Analysis: What are realistic expectations for Notre Dame freshman DT Darnell Ewell?

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

In college football, instant cures can be hard to come by.

Especially on the defensive line.

A look at last season’s numbers, at least, suggests that might be what Notre Dame needs. The Irish finished 117th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in sacks, managing just 14 in 12 games. Moreover, Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen accounted for zero of those 14 sacks.

Equally troubling, Notre Dame finished 72nd nationally in rushing defense, and has not ranked better than 71st in that area since its run to the BCS national championship game in 2012. That should come as no surprise, considering that 26 of college football’s last 29 national champions have finished 25th or better in rushing defense.

Of course, an argument can be made that the Irish pass rush is stocked with potential. Former five-star recruit Daelin Hayes is expected to make great strides in his sophomore season. Senior Jay Hayes is more physically prepared than ever to succeed at strongside defensive end, and Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem are both former four-star prospects that could be ready to consistently contribute this fall.

But what of the interior? Who’s going to stop the run?

At this point, Notre Dame fans know that it won’t be Scott Pagano, the Clemson graduate transfer who chose Oregon over the Irish and several others this offseason.

Could the next name in line be freshman Darnell Ewell?

A 6-foot-4, 280-pound slab of human concrete, Ewell was perhaps Notre Dame’s most important signee in the 2017 class. The Norfolk, Va., native is the most highly touted of ND’s three interior defensive line signees (Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish being the others), bringing a physical maturity that seems primed for early action. He looks the part, with a frame that more closely resembles a brick wall than a floundering freshman.

But how much of an immediate impact can Ewell really make?

Recent history provides a sobering perspective. Take a look at a few players that developed into the most highly regarded interior defensive linemen of the Brian Kelly Era. In their true freshman seasons, former five-star armored tank Stephon Tuitt was the most significant contributor, compiling 30 tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks in 2011. Sheldon Day racked up 23 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 2012. Jerry Tillery managed a total of 12 tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack in 2015.

Jarron Jones (2012) and Louis Nix (2010) didn’t play at all in their freshman seasons.

All in all, those eventual Irish standouts provided relatively meager first impressions: highs of 30 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Especially in the trenches, the gap between college and high school strength, athleticism and fundamentals can be immense.

“For me it was as big of a gap as you can think of,” said Jones, who signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent this spring and is making the transition to the offensive line. “I made it that way, because when I came in I was mentally intimidated by how big the other guys were. So it really depends on the mindset of the recruit on how long it takes them to adjust to the size difference, the speed difference and all that.

“Once I got through that mental hurdle I realized it wasn’t that big of a gap. Yeah, the guys are more experienced. Yes, guys are older and stronger and all of that. But you have to have confidence that you’re meant to be there. If these coaches didn’t see what they see in you, they wouldn’t ask you to come to such a prestigious program. It’s really getting over that mental hurdle.”

How long does that take to happen? Jones says that he didn’t truly feel comfortable until the spring prior to his sophomore season. And even nationally, he isn’t alone.

In 2016, just four of college football’s top 100 sack artists were freshman defensive linemen: Florida State’s Brian Burns (9.5 sacks), Miami’s Joe Jackson (8.5), Kansas State’s Reggie Walker (6.5) and Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence (6.5). Only two true freshmen scratched the top 100 in tackles for loss — Houston phenom Ed Oliver (22.5) and Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell (12.5).

The vast majority of freshman defensive linemen initially struggle to adjust, regardless of freakish physical frames or gaudy national rankings.

That’s not to say Ewell (or Tagovailoa-Amosa or Hinish, for that matter) can’t contribute in 2017. But these are simply pieces, not one-stop miracle cures. For Notre Dame’s run defense to make the leap back into national prominence, its veterans — guys like seniors Daniel Cage and Jonathan Bonner and juniors Tillery, Micah-Dew Treadway and Elijah Taylor — need to carry the load.

Defensive line coach Mike Elston and director of football performance Matt Balis, too, must get the best out of some previously under-developed prospects. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko must put those improved pieces in positions to succeed.

On the defensive line, especially, there are no easy answers. No saviors. No sudden solutions. Ewell’s future is bright, but his present? That’s an ongoing process. It will take more than one tantalizing talent to consistently stuff the run.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Four-star defensive tackle Darnell Ewell, who will sign with the Irish on Wednesday, is Notre Dame's most important defensive recruit in the 2017 class. (Photo courtesy of Andy Hilton/recruit757.com)