Analysis: Notre Dame's evolution must include transformed defensive line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Even standing idle, which didn’t happen very often last week, sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes looked the part of a breakthrough player.

With his No. 9 jersey rolled up to his ribs, perhaps to show off what the collaboration with strength/conditioning guru Matt Balis had done to his midsection, the only former five-star prospect on the Notre Dame football defensive roster was as impressive in drills as he could be under the circumstances.

There were no pads worn in last week’s first two of 15 practices of the spring, and no offensive linemen in Hayes’ way to outquick or overpower, at least during the 45-minute media window last Wednesday.

Because of the school’s spring break, the Irish are now in a 12-day practice hiatus. They’ll return on March 22 for three sessions in a four day-stretch. And that’s when the sculpted 6-foot-4, 255-pound Hayes and the rest of the Irish defensive line move emphatically into the spring spotlight.

For all the offseason transformation purportedly inside and definitely around eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly, the most critical area for all that to translate quickly and decidedly onto the field is the Irish defensive front.

Stanford’s sustained success in the most tangible areas of defensive line success — run defense and sacks — is both a ray of encouragement and a kick in the backside that Notre Dame’s inherent recruiting hurdles are overstated in ND’s sustained struggles with this position group post-2012.

The Cardinal, with a much narrower recruiting net when it comes to academic standards, have ranked no lower than 38th nationally in run defense during the entire Kelly Era at ND (2010-16) and reached the top 10 in that stat category four times in that span.

In sacks, the Cardinal were lower than 22nd once (39th in 2015) and in the top 11 four times over the same seven-year period. The Irish, meanwhile, have put up four straight rankings of 70th or worse in run defense and four straight of 74th or worse in sacks since the defense-fueled national title game run in 2012 (11th rush defense, 22nd sacks).

In 2016, the Irish ranked 117th out of 128 in the FBS with 14 sacks. That’s also the fewest sacks by an Irish team since 1991, a season in which then-head coach Lou Holtz pushed aside defensive coordinator Gary Darnell late in the season and took control of that unit before Darnell eventually slipped out a trapdoor.

The three sacks of those 14 that came from the ND defensive line — the lowest total, by the way, among the 65 Power Five teams in 2016 — came from players no longer on the Irish roster.

Those kinds of numbers are not what title contending teams look like. To illustrate the challenge that’s ahead of the Irish defensive staff this spring and beyond, Clemson in January became the 26th national champion in the past 29 years — dating back to and including ND’s 1988 national championship squad — to finish its season with a run defense ranked 25th or better.

In fact, all four playoff teams in 2016-17 were at least 28th nationally. And Clemson was 10th in sacks.

So rich in defensive line talent/development are the Tigers that the return of unanimous freshman All-American Dexter Lawrence and the shift back inside for All-America defensive end Christian Wilkins prompted mega-talented defensive tackle Scott Pagano to seek a grad transfer.

The 6-4. 295-pound Pagano visited Notre Dame last weekend, and the Irish are considered legitimate contenders, with Oklahoma perhaps the slight favorite.

As far as players currently on the roster, the way they aligned under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko on day one of practice showed a commitment to getting the best athletes on the field over those who simply best processed the pre-snap schematic calculus required under deposed coordinator Brian VanGorder.

That’s not to say there isn’t sophistication in Elko’s scheme, but Kelly made the hire with the predication that the 39-year-old could teach the nuances — a trait Elko’s former Wake Forest players have universally endorsed.

Not that there might not be some subtle position shifting on the defensive line throughout the spring, but the first look Elko and defensive line coach Mike Elston wanted to test at defensive end were two players with pass-rush bursts — Hayes and senior-to-be Andrew Trumbetti.

Last season the two were stacked at the same position, with Hayes implausibly seeing minimal action.

Juniors Jerry Tillery and Micah-Dew Treadway in the opening session were slotted at nose, a position where incumbent Daniel Cage eventually figures to be a factor. But the senior-to-be, coming off a concussion layoff and offseason hernia surgery, wasn’t able to take full advantage of Balis’ offseason program and is carrying extra bulk.

Senior Jonathan Bonner, who ended last season as an end, had kicked inside to defensive tackle, the position where Tillery was a starter last season. Elijah Taylor, who surged late last season as a reserve, was backing up Bonner.

The two backup ends were sophomore Julian Okwara, younger brother of New York Giants rookie Romeo, and senior Jay Hayes.

Of the four freshmen that will join the group in June, Darnell Ewell and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa figure to be the most prepared to help right away.

Elston said all four actually were mature enough to contribute in some way in the fall, but felt the existing players had enough talent to keep ND from having to lean heavily on the newcomers.

“Two things that I’ve addressed with the defensive line already is accountability, doing everything the right way, and a bigger care factor,” Elston said in the weeks before spring practice kicked off. “And that’s what I’ve challenged them with.

“And so far, from what I’ve seen. they’ve taken that challenge and done a really nice job. I think there are tons of tools here and young men who have great ability. We just need to get it out of them.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston talks with Khalid Kareem (53), Jerry Tillery (99) and Daniel Cage (75) run drills during spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center, Wednesday, March 8, 2017 in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ