Spring Wrap: Defensive Line

Our first spring position review on the defensive side of scrimmage examines Notre Dame's defensive line. In this, the sixth edition of the Irisheyes.com "Incomplete" series, O'Malley explains who stood out, who's a step behind, who might help from an incoming trio, and what questions remain entering the summer for the program's best unit.

Defensive Line -- Better, Deeper, Faster?

Just four seasons removed as a debilitating weakness for the Notre Dame program, the Fighting Irish defensive front now ranks among the nation's best entering consecutive seasons.

Spring Pecking Order: The front three consists of sophomore Sheldon Day and junior Stephon Tuitt at defense end, the pair flanking senior nose guard Louis Nix. Junior (redshirt-sophomore) Tony Springmann is the No. 3 defensive end with senior nose guard Kona Schwenke the second player off the bench. They were joined this spring by senior Justin Utupo, now a full-time defensive end. The third unit included two promising players, redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones (DE) and 5th-year senior Tyler Stockton, our MVP of the Blue Gold Game.

Spring Star: Aside from Stockton rising from no status to plausible contributor, the greatest strides from last season through the conclusion of spring were likely made by Day, the only new starter on the front wall and, by all accounts, one of the most trusted underclassmen in recent memory.

"Honestly, Sheldon Day is a rare player," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. "He really is. He's an excellent student. He's one of the favorites on the team, the guys all love him. He's involved in different activities outside of this building. He's like a mayor of the town…And he plays hard, and he's got leverage, and understands the plays and he has high football intelligence."

Aid on the Way: Five-star defensive line prospect Eddie Vanderdoes, who's likely to start out at defensive end, and four star defensive line prospects Isaac Rochell (likely a DE) and Jacob Matuska (TBD).

Spring Questions that Remain

Can Springmann and Schwenke provide 13 weeks of quality relief? Will Utupo, Jones, or Stockton be able to hold off incoming five-star Eddie Vanderdoes for a week, much less all of August camp? Will the Irish go 7-8 deep for the first time in the Kelly era? Will Tuitt drop unnecessary weight brought on by sports hernia surgery in early March? Will Nix play closer to his 2012 weight of 325 or remain near the 350-range at which he began spring? Can Day as a true sophomore play at a 13-week level reminiscent of departed 5th-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore, one of Irisheyes.com's 10 best from 2012?

Can thrice injured junior Chase Hounshell (three shoulder surgeries) contribute in 2014 after sitting out 2013, his second straight year away from football?

Final Thoughts

Nix could be the nation's best nose guard; Tuitt could be the nation's second-best defensive end behind All-World Jadaveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Day could be the best underclassmen D-Line starter few outside of South Bend will consider…

Springmann and Schwenke rank as two of the team's 20 most important players in September -- the defensive line (and Everett Golson) will determine if Notre Dame again starts 4-0 after nearly two decades of dropping decisions in the season's opening month…

Vanderdoes might be the most important freshman on the team, and that includes five-star super-'backer, Jaylon Smith. I'm not saying Vanderdoes is the best, or that he's ready, merely that he needs to be....Rochell and Matuska should enjoy a season of seasoning while a stout 7, 8, and maybe 9-man unit takes the field each Saturday next fall…Can Jarron Jones find a way to give line coach Mike Elston five snaps of high effort per game? Or two to three per half? I believe Tyler Stockton will…Though he exited spring as a No. 2 DE, Utupo's best chance for contribution would be as a No. 2 edge rusher in the dime package (Ishaq Williams and Prince Shembo are the starters in the dime)…

Notre Dame's defensive line -- with the addition of Vanderdoes -- will rank as the nation's best exiting 2013, but can it be there in Week Two when the Irish travel to Ann Arbor and a game that will doubtless be won by defense?

Next in the series: The team's outside linebackers…

Intro to Series

A key defensive line prospect. The nation's best high school linebacker. Two punters (phew!). The offense's quickest player. Two of the defense's three best cornerbacks. One of its three best inside linebackers. Two of its five best safety prospects. Two running backs capable of winning weekly roles. Two freshmen pass targets (one already on campus) capable of filling in at the back end of the rotation. Countless special teams contributors.

The list of potential -- and in many cases, certain -- 2013 commodities not involved in Saturday's quirky Blue Gold Game ranks as one of the spring game's most relevant stories, and leads to my final grade on head coach Brian Kelly's Irish as they exit a 15-session, five-week spring:

Incomplete.

Just as it did in 2012 -- a national runner-up season and the best in 19 years for the program -- Notre Dame's 2013 football team will be made whole by its first-time scrimmage contributors.

That list last fall included major contributions from the likes of Tony Springmann, Danny Spond, Keivarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Sheldon Day, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and of course, Everett Golson.

"We're also going to bring in a number of freshmen that I'm certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys," said Kelly during his spring wrap-up press conference. "You've got (Michael) Deeb and (Doug) Randolph and Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield just to name a few. We've got some guys coming in, some DBs, in (Devin) Butler and (Rashad) Kinlaw. There is going to be an influx of talented guys that can help us in that area."

And from scrimmage as well, not only the freshmen, but those returning from injury, little-used players from 2012, and a host of others. The only guarantee for 2013 is that September's lot of key contributors will differ -- perhaps greatly -- from November's.

Reviews Published to Date:

Running Backs
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends
Quarterback
Offensive Line


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