Spring Questions: Defensive Line

A quintet of questions regarding Notre Dame's defensive line heading into spring ball 2015.

Below is the sixth of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

The senior nose tackle's November foot surgery (LisFranc) was expected to keep him out of contact through the spring, and though head coach Brian Kelly's early February update wasn't detailed, it's apparent that the defense's potential anchor isn't ahead of the recovery curve.

"Jarron gets his boot off on Monday," said Kelly on February 4. "Joe Schmidt has had his boot off now for probably about…three or four weeks, so he's starting to move through his rehab pretty good. So it would be Jones and (Joe) Schmidt are the two guys that are the most behind.

"One of the fallbacks here is that we're going to lose him in the weight room for a little bit. And one of the areas that he had to really focus in on was lower body strength. So (strength and conditioning) coach Paul Longo will have to do an extraordinary job of really working around that injury to continue to build his lower body strength.

"He's done a really good job with his hands," Kelly added of Jones. "We gotta get his lower body to meet what he's done with his hands. He can push anybody back  We haven't gotten the explosiveness from his lower body yet. So that's going to be the challenge now in the offseason."

Kelly noted on February 4 that Jones was "out for the spring." That's not unexpected, but his subsequent rehab timetable will be pertinent. If Jones is still working his way back into shape and trying to reach full strength through September rather than early August, it would be to the detriment of the Irish up front.

Right where he wants to be -- at nose tackle.

"I kind of like the middle," said Rochell following his standout interior efforts vs. LSU in the Music City Bowl. "Im not going to say there's less responsibility. You're in there, you can bang. A lot of it is you can rely on your natural ability.

"I enjoyed it. It was a super fun game, so it was cool. My weight was a lot lower than it should have been (for the position) but I knew that if I played fast and stayed low, it would be fine."

The latter is notable. Rochell, with but a month of dedicated work on the interior, was able to offer an immediate critique of his own performance and technique -- and he was the game's defensive MVP.

He's already one of the team's top 10 returning players -- top five status is not out of reach for his true junior season, whether he plays inside, at defensive end, or (likely) both.

Last week's breakdown of Notre Dame's top scrimmage players (found here) revealed a statistical truth I hadn't considered: junior Romeo Okwara was an underrated playmaker up front last season, making a combined 19 tackles for no gain, minimal gain (1 or 2 yards) or tackles for lost yardage.

(My perception from film reviews, re-reading game notes, and from selective memory was that freshman Andrew Trumbetti was more impactful than Okwara in their shared role.)

But the pertinent question isn't who was better or more important last year, but rather if either is ready for a prime time role this fall? At minimum, they'll serve as a promising tandem, but it's best for Notre Dame if one takes a major leap forward and thus claims the lion's share of crucial snaps -- the other would then be a reliable, trusted backup.

Sophomore Grant Blankenship got his feet wet last fall as a true freshman. Should Rochell operate often inside (he will this spring), Blankenship will get an extended look as an oft-used, necessary No. 2 on the edge.

Two of my five projected breakout sophomores listed in a January column were Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner. Both Tim Prister and Pete Sampson named Jay Hayes. If either or all of us are correct, the Irish defense could approach the level of championship contender (assuming decent health to its starters), because a stout, versatile defensive front is paramount to that end.

Bonner appears ready to assume the undervalued, overlooked role as Sheldon Day's backup at the three-technique tackle (Day hasn't finished a season without injury since 2012), while Williams should contend for a rush end role vs. classmate Kolin Hill. Will Hayes work at defensive end instead of tackle? It's likely if Rochell moves inside on more than a part-time basis, and it might be to the youngster's advantage as Haye's has a game-ready frame for the strong side defensive end role.

It's far too early to count out others, but the quartet named here seem to represent the leaders in the pre-spring clubhouse.

The necessity of extended depth through a team's defensive interior cannot be overstated. A heavy game day rotation for a top tier college defense can intermix future NFL stars, contributing veterans on their last football legs, and up-and-coming youngsters alike. It's not a dynamic often seen at other positions such as tight end, offensive line, defensive back, etc.

That reality allows nose tackle candidates Daniel Cage, Jacob Matuska, Pete Mokwuah, and early enrollee Jerry Tillery a chance for a game day role, major (perhaps Cage) or minor. It affords Tillery's fellow spring semester enrollee Micah Dew-Treadway a chance to turn heads even if a redshirt is assumed and preferred.

It's a position that allows "third stringers" varsity time whereas a third-string cornerback or safety or inside linebacker may never see the other side of a scout team practice field. It's a position that leaves open the door for a raw but ultra-athletic prospect such as Tillery to carve a first-year niche in support of the veterans.

Because attrition is likely, one player listed in this grouping will be asked to contribute meaningful scrimmage snaps by the conclusion of 2015. The initial steps toward that end start this spring.


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