Losing Weight, Gaining Ground

Massive freshman nose tackle Daniel Cage reported to August camp in shape. That's relatively speaking, of course.

But when fifth-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered the following of Daniel Cage and fellow incoming freshman defensive lineman, Pete Mokwuah, Notre Dame fans nationwide took notice.

"In my conversations with coach (Paul) Longo, and particular with Cage and Mokwuah, their volume is ahead of any of the freshmen that we have had at that *position since we have come here. Their ability to go in and take reps immediately because they are so strong…Both of them physically are able to compete right away."

(*Relevant to point out that the list includes Louis Nix and Jarron Jones, a pair light years away from competing in a collegiate contest upon arrival in South Bend.)

Promising words of praise to be sure. After all, the Irish defensive front was the accepted weak point of the team heading into 2014. To date, they've proven anything but, while Cage has been as advertised. His shape, on the other hand, has changed drastically.

For the better. Way better.

"When I first came in (late June) I was 345 pounds," said Cage of his summer report weight. "Right now I weigh 315. I'm much faster, much stronger, and they keep working with me. I'm getting better every day."

"As soon as I came in, they saw my weight and said, 'You gotta get down. You gotta get down.' So I got down. 315, I'm still losing, and I'm in better shape than ever."

Asked for his ideal playing weight, Cage offered 300 pounds. "It's a very difficult position," he said of nose tackle. "I feel like I have power if I have that weight. Going down (getting his pads lower), having more explosion off the ball -- I can use that to my advantage."

Listed at a shade over six-feet, Cage's weight loss is noticeable for anyone that was present at Notre Dame's first practice at Culver Academies on August 4. It was a session without pads in the northern Indiana sun. Not oppressive, but not comfortable, either.

Cage, in his first brush with college competition, left it all out on the field. Not that he had any choice.

"Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah," said Cage, laughing at the memory of his post-practice, on field regurgitation no more than 15 yards away from the media horde. "It was just getting used to the incredible difference (between a high school and college practice), but I've lost over 30 pounds (since).

"It's definitely been a challenge. There's things you have to overcome. It's a dramatic change from high school to college," he continued. "They're twice as big and twice as strong, but (the staff) has really prepared me for that. Drilling technique, everything. I have to get the job done."

Instant Impact

Cage's rookie-year dent of Notre Dame's two-deep roster is unprecedented in the Kelly era. While more than a handful of freshman defensive ends have found playing time during their initial seasons in South Bend, a true nose guard -- a space-eater inside -- had not prior to Cage.

He almost never had the opportunity.

"Honestly, coach (Mike) Elston told me that (former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco) wasn't really feeling me, so he wasn't going to offer me," said Cage, who pledged to Notre Dame on National Signing Day. "But when (new defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder saw my film, he liked me so he offered me."

He did have other options, but all came late, as Cage wasn't active in the recruiting process, largely for personal reasons.

"I had a family issue so I had gotten away from that for awhile," he said. "I came back to it in December and took my first official visit, to Illinois. I went to Louisville, Michigan State, and came here (Notre Dame) and Missouri. It was down to which program had the better educational opportunities for me, and Notre Dame fit that description."

Education, coupled with Elston, made the difference.

"We were always talking. He was real with me, I was real with him," said Cage. "Just an honest relationship. He maintained contact. It showed that he really liked me, wanted me to come to Notre Dame and that he had a plan for me."

That plan has Cage spelling Jones regularly in the first half through three games. Additional conditioning will allow more of the same throughout the second stanza as the season progresses.

"I was excited to know I was going to play," said Cage when he breeched the two deep at camp's conclusion. "That's what I was fighting for, I didn't want to redshirt. I wanted to come in and make an immediate impact on this team."

He's done so each week, though one instance admittedly stands out.

"When we first came out that tunnel (against Michigan), 80,000 people cheering at you, having your back, going out on the field, and actually going up against an opponent -- there's no better feeling," he offered. "Every emotion hit me at once. Excited, happy, and ready to tear into some offensive linemen."

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