tyrone Swoopes, either, as satisfying as it may have been.
Instead, he sees all the close calls — the ‘could haves.’
“I’m not trying to be an ‘almost’ guy,” said Day, who was a devastating force despite finishing with just one tackle. “I definitely left some sacks on the table. I’m just working on fixing my footwork to where I’m not diving at where the quarterback was, but where he’s going to be.”
Regardless of the score, close won’t cut it in the revamped Irish defensive line room.
“I'm all about evaluating myself with my finishing ability,” Day said. “So I would definitely say I didn't grade out that well personally.”
Day is much more complimentary of the Notre Dame defense as a whole, a unit that suffocated the Longhorns into 163 total yards and three measly points in a dominant display. Texas conceded four sacks, managed just 52 offensive plays and rushed for 60 total yards and 2.1 yards per carry.
In the trenches of that effort were Notre Dame’s two young nose tackles, sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery.
“Oh, man, they played out of their minds, just running around to the ball,” Day said. “Jerry, for his first time playing, didn't look like a freshman at all, just watching him fly around, make plays, have fun, finally see some excitement with football. It was definitely good to see him and Daniel play well. They kept their gap and did everything we asked them to do.”
A new season, in this case, meant a fiercer, more destructive defensive line. Gone was the wounded unit that yielded 244.2 rushing yards per game while amassing just 11 sacks in the team’s final five regular season games last season, the final four being losses.
Of the team’s four sacks on Saturday night, three came from defensive linemen. And still, that wasn’t good enough for Day, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore or defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Chalk it up as another ‘almost.’
“As a defensive lineman, we want to have at least four sacks a game amongst the D-Line group,” Day said this week.
Gilmore’s group will receive another opportunity to accomplish that feat on Saturday, when Notre Dame hits the road to meet Virginia at 3:30 p.m. Despite rushing for just 98 yards in a season-opening defeat at UCLA last week, the Cavaliers will likely feature heavy doses of the power running game, featuring versatile junior running back Taquan “Smoke” Mizzell.
In a hostile road environment, Notre Dame’s defensive line will be tasked with slowing Mizzell and harassing 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Matt Johns.
“The biggest thing with them is attitude,” said junior defensive end Isaac Rochell, who finished with two tackles in the win over Texas. “They approach the game with an intensity that we haven’t seen, and that’s a big deal, especially when you’re on the road.”
Following a season in which the Irish almost beat Florida State, then almost beat Northwestern, then almost beat Louisville, VanGorder preaches that almost isn’t enough.
To fulfill its lofty expectations, the Notre Dame defensive line has to finish — every play, every series, every game.
“It’s cool to get QB pressures, but that’s just a QB pressure. It’s not a sack,” Rochell said. “That’s something that we talk about a lot, and VanGorder always uses the term ‘almost guy.’ He harps on not being an ‘almost guy.’
“A lot of that comes with having the intent to get the sack. We want to make plays and finish on the ball.”