Analysis: Will Notre Dame's unproven defensive line exceed expectations in 2017?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

There are four general steps to the Scientific Method.

If you were awake and attentive during class in junior high — which I usually wasn’t — then you already know them. But for the rest of us, here’s the gist:

1. Ask a question. What do you want to know? This needs to be a question we can effectively answer with an experiment.

2. Form a hypothesis. Take everything you know about said question, and spit out what amounts to an educated guess.

3. Perform experiments. Now, it’s time to test your hypothesis. It’s best to repeat your experiment multiple times — like, maybe 12 or 13? — to ensure a consistent, provable result.

4. Draw a conclusion. Was your hypothesis accurate? Why or why not?

As Notre Dame continues its dead sprint towards the Blue-Gold game on April 22, here’s a question worth further exploring:

Will the Irish defensive line exceed expectations in 2017?

The answer will likely affect whether the upcoming season marks a stunning turnaround, or another nightmare. After all, 26 of college football’s last 29 national champions, dating back to Notre Dame in 1988, have finished 25th or better nationally in rushing defense. None of the four College Football Playoff participants last season ranked lower than 28th.

Earlier this spring, eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly provided a hypothesis.

“I think we have a lot more on the defensive line than many people think,” Kelly said. “We have some edge players with athletic ability. I think we're physical inside. There is a lot more than what people have made out that our defensive line can be.”

OK, great. That certainly fits the mold of a working hypothesis.

Just not one I completely agree with, and here’s why.

To begin with, let’s lay out what we already know. Last season, Notre Dame’s fledgling defense finished 72nd nationally in rushing defense, allowing 182.4 rushing yards per game. It also managed just 14 sacks in 12 games, ranking 117th out of 128 teams nationally in sacks per game.

Now, consider that only three of those 14 sacks came from defensive linemen, and the linemen that produced them — defensive end Isaac Rochell (55 tackles, 7 tackles for loss, one sack in 2016) and nose tackle Jarron Jones (45 tackles, 11 TFL, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble) — are no longer on the roster.

That’s right. These Irish return zero — as in none, the same number this incurably gangly 26-year-old journalist produced — defensive line sacks from 2016 this spring.

But what exactly does Kelly and Co. have to work with?

No Rochell, no Jones — and as of this week, no Scott Pagano.

Pagano — a 6-foot-3, 295-pound graduate transfer from Clemson — would have made an immediate impact on the interior of the Irish defensive line, but he chose Oregon as his future destination over Notre Dame and Oklahoma on Friday. Last season, Pagano contributed 31 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 12 games, helping lead the Tigers to their first national championship since 1981.

Next fall, he’ll chase another championship — just not at Notre Dame.

As for the existing roster, defensive line coach Mike Elston’s mainstays on the interior are junior Jerry Tillery (37 tackles and three tackles for loss last season) and senior Daniel Cage (10 tackles and one forced fumble in eight games).

Beyond those two, Notre Dame’s remaining scholarship interior linemen — Jonathan Bonner, Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor, Pete Mokwuah and Brandon Tiassum — own 18 tackles, two forced fumbles, one sack and one tackle for loss in 12 combined seasons.

The Irish also have three freshman reinforcements set to arrive this summer: Darnell Ewell (6-4, 295), Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (6-4, 250) and Kurt Hinish (6-2, 278). But while Ewell specifically is primed to compete, how much of an immediate impact is it fair to expect against vastly improved offensive linemen?

Notre Dame’s pass rush, too, possesses more potential than proven production. The only experienced contributor is senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti, though he has managed just 8.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in three full seasons.

The team’s five other returning scholarship defensive ends — senior Jay Hayes and sophomores Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Adetokunbo Ogundeji — have a combined 27 tackles (and zero sacks) to their names. And neither of the two incoming freshman defensive ends, Kofi Wardlow (who has played just two seasons of football) and Jonathon MacCollister (who played more tight end than defensive end in high school) — are expected to make a significant impact this fall.

At this point, you might be thinking, ‘OK, but most of these numbers were accumulated under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who failed to develop talent or put his best athletes in positions to succeed.’

I agree.

But while first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko has had success at every stop, it wasn’t immediate. When he packed a suitcase for South Bend, it didn’t include a magic wand.

Take Elko’s first season at Wake Forest in 2014. The Demon Deacons finished 83rd nationally in rushing and 46th in sacks per game, and that sack ranking actually fell to 95th the following season. In his debut season at Bowling Green in 2009, the Falcons ranked 115th in tackles for loss, 103rd in rushing defense and 85th in sacks per game.

In time, Elko helped transform those programs. But his sheer presence on campus wasn’t enough.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for optimism. This defense will be bigger, stronger, faster and deeper than any Elko has had at his previous stops, which could accelerate its improvement. Sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes, Okwara and Kareem are uniquely athletic and capable of making a leap. Ewell represents a disruptive interior force the likes of which Notre Dame hasn’t signed in years.

Moreover, Elko has been lauded for effectively utilizing his best athletes and drilling the fundamentals. And what about Elston? One of Notre Dame’s most respected assistants, his move back from linebacker to defensive line could yield wholesale improvement for a unit that has underperformed in recent years.

So, let’s revisit the question: Will Notre Dame’s defensive line exceed expectations in 2017?

I’m not convinced — yet.

But hypotheses are not facts. That’s why you perform experiments.

And fortunately, the Irish have 12 of them scheduled for the fall.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Jerry Tillery waits to run drills during practice, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ