Six-Pack on Tap

Defensive line coach Mike Elston discusses depth, versatility, and the need for hand-to-hand combat in the trenches.

Over his three seasons in South Bend, Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston has helped turn the program's unquestioned weakness: its defensive line and notably, its rush defense, into a team strength. Highlighting last season's error up front: just eight rushing touchdowns allowed, a mark bettered by just three teams in the nation.

Part of the transformation has been an influx of depth, proven players and otherwise, to spell the team's front line starters, this season a quartet with ample power in place.

"We definitely have six right now. We've got more depth at this point than in year's past, so we'll have six for sure," said Elston of the game day rotation.

Four starters for three spots are well known: Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt will man the ends while Kona Schwenke and Louis Nix appear poised for a tandem effort on the nose. That leaves backup duty to defensive ends Chase Hounshell, who played sparingly last season as a true freshman (4 stops, all vs. Air Force), and true freshman Sheldon Day, who enrolled in January and has had more than 30 practice sessions with the squad to date.

As for potential 7th-man Tony Springmann, he of the 2011 redshirt, position switch (high school DE to college nose guard) and off-season back surgery?

"Tony's had no effects on the back. He's done really well," Elston noted.

One potential issue heading into the season's early weeks is a cast that will encumber the aforementioned Schwenke.

"He's got a big lollipop cast on it just to protect it," said head coach Brian Kelly. It's not even a fracture, it's a crack of the bone, just the fourth knuckle.  We put a big cast on it, but we'll get that down to a very workable, small cast for the game, so we're not concerned about that at all."

Elston added that the key for Schwenke will be still using his restricted hand to defeat blocks.

"Everything done in the trenches is done combatively with your hands, so the ability to get off a block will be his greatest challenge," he said. "Other than days when he's sore, some days you don't even know he has it on."

Said Elston in the spring regarding Schwenke's improvement as a player: "The ability to use the techniques, to use his hands. He's using his hands a lot more.

"As you know, a defensive lineman being able to combat with his hands and getting off blocks (is key) which makes him much more production player, both in the run game and the pass game.

"Much more explosive, now that he's used to his weight. He's got more longevity in terms of stamina and all around just improved."

While a six-man rotation with the potential for a 7th in Springmann puts the defensive front in a position of strength entering the season, injuries are inevitable, and the only pair of remaining linemen on the squad could struggle if pressed into action. True freshman Jarron Jones will need time for his coordination, athleticism, and technique to blend into a massive 6'5" 300-pound frame, while senior Tyler Stockton hasn't played a down in 22 months.

Worries Irish fans might have regarding the unit's ability to withstand a rash of injuries up front similar to last season's could be assuaged by Elston's review of the top six's versatility.

"We can do anything we need to do based on our personnel. We can go right-left, we can go inside-outside, everyone of them has the capability to move around," he said. Stephon and Louis both have had a tremendous amount of growth, not just on the field but their off-the-field demeanor.


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