Irish Position Rankings: D-Line

Our final look at Notre Dame's position group examines a young, heavily populated defensive front.

#9 -- Defensive Line

Fifth-year senior Justin Utupo, seniors Chase Hounshell, Anthony Rabasa, Tony Springmann, and Ishaq Williams, juniors Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara, sophomores Jacob Matuska and Isaac Rochell, freshmen Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, Pete Mokwuah, and Andrew Trumbetti.

Among the non-freshmen, only Williams, Okwara, and Rochell have eligibility that matches their academic class designation.

We've projected incoming freshmen Kolin Hill and Jhonathan Williams as outside linebackers (link below).

Standout: Sheldon Day

Head coach Brian Kelly, former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, defensive line coach Mike Elston, and current defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder have, to a man, sung the praises of the former Indianapolis five-star prospect. He was dubbed the up-and-coming, underrated youngster (not to mention hardest-worker) on a star-studded defensive front, but a high-ankle sprain suffered late in the Week Three victory over Purdue waylaid Day's sophomore season.

Entering his third year in the program, Day will be asked to lead a green group up front. He's the best player (it's not close), a tireless worker (it had better be close), and an unassuming but valued locker room presence.

If he doesn't add "playmaker" to that list of compliments, Notre Dame's defense will be its Achilles Heel in 2014.

Next In Line...

That's the pressing question.

Junior nose guard Jarron Jones was a scout teamer as recently as mid-October 2013 (USC week). Ishaq Williams, a former five-star recruit per every scouting service, has just one more career tackle-for-loss to his name (6), than mythical recruiting stars to his credit. And Romeo Okwara, a 19-year-old junior with a bright future, is playing a new position, weak side defensive end.

Thereafter are an array of oft-injured or little-used veterans and nearly two handfuls of rookies.

There's not a human being on earth, including Elston, Kelly, or VanGorder, that knows how Notre Dame's defensive line will perform when the bullets go live in late August.

Additional Depth

At present, "depth" is defined by total names -- 15 deep in addition to Day.

Production from that group outside the blossoming Irish junior is limited.

Much is expected of Williams and Okwara as 4-3 defensive ends, but neither should be asked to play 65 snaps for three straight months. Enter promising sophomore Isaac Rochell and early enrollee freshman Andrew Trumbetti, two future (2015?) starters that will be forced to grow up quickly.

Thereafter is Chase Hounshell, two seasons and three shoulder surgeries removed from Saturday action, fifth-year utility man Justin Utupo (he's played inside linebacker, nickel pass rusher, 3-4 end, and now 4-3 tackle for the Irish -- though most of his work has been relegated to special teams) and six others that have yet to play a down. Look for at least three freshmen to earn monograms on the defensive line this season.

X-Factor -- Springmann: The senior (redshirt-junior) was Notre Dame's all-important No. 5 defensive linemen in 2012 -- not coincidentally the program's best defensive front of the last decade. Out since last August due to knee surgery and complications suffered thereafter, Springmann was barely mobile in spring ball -- light years away from work in pads.

Had he not been injured last season, Springmann would be a no-doubt starter in 2014. Can he at least return to "No. 5 status" at some point this fall?

Camp Questions…Abound

Will Williams and Okwara separate from their promising understudies, Rochell and Trumbetti, on the ends? Who'll step forward as the No. 3 interior defender behind Day and Jones? Which -- and how many -- true freshmen will earn varsity designation heading into preparation for Rice and Michigan? How many others will join them thereafter?

Can Hounshell stay healthy? Can Springmann make it back to competitive action from the outset? Will either Hayes (DE) or Cage (DT) earn a role on the two-deep? Can Rochell push for a starting job outside by mid-season? Will Trumbetti?

Will Bonner and/or Blankenship work as rush ends? Can senior Anthony Rabasa make an impact in that new role? Will (linebackers) Jhonathan Williams and Kolin Hill push for action with their hand on the ground as well?

Will the Irish be able to show any 3-4 fronts and contend with the likes of Michigan in that alignment? In addition to Day, which defensive lineman will make himself too valuable to take off the field in base situations?

Best-Case Scenario

Day plays close to an All-American level and Jones develops into a legitimately solid, weekly performer as the pivot man up front (the latter is perhaps the most important question for the 2014 defense.)…Williams and Okwara form an athletic duo on the edges, combining for nearly 10 sacks and twice as many QB pressures -- and neither is a liability vs. quality running teams…Trumbetti and Rochell become legitimate rotation players, as does Springmann at some points during the season, the latter earning a fifth-year for 2015 as a result…

Rabasa plays well enough as a nickel rush end that only one true freshmen (Bonner, Blankenship, Williams, Hill) is forced into action on Saturdays…Hounshell or Utupo offer intermittent help…Either Hayes or Cage develops to serve as a "stretch-run call-up" by the time the team enters it's October bye week.

Worst-Case Scenario

Day is at best, "good" while Jones struggles vs. the likes of Michigan, Stanford, Florida State, USC, etc…Williams plays as he has in the past and Okwara doesn't hit his stride until a few losses litter the slate…Trumbetti plays like a freshman -- and so does the sophomore Rochell…The veteran remainders remain depth in name only, with none showing major improvement as seniors…Springmann never rounds back into his 2012 form and far too many freshmen are pressed into action.

Click the links below to catch up on our position preview series to date:

1 - Cornerback

2 - Offensive Line

3 - Running Back

4 - Quarterback

5 - Wide Receiver

6 - Linebacker

7 - Tight End

8 - Safeties Top Stories