Pestering the passer a priority for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Production has to pick up.

Somehow, some way, the Notre Dame football team’s defensive front has to improve from last season.

Or else …

That’s easier said than done, considering the Irish lost big-time talent in tackle Sheldon Day and end Romeo Okwara, and lack a proven entity in terms of pestering the passer.

Day (four sacks last season) and Okwara (eight) accounted for nearly half of Notre Dame’s pass-rush production (25 sacks). The Irish ranked a miserable 75th in the country, deadlocked with powers like Nevada and Hawaii.

Linebacker James Onwualu (three) is the returning leader, with five others having one.

When Notre Dame takes on Texas Sunday night, there won’t be a phenomenal athlete like Jaylon Smith at linebacker, as an eraser, making up for some mistakes. There will be several untested players in the secondary.

Handling those limitations starts up front. Whether it’s containing what should be a potent Longhorn run game, or causing fits for whatever quarterback — Shane Buechele or Tyrone Swoopes — happens to be under center, the defensive front has to make its presence felt.

Isaac Rochell and a combination of Andrew Trumbetti, Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes will be at the ends, while Daniel Cage, Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery will have a rotation inside.

Any stars among those big guys? Maybe. Rochell, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound senior, (63 tackles, 1 sack) has a chance. Tillery, a 6-7, 310 sophomore, might be, in time. Jones, a 6-6, 315 grad student, could be effective if his achy knees are right.

It’s gotta come from somewhere.

“Probably, on a consistent basis, it's come from Isaac Rochell,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He's been very difficult to handle one-on-one (in preseason camp), and that's across the board from all of our players. When I say ‘all of our players,’ all five guys up front. Individually at times, when Jarron Jones is on, boy, he's a handful inside because of his physicality. But I would say Isaac Rochell.”

“The biggest thing for us is to get young guys the confidence to go out and dominate,” Rochell said. “We’re at a good point right now where we’re infusing these guys with confidence.

“The biggest thing is going to be coming out and not thinking about last year — this is a new year — and coming out ready to play.”

Rochell will likely take the quantum leap from a role player last year to a guy whose name will be somewhere near the top of the Texas scouting report Sunday night.

“I’ve just gotta do what I do,” he said. “I can’t think about the big picture. I like to think about it like each play is a game of its own. If you can think about it like that, you can dominate.”

“Isaac’s always done his job,” said Onwualu. “He’s always very reliable. It comes to a point where you’ve gotta let loose and start making those plays.

“He and I were talking about that. I’m in a similar position.”

In other words, it’s their time to shine.

Besides not knowing which quarterback will likely take the bulk of the snaps, the Irish will also be faced with a Texas offense that will always have its foot on the accelerator. New coordinator Sterlin Gilbert brings with him a fast-paced, uptempo approach that, in the past, has caused trouble for the Irish.

“(Texas’ uptempo offense) changes your calls up a little bit,” Rochell said. “It’s a mentality thing. You’ve gotta be ready to get the call, get your feet in the grass, and be ready to play.

“We’ve done it before. (North Carolina) two years ago ran something like 100 plays. Last year we faced it. We’re used to it and we’re conditioned for it. We work a lot of tempo scenarios against our offense because they’re pretty high-tempo. It’s nothing new.

“I need to get the call, get the call to my teammates. It’s like an awareness. Everything is going to be moving faster.”

That could cut down on the special packages Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder likes to run to enhance the pressure.

“First and second down today in college football are your base defenses, then third down, everything becomes a specialty,” said Kelly. “So people are going to be moving around. You'll have different position groups. You'll have different personnel on the field. And that's really to try to take advantage of some of the guys that maybe wouldn't be as effective on first and second down, but can provide you one-dimensional advantage, and that is the pass rush.

“There are a number of guys that we think can get to the quarterback, Daelin Hayes. Individually, Isaac Rochell presents first, second and third down for us. But I think there are probably half dozen guys on third-down situations that can get to the quarterback for us.”

Those are the times when Onwualu got freed up to get to the quarterback.

“Just getting after it; having the tenacity and intensity in my pass rush,” was his low-key explanation for how those three sacks happened.

“(Adjusting to specific defensive packages) is pretty simple,” Onwualu said. “It’s all the same. If you know one spot and you know the system, you can put yourself into a couple different places.

“At this point in my career, I know the systems pretty well. Plugging me in and switching my mind to a different position isn’t that tough.”

In spite of all the fancy special groupings and exotic pressures, there’s no replacing a solid base defense and a front that can provide a consistent push.

“We have to put an emphasis on getting to the quarterback; put a bounty on him,” Onwualu said. “Our D-line has been doing a great job working their pass moves. They go against one of the best offensive lines in the country every day (in practice).

“It’s a matter of turning that switch when it’s time to do it, and getting them going.

“Knowing the (different quarterback) tendencies within their packages, it’s just a matter of recognizing who’s in the game.

“The D-line is huge (in helping the linebackers). It showed last year in the Texas game (a 38-3 Irish win). Our D-line really showed up. They were flying around with their hair on fire. We’re looking for that again this year.”

There’s no way to hide a defensive line that’s not effective.

It has to get better.

Notre Dame's Isaac Rochell (90) and Sheldon Day (91) smother Texas quarterback Tyron Swoopes (18) during last year's game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)