Daniel Cage's real-life role expands for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They live in the same dorm, play the same position, hang out together from time to time but not constantly.

Somehow, though, Notre Dame sophomore Daniel Cage has largely dodged the Showtime cameras, boom mikes and editing crews as they’ve turned his Notre Dame tag-team partner at nose guard, freshman Jerry Tillery, into essentially a sitcom star.

“I don’t really worry about that,” the more soft-spoken of the two, Cage, said of Tillery’s recurring starring role in the Showtime documentary, “A Season With Notre Dame Football.”

Meanwhile, Cage’s role in real life, on Notre Dame’s defensive line, continues to expand.

He’s on track to start his seventh game this season Saturday when the eighth-ranked Irish (7-1) visit Pittsburgh (6-2), in a series in which each of the past six meetings and eight of the past nine have been decided by seven points or less.

It’ll be Notre Dame’s first noon kickoff in four seasons, when the opponent that day was also Pitt, on the road. ABC has the national telecast.

“I think this game really fits Daniel,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly, who started the 6-foot-7, 305-pound Tillery against the two triple-option teams (Georgia Tech and Navy) for his speed, and the 6-1, 315-pound Cage, whose dominant asset is power, against everyone else.

“He's physical at the point of attack. He's got first-step quickness. He can really control the line of scrimmage. These next few games will be a very good fit for him as well.”

Cage fits better than in the past, because he’s transformed his body as well as his mental outlook.

The Cincinnati Winton Woods High product said he came to Notre Dame at 345 to 350 pounds and played at that weight last season as a freshman. He lost 30 pounds over the summer by cutting bad carbs from his diet.

“I’m not even going to lie, it was real hard,” he said. “You see all the cakes and pies, and it’s like, ‘Dang, you really want that,’ but it’s all mental. It was nothing to it when I put my mind to it.”

Before each of Cage’s two seasons, a preseason injury pushed him up the depth chart. As 2014 training camp was about to start, Kelly announced backup nose guard Tony Springmann’s career was over and he’d be placed on medical hardship.

That made the then-true freshman the default No. 2 option at nose guard, with fellow freshman Peter Mokwuah as No. 3 until Kelly moved backup tackle Jacob Matuska over to nose later in the season. Cage responded by promptly throwing up at his first official ND practice.

He maintains now it was because of a big breakfast and not the shock off moving into the two-deeps, but it wasn’t a comfortable transition.

“Coming from high school to college is a big tempo change,” he said. “I wasn’t really ready for that. Once I settled down and was mentally ready to play. I slowed the game down and it became easier.”

But he largely took up space and let those around him make plays, finishing the season with four tackles in 11 games as a reserve.

“I was just trying to survive,” he admitted.

During August training camp this season, senior starter Jarron Jones went down with a season-ending knee injury. And the presumption was that Tillery would move up to fill the void.

The early enrollee had been the story line of spring practice on the defensive side of the ball.

Jones in the spring was still recovering from a foot injury that knocked him out of the final two games of ND’s 2014 season. Cage, meanwhile, was limited in the spring by first an elbow injury, then a concussion. And he hadn’t yet slimmed down to his current 315 yet.

“I stayed engaged,” he said.

And when Jones went down again, Cage rose to the occasion, pulling into a time share with Tillery, with Cage now getting most of the snaps.

The two have combined for 24 tackles, not far behind the pace Jones had (31) through eight games last season. Cage has 15 of those, and Tillery nine.

“I think we've got a 1-2 punch there that will continue to be effective for us,” Kelly said.

Cage credits Jones with improving his technique and defensive tackle Sheldon Day with helping to motivate him to expand what he thought was possible.

“It was time for me to step up,” he said.

He also gleans football knowledge and inspiration from his younger, but not-so-little brother, Jerron. The 6-2, 270-pound junior at Winton Woods is verbally committed to Ohio State for the 2017 recruiting cycle, though he continues to visit Notre Dame.

“He can be the best defensive lineman if he puts him mind to it,” the elder Cage said.

Daniel Cage, meanwhile, played AAU basketball on a team that competed for a national championship early in his high school career and only gave up the sport after his junior season, because he became frustrated with being called for so many fouls.

“He didn’t play basketball like a football player, but he looked like one, and that worked against him,” Winton Woods football coach Andre Parker said with a chuckle. “So he and his family just decided maybe it was best to just focus on football at that point.”

But even that had its frustrations. Notre Dame passed Cage by early in the recruiting process and only became involved at the 11th hour, shortly before national signing day and after Cage said he had verbally committed to Michigan State.

Ohio State, meanwhile, never really never offered, something that Buckeye coach Urban Meyer recently was quoted as saying that he regretted.

“It’s peaceful to the mind, but I’m focused on getting better,” he said of OSU’s too-little, too-late interest. “The more I progress, the more he feels that pain that, ‘I really should have recruited that guy.’ I’m here … and this is the right place for me.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame nose guard Daniel Cage (75) continues to expand his role for the Irish. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)