Future Tense: D-Line

The departure of junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt is the latest blow to a 2014 defensive line that two years ago this month had the potential to rank among the best in program history.

December 29, 2012: Notre Dame vs. Florida State.

Notre Dame's all-star defensive front includes freshman Aaron Lynch (No. 2 ranked DE in his class), junior Louis Nix (No. 9 DT), and senior Ethan Johnson (No. 4), with Lynch's fellow true freshman Stephon Tuitt (No. 10) first off the bench. Johnson, Lynch, and Tuitt were five-star prospects; Nix a four-star.

First-year competitors Lynch, Nix, and Tuitt combined that evening, an 18-14 loss to the Seminoles (ahem, give-away), for 11 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 4 total tackles for loss. The future of Notre Dame's defensive front had never been brighter.

2014: Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes…

January 6, 2014: Nix, Lynch and Tuitt each enter the NFL Draft with a season of collegiate eligibility remaining, the latter pair prior to graduation, and Lynch long gone from college football's relevant consciousness.

I've referenced "Phase 2" of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend multiple times in the last 10 days -- it starts up front, with a second wave of defensive line talent looking to make its mark from 2015 and beyond.

But first, there's a bridge season required, and defensive line coach Mike Elston has a challenge ahead as Notre Dame tries to maintain its four-season strength as a stout rush defense.

Potential 5th-year senior: Justin Utupo. A former 227-pound OLB prospect, Utupo has since been evaluated at inside linebacker, dime package defensive end, dime package outside 'backer, and finally last fall, as a backup DE in a three-man front. He's been a key member of the team's kickoff return unit since 2011. Utupo tweeted in late December his intentions to return for a fifth season. While that's far from official, the loss of Tuitt makes it nearly mandatory for a defensive front in need of non-freshmen bodies next fall.

Seniors: Ishaq Williams (OLB/DE - 2014), Chase Hounshell (2016), Tony Springmann (2015), Anthony Rabasa (2015)

Juniors: Sheldon Day (2015), Romeo Okwara (OLB/DE - 2015), and Jarron Jones (2016)

Sophomores: Isaac Rochell (2016) and Jacob Matuska (2017)

Incoming Freshmen: Jhonathan Williams (6'6" 237), Matt Dickerson (6'5" 260), Grant Blankenship (6'6" 251), Andrew Trumbetti (6'5" 250), Jay Hayes (6'5" 272). Potentially Jonathan Bonner (6'4" 245)

Potential 2014 Class Additions: 6'4" 295-pound four-star defensive tackle prospect and Penn State pledge, Thomas Holley.

2014: Ever-Shifting Front?

Irish fans wringing their hands over the lack of a true nose guard in the team's "base 3-4 defense," need not fret: It's a multiple front, a near 50-50 split between 4-down and 3-down over the last three seasons.

Though an immovable nose guard or nose tackle is ideal for any defensive front (3-down and 4-down alike), the only necessity is a healthy rotation of defensive linemen well-equipped to battle inside.

A healthy Sheldon Day is the key to the 2014 defense as the myriad young pieces and/or recovering veterans can fill in remaining line roles in a heavy rotation with staff favorite Day holding down more than 60 reps per game at various positions across the defensive front.

The key body this spring is Jarron Jones, who at 6'5" 305 pounds (self-reported in December) has the size and frame, and for the first time in his college career, began to show the necessary mental focus to become a contributor.

Judging Jones by his performance vs. Stanford's top tier offensive front isn't fair. Of course, neither is look at his effort against a much smaller Brigham Young team one week prior. He has miles to go and the perfect tutor in Elston to prepare him for the rigors of a football season.

Two returning seniors, Chase Hounshell (shoulder) and Tony Springmann (knee) will get their first crack at starting roles in the spring and August camp, respectively. Springmann was light years ahead of Jones before injuring his knee last August. In an ideal world, both will be at full strength by the time the Irish break fall camp.

Hounshell hasn't played in two seasons and was active only sparingly last spring prior to suffering a third shoulder injury (same shoulder) that required a third surgery.

Likely to break spring ball as a starting option is true sophomore Isaac Rochell. The 6'5" 280-pounder got his feet wet as a true freshman last fall, appearing in the season's first 11 games.

With Hounshell and Rochell competing at one defensive end spot; Jones and a recovered Springmann inside, and Day the constant on the other edge (look for Day to move from the boundary to the "Stud" or field side edge position vacated by Stephon Tuitt), the Irish have the makings of a solid first-five defensive front.

But the presence of two injury risks, a true sophomore, and a redshirt-sophomore in Jones with limited experience begs as many questions as answers.

Enter the Edge Athletes: Whether at boundary outside linebacker; base defensive end in a 4-3 or 3-4, or as part of the nickel and dime packages, the senior/junior combo of Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara will doubtless play a key role in the evolution of the 2014 front seven.

Williams remains an enigma, though his best moments have come as a pass-rusher from the dime package. His presence as a 4-3 defensive end (the Irish play a four-down dime) is set in stone if not a full move to the front in 3-4 sets.

Okwara remains the most intriguing player among the team's front seven competitors. He appears capable of starting at boundary linebacker, defensive end, and even as an inside linebacker, though that move seems a bit drastic and might weaken two positions. (Removing Okwara from the edge doesn't help the edge; we don't know what it would do for the inside linebacker competition.)

Regardless, the end destination for the pair ranks as the most intriguing story one of spring ball.

(Educated guess: They'll play all of the above save for inside linebacker…where both are capable and have worked in the past in various packages.)

2015 and Beyond

The 2014 class includes at least five, likely six, and as many as seven future defensive linemen among its ranks, and at least two will be called upon to contribute as rookies. The Irish front seven has grown taller (as planned), leaner (also part of the plan), but appears bereft of a proven interior rock (decidedly not planned, but a reality after 2013 5-star Eddie Vanderdoes defected).

None of the 2014 defensive linemen -- save for potential 5th-year Justin Utuopo and Cat linebacker Ishaq WIlliams -- exhaust eligibility as season's end. Not only will the 2015 Irish retain five of its top six up front, but its entire collection of freshmen reinforcements will be more than a year into Paul Longo's strength & conditioning program.

The future up front is bright (and athletic) in South Bend.

Can the 2014 front bridge the gap and keep the Irish among the nation's top 30 against the run?

Final Grade and Projections

Notre Dame finished 70th vs. the rush (a remarkable 68 spots lower than the conclusion of the 2012 regular season for many reasons, but snaps lost to injury was the root cause.

Sheldon Day played on a high ankle sprain since mid-September, missed or was greatly hampered during six games. Louis Nix missed four of the final five. Stephon Tuitt wasn't close to his former playing shape until October. Kona Schwenke missed a pair and was limited in two subsequent. Tony Springmann missed the season, as did Chase Hounshell.

Still they finished 31st in total defense (despite a spotty secondary) and 27th in points allowed. Kudos to the departed Bob Diaco and returning defensive line coach Mike Elston for their efforts up front in the wake of a remarkable attrition that dates back to Vanderdoes in the summer and linebacker Danny Spond in August.

2013: B- … A pass rush would have pushed the yeoman-like effort to at least a B+ instead.

2014: C+ … Too many questions, but the ceiling is a solid B. Time for Elston to work more magic.

2015: B … And that's the basement -- by season's end, this deep, young defensive front should be clicking.

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