Analysis: Sizing up reality when it comes to Notre Dame's defensive line

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s no way to manipulate the numbers in a manner that would make a significant leap of faith merely optional.

There’s too much dark history with Notre Dame’s defensive line. Too many ifs. Too much inexperience. Too few breathlessly gushing endorsements from recruiting analysts for a position group that could bring eighth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s offseason vision to life as easily as it could impale it.

And Mike Elston, both ND’s recruiting coordinator and the man charged with evolving the Irish defensive front, doesn’t run from that reality.

The college football world wants to play wait-and-see. And that includes some elite uncommitted defensive line prospects who need to see the recruiting pitch translate onto the field this fall.

“They don’t say it, but you know what they’re thinking,” Elston said Wednesday, after training camp practice No. 14. “You’re no good at your job if you can’t read between the lines as to what prospects have in the back of their mind.

“Yeah, they need to see. Listen, there’s been a lot of negativity written about Notre Dame football since the end of the season until now.

“We’re not naïve to think that recruits and parents aren’t reading that and people have a huge question mark about what this defense is going to be about, what this team is going to be about, what I as the defensive line coach am going to be about.

“They want to see a product on the field that they can sink their teeth into and put both feet on the ground and say, ‘Yeah, I’m committed to Notre Dame.’ And that’s OK.”

The public at-large can get a peek at the defensive line, the rest of the 2017 Irish and all the new upgrades/additions to Notre Dame Stadium on Sunday, when ND stages an open scrimmage.

The scrimmage, free to the public, is set to start at 3:30 p.m. EDT and run until about 5 p.m. Tours of the new Duncan Student Center, Corbett Family Hall and O'Neill Hall — the new buildings attached to the stadium — will be available from 2 to 6 p.m., on Sunday.

None of that brings the intrigue that Elston’s group does.

Beyond junior nose guard Jerry Tillery, projected defensive line starters senior Jay Hayes, sophomore Daelin Hayes and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner bring a combined total of 35 career tackles, 1.5 career tackles for loss, and one career sack into this season.

For comparison’s sake, the most recent Irish defensive lineman to earn All-America honors, end Stephon Tuitt, garnered 47 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 12 sacks in a single season (2012) — and as a sophomore.

With the exception of surging senior Andrew Trumbetti, the backups’ career numbers are even more underwhelming than the starters’.

Collectively, Notre Dame ranked 72nd against the run nationally in 2016, 117th in sacks, 102nd in tackles for loss and 104th in turnovers gained — all of which feed skepticism over the reality of a dramatic D-Line turnaround in 2017.

But Elston knows what an elite defensive line looks like, having coached current NFL players Tuitt, Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore on a defense that recorded Kelly Era bests in rush defense (11th), total defense (7th), pass-efficiency defense (16th), scoring defense (second) and sacks (22nd) during their 2012 run to the national title game.

He also knows what progress looks like, and that’s the description that fits this group more aptly.

“What we’re doing right now is solidifying roles as to who can play winning football for us,” Elston said. “And I believe we’re developing depth, which is great.

“We’re way ahead of where we were a year ago, I believe, which is great in the ability to knock guys back, use our hands and get off blocks.”

How can he tell?

Elston is the only Irish assistant who has been with Kelly since the latter’s eight-year run at ND began. Elston was ND’s defensive line coach from 2010-13. He moved to coaching linebackers in 2014 when Brian VanGorder took over from departing Bob Diaco, then Elston moved back to defensive line in the winter after new defensive coordinator Mike Elko replaced the purged VanGorder.

“I think a starting point is what do people think of our offensive line?” Elston said “It’s pretty good, right? We’ll, we’re holding our own and playing productive football and getting after the quarterback in 11-on-11 drills, when the bullets are flying and it’s pretty heavy competition.

“Very rarely now are we getting knocked backwards. In the spring, it wasn’t as telling. A lot of question marks were still out there in the spring.

“But I feel like watching our guys perform against our offensive line — which I have a tremendous amount of respect for and our offensive line coach — the production is still there, with the quarterback pressures, the quarterback sacks. I’m very encouraged by that.

“We have some guys who can be difference-makers.”

Here’s a sampling of defensive line developments that are coaxing Elston’s optimism:

• Daelin Hayes: The sophomore defensive end is ND’s lone former five-star prospect on defense, but he came to Notre Dame as an outside linebacker, not a defensive end. And he came with an injury history that helped limit his high school career to fewer than 10 actual games.

His evolution into 6-foot-4, 258-pound edge pass rusher must continue as Notre Dame approaches its Sept. 2 season opener at home with Temple.

“When Daelin and I first met when I moved back to the defensive line, the No. 1 thing for Daelin to do was just to let his guard down,” Elston said. “Along with the expectations from other people, your own expectations grow. Sometimes they grow past what your abilities are at that point.

“Now Daelin has all kinds of ability, but he needed to slow down and begin the process the right way, which was learning how to play defensive end. He never truly learned how to play defensive end — using his hands, getting in a good stance, getting his eyes right on his key and the block destruction and pass rush.

“Early on we were butting heads a little bit when I would give him a coaching point. He didn’t want to really hear it, because he should have already known that, but then he let his guard down.

“So we had that conversation. ‘Just take it. You don’t know everything. That’s why you have a coach.’ And he’s been great. Every day he comes with a thirst to learn. And ever since then, every day he makes progress toward that ultimate goal, which is to be a very dominant defensive end.”

• Jerry Tillery: The junior nose guard has 49 career tackles, five tackles for loss and one sack, most of which were amassed last season playing defensive tackle, and inconsistently at that.

“Nothing against Jerry in terms of his old work habits, but when you flip on the film from a year ago, it was always the path of least resistance,” Elston said. “So a double-team happened, and he’d jump outside the double-team.

“Jerry is not taking the path of least resistance now. He’s standing in there and being able to fit within the defense and knock people back. He’s a pleasure to coach, because it’s important to him.

“There’s only been one time this whole fall camp I had to get on him for not coming out with the right mindset. That’s pretty good in 14 practices. He’s much improved with doing the tough things and doing them effectively.”

• Freshman contributors: Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa continue to get meaningful practice snaps with the expectation they’ll be significant depth contributors at the interior defensive line positions.

That’s not to say Darnell Ewell, the most highly recruited and highly rated of the three, has been a disappointment, per Elston.

“I love all their attitudes — they’re workers. Every one of them,” Elston said. “Darnell is a smart kid, a great learner.

“The guys love him. He pays great attention and he’s very diligent in trying to get his craft right. But he’s a ways away from technique and fundamentals, and that’s to be expected, no disappointment there.

“Louis (Nix) struggled as a true freshman, (coming from) probably a similar (high school) program — not a football powerhouse that’s teaching them technical fundamentals, like Myron’s obviously gotten and Kurt’s obviously gotten.

“Is Kurt Hinish going to go in and play like Jerry Tillery? Probably not. Can Kurt Hinish go in and hold his gap? I think he will be able to.”

When Elko was still at Wake Forest, researching whether to take the Notre Dame defensive coordinator’s job last December with the assumption he’d have to show meaningful progress is year one, talent wasn’t an issue when he evaluated the Irish defensive line on film.

But maturity was.

It was an issue for Elston too, when he first took command of his old position group last winter.

Two factors he hammered long and hard: Accountability and the care factor.

“I wasn’t going to call guys, wake them up in the morning, make sure they were there on time,” Elston said. “They’re either going to do it, or they’re going to have issues. So accountability was No. 1.

“And then care factor. I think at some point last year, as a whole with the defensive line, we didn’t have a great care factor about how we were approaching certain things. And so we addressed those immediately.

And he saw immediate progress on both fronts.

“We’re growing a brotherhood,” he said. “We care about each other. The guys love each other. And in some ways, they’ve been forced to be more mature.

“In coach Kelly’s process over the summer, with all the things he’s implemented, the entire team has been forced to become more mature. And maybe (it’s said) about the defensive line, because they had the furthest to go.”

Recruiting coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston sees plenty of reasons for optimism from a position group that generated the most offseason question marks. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)