Daniel Cage is creating his own plot twist at Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The novel that Daniel Cage started concocting when insomnia first started encroaching on his burgeoning football career may never get published — or finished.

Which is just fine for the now well-sleeping, rejuvenated Notre Dame junior nose guard.

“It’s just things I imagine,” he said earlier this week when pressed for a plot synopsis. “It’s really wild. Honestly, it’s everywhere. I can’t really specify what it is. It’s crazy.”

It’s a good bet there’s at least part of a chapter dedicated to Cage’s tag-teammate at nose guard, grad senior Jarron Jones, and the latter’s apparent incessant bragging over his interception last weekend against Nevada and the purported likelihood for it to become a trend.

What ND coach Brian Kelly is looking for Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, when the 18th-ranked Irish (1-1) renew their rivalry with No. 12 Michigan State (1-0) for the first time since 2013, is more traditional defensive line feats.

Like a pronounced pushback in the run game — and pressures and sacks vs. the pass — against a Michigan State offensive line still feeling the effects of restocking and reshuffling, but built for smash-mouth trench battles.

In fact, the Irish roll into their third game of the year without a sack through the first two games of a season for the first time in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present).

“They’re going to be rowdy,” Cage said of the Spartan offensive front, tutored by Mark Staten, like ND’s Harry Hiestand, considered to be one of the elite O-Line coaches nationally.

“They’re going to be coming off the ball, talking stuff,” Cage continued. “We just have to make sure we play the game right, do our job and be physical back. Maybe even more.”

Cage should know as well as anyone about the Spartan offensive line’s DNA. Even though he isn’t among the six players on the active Irish roster to have seen action in the most recent meeting between the two schools — a 17-13 Irish home escape three seasons ago — his recruitment during that season came down to ND and the Spartans.

A senior at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati at the time, Cage admitted to being a phone call away from committing to the Spartans when an 11th-hour push by Notre Dame eventually swayed him into signing with the Irish.

“It’s a family-oriented team,” Cage said of the Spartans’ appeal. “I bonded really close with coaches, their program. I like what they were about.”

At the time, Cage was wrestling with sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. He just wasn’t fully aware of what to call it, what to make of it or what to do about it.

“I was just kind of used to not being able to sleep,” he said.

And so he’d write. Poetry. His novel. His emotions. While it didn’t replace sleep, Cage said it did help him to de-stress.

But a more demanding schedule once he arrived at Notre Dame heightened the sleep problems. He found himself falling asleep in class, struggling with his stamina in football practices and games, to the point that last spring he finally confided with the team trainers.

The diagnosis and treatment — a CPAP device worn at night to provide a steady flow of oxygen — paid almost immediate dividends. That combined with a high-protein diet that helped the 6-foot-1 junior drop from a 2015 playing weight of 330 pounds to his current 308 (though both the 2015 and current rosters list him at 315).

“He's getting the kind of rest that he needs to be the kind of player that we thought he could be,” Kelly said. “He's had two really good weeks, and again this week he was outstanding.”

Cage’s game has evolved beyond the sleep and diet aspects. It’s not just about tackles (he has two in two games to go along with a pass breakup), but consistently commanding double teams to create opportunities for his teammates in ND’s defensive front seven.

“I think I’m getting off the ball better,” he said. “I’m a little more confident than I have been. The game is much faster, but I’ve adjusted to that. I’m just really working on the techniques the coaches have been teaching us.”

The plot twist Saturday night is that Michigan State historically makes you dig deeper than X’s and O’s, and that’s the aspect Cage finds most appealing.

“I love games like this, where I can show how tough I really am and how tough our team is as a whole,” he said. “It sets the standard for how we should go about games like this. When we win this game, it’ll set us on the right track.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s Daniel Cage (75) defends during the Notre Dame-Nevada NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN