In Search Of...

Notre Dame's starting defensive front ranks among the nation's best. Additionally, it's top backup was noted by his coordinator as August's most improved player. And then there's the uncertain reality of what lies beneath…

"More bodies. We just needed more bodies. We weren't deep enough yet. We just needed more bodies, more healthy bodies, more bigger bodies. The ability to go live and tackle and do the things necessary."

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was speaking Thursday about how he'd change his team's approach should they return to the BCS Championship game.

He'll have to settle for earning the honor of that return trip, because for the 15 practices leading up to Notre Dame's bowl game -- championship or otherwise -- won't include those big bodies so coveted by Kelly and his staff.

Thanks to a post-signing day defection, a spring practice injury, and now a fall camp casualty, Notre Dame's expected second straight season of enviable defensive line depth is quickly going the way of the dodo bird.

"All our guys are going to have to play at some point," said defensive line coach Mike Elston of his backup brigade. "We are going to have to be as deep as we need to be. With Jarron (Jones), Tyler (Stockton), Kona (Schwenke), Justin Utupo and Anthony Rabasa there's a lot of guys in there to give us added depth."

Depth Perception

Hall of Fame head coach Bill Parcells once mused, "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you probably don't have a starting quarterback."

While Elston's comprehensive list of non-freshmen backups that will help the Irish defense this fall was admirable, it's easy to read between the lines: with one exception, they're not sure who can lend a consistent hand up front.

Enter Kona Schwenke.

"I don't know if anybody else has said it, to me he's been, if there's surprise of camp," said Diaco of his senior nose guard/defensive end. "I would say he's a definite candidate if not locking it up, the most improved in camp, Kona Schwenke. We're really pleased with him and we need him."

Schwenke served as one of three regular backups last season, the second unit pivot man flanked by 2013 starting end Sheldon Day and Tony Springmann, the latter now out for the season after a serious knee injury.

Without Springmann -- the guaranteed second defensive lineman off the bench entering training camp -- and without junior Chase Hounshell (the likely third who'll miss a second straight season missed due to shoulder surgery), and without highly touted 300-pound five-star freshman Eddie Vanderdoes (the X-factor who's since pledged his allegiance to UCLA), there's not yet a second reserve on which Elston, Diaco, and Kelly can hang their collective hats.

"Kona Schwenke, Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell, Anthony Rabasa and Justin Utupo are all guys that are getting reps on the defensive line," said Elston, who noted of the 5th-year Stockton, "His level of play has increased. His consistency. He's an extremely aggressive player and initially quick. He's improved his game from every area, from run, to pass, and his knowledge of it. He brings good leadership with his age, he can play multiple positions."

Stockton, who hasn't played since Game Six of 2010, will likely play in the opener, and freshman Isaac Rochell and redshirt-freshman Jarron Jones appears to be running alongside him with the second team in open practices.

Said Diaco of Rochell's likely activation this fall, "I don't have a crystal ball, but he's moving towards that. He's a talented player. He's a football junkie. He's a classroom, study-the-game kind of guy and those things create a guy that will be more ready than some others faster.

"He's not going to be like he is going to be in three or four years. He's a brand new player but he can hold his own for sure."

Either he or Jones or Stockton, preferably at least two of the trio, will have to.

"We have some young guys that are going to be thrust into roles," added Diaco. "It's a little different (without Springmann). But we feel good about it. There are players there. It's Notre Dame. There's an expectation that there's going to be depth in players, and there is."

Enter Ishaq

Between 25 and 65 pounds lighter than his defensive end teammates, versatile linebacker Ishaq Williams will also try his hand at holding down the fort in base 3-4 and (more to his frame) 4-3 alignments.

"He'll be the first split-side end in," said Kelly of the 6'5" 260-pound junior. "He'll come in as the third end immediately. His hand is gonna go down on the ground and play end for us. He'll get quite a bit of work there. He can play all the techniques. He can do all the things we're asking him to do. He's done it very well. We're very pleased with him."

Diaco admitted the part-time move to end wouldn't have been prudent for Williams or the defensive front last fall, but noted Williams is a different player, both in approach and on-field mentality.

"Ishaq is creating a game for us that is rugged," said Diaco. "With a mentality that not only is outside, and the jobs he's really exceptional at, those outside edge jobs, but rugged enough now to go inside and be a force in there. He's definitely shown that he's going to do those jobs for us."

Diaco, Kelly and Elston have been forced to manufacture depth. If the team's starting trio plus Schwenke remains in good health for 12 games, the try-out backup crew will be less relevant. WIlliams can likely succeed inside in small doses, Stockton can lend snaps, so too can youngsters Rochell and Jones.

Both Rabasa and Utupo have shown flashes per their position coach.

But there are admittedly a few too many "ifs" for Irish fans' comfort with three months of football ahead.

Note: For previous articles in our 20 For a Title series, click the links below:

Depth Sought and Secured: Cornerbacks

Whittling the Committee: Running Backs

The Edge: Outside Linebackers

Unwritten: Tommy Rees

Legacy Keys: Trio of Tight Ends

Baker's Dozen for Shembo

The Difference-Maker?

Andrew Hendrix: QB2

Finding the Best Five

The Assumed: Sheldon Day

The Left-Siders: Martin and Watt

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