Developing a gang mentality

For the Irish defense to go to the next level, it starts up front with a veteran projected starting crew and a bunch of young talent waiting in the wings. Notre Dame finished in the middle of the pack nationally in ’14 in rush defense, sacks and tackles for lost yardage.

If this were the baseball or golf team, he’d be known as the “swing doctor.” If it were the basketball team, he’d probably be considered the “shooting guru.”

As a veteran defensive line coach, Keith Gilmore – making his fourth stop with Brian Kelly – was brought in to coach-up all the youthful defensive linemen on Notre Dame’s 2015 roster.

There is a bunch. Of the more than dozen defensive end/tackle prospects this spring, only two – Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara – are down to their final year of eligibility.

“(Kelly) knew that we had a very young group of guys,” said Gilmore, who arrived from North Carolina. “He wanted me to motivate and mentor them, and give them the basic fundamental skills to bring them along (since) I had a history of doing that with young guys.

“I have to admit, there are a few more young guys than I thought. But that was the biggest thing, to come in here and be a mentor to these guys and give them some fundamentals. Not just about football, but trying to teach them about life and going to class and doing all the right things.”

There’s much to cover. The phrase that best describes Notre Dame’s penetration up front and productivity in the opposing team’s backfield in ’14 would be “slightly below average.” The Irish finished 72nd in rush defense (171.2 ypg., 4.24/carry), tied for 74th in sacks (26, 2.0/game) and tied for 76th in tackles for loss (5.6/game).

The Irish exceeded two sacks in a game just four times in 2014. Brian VanGorder’s one-gap defensive approach – in which defensive linemen try to crease gaps as opposed to controlling the lanes between offensive linemen – was successful early in the season against mainly mediocre offenses, and then not nearly as much as the level of competition increased.

That’s where Gilmore comes in.

“Our focus this spring is penetration,” Gilmore said. “Coming off the football. In the past, they played more of a read-type concept. They started it last year and now we’re trying to take it to the next step where guys are coming off the football, penetrating and playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage as opposed to hitting and reading and flowing to the football that way.”

Gilmore’s arrival marks the second time he’s come into a situation for a Brian Kelly-coached team with veteran coach Mike Elston bumping back from defensive line to linebackers. The same scenario occurred in 2006 when Gilmore joined the Central Michigan staff.

“(Elston) and I have done this before, so we’ve got a good working relationship,” Gilmore said. “Unlike a lot of places, if you take a position another guy was coaching, there can be some animosity. Mike has been very helpful getting with me and letting me know what those guys’ strong and weak points are.”

Gilmore is trying to get his young troops in the right frame of mind, which means understanding how to approach every day on the practice field and recognizing that it isn’t always the “highlight reel” play that gets the job done.

“You’re not always going to have these great pass rush moves and be on ESPN’s greatest moves in the world,” Gilmore said. “Just having a workmanlike attitude every day, and that when it comes to the pass rush, a lot of it is based on effort.

“You need to understand how to close the rush lanes, work together and get effort sacks as a group. Those are the things I focus on, along with the techniques, understanding down-and-distance, and being alert to the situations that give you an opportunity.”

The number of bodies is encouraging. The projected starting lineup this fall, from left to right, would be Isaac Rochell, Jarron Jones, Sheldon Day and a combination of Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, which is last year’s starting front.

Working behind Rochell at the strongside end are Grant Blankenship and Jonathan Bonner. Behind Jones – who is out for the spring while recovering from a foot injury – would be Daniel Cage, early-entry freshman Jerry Tillery, and Peter Mokwuah. Behind Day, who himself is taking it easy this spring after a late-season MCL injury, would be Jay Hayes, Jacob Matuska and early-entry freshman Micah Dew-Treadway. Red-shirt freshman Jhonny Williams is learning the nuances behind Okwara and Trumbetti.

“Nobody’s on the trading block,” Gilmore laughed. “I see guys that are giving a lot of effort and are really trying. We have some young guys that have to play due to some guys getting nicked up early. They’re getting reps that they wouldn’t normally have.”

Here are Gilmore’s comments on most of the defensive linemen he’s working with this spring:

• Sheldon Day: “He hasn’t practiced since we’ve been in pads full-go, but he’s been a great leader as far as motivating those guys and teaching and being a guy they can lean on and can help them through the process until he actually gets back on the field on a full-time basis.”

• Isaac Rochell: “He’s been very good. Isaac is a guy that has really stepped up from last year to this year and has made great strides. He’s playing really well this spring. His pass rush has improved. He’s a steady force and I’m really excited to coach him. He’s working off the edge and becoming more of an edge rusher with the ability to flip his hips and turn the corner.”

• Jarron Jones (from 2014 film): “Consistency is the issue. From one play to the next, it’s like two different guys sometimes. Just him being able to mature and understand that he’s got to do it play-in and play-out, and understanding that when you’re not able to go full speed, we’ll get somebody else in there that can do it. He’s shown flashes of being super. When he’s geared up, he can be special.

“I had a brief conversation with him and it’s just his focus; it’s not really a conditioning matter. I’ve seen highs and lows from one game to another. It’s understanding that no matter who you line up against, you’ve got to play the same way.”

• Romeo Okwara: “He’s been very consistent with very few mental errors. He always knows where to be and what he’s doing. Right now, I don’t have to spend a lot of time coaching him. I’m focused on some other guys, but he’s consistent. That’s the biggest thing about him. He’s got a stab move that he’s working on that has been impressive.”

• Andrew Trumbetti: “He’s playing like an upperclassman. He has the ability and has found out who he is and is playing within his framework. He plays really well against the run. He’s a strong player and he’s got a couple moves that he knows he can execute.

“That’s the thing I like to see with pass rushers and defensive linemen. Everybody can’t do everything; so let’s find out what it is that you’re good at. You get one or two good moves and a counter, and you can execute them against anybody. You’ll be an effective football player as opposed to being all over the place.”

• Grant Blankenship: “Great toughness. A guy with a high motor. I have to slow him down a little bit. We have him at the big end position, so he’s got to be a physical player for us and has to get stronger. His aggressiveness and non-stop motor are his biggest assets. He’s been more of a flash guy, a little bit here and there.”

• Jay Hayes: “Jay has risen to the occasion. He’s taken the bull by the horns and I’m very impressed with his work ethic. He’s coming in and watching extra tape. He’s doing everything he can to make himself better. It’s been fun watching that, and Sheldon has been a good teammate. With Sheldon being out and Jay getting those reps, we’ll have a good pair there.”

• Jonathan Bonner: “I knew he was a tackle, so to see him be effective (at end) was a little bit surprising. He’s really getting better. Now that we have pads on, he’s starting to accelerate. I’ve rotated him and Blankenship to give them both some work. He’s a strong kid. I’m surprised at his strength as young as he is.”

• Jhonny Williams: “If he’s an elite pass rusher and we can use him that way and that’s the way he gets on the field initially, that’s fine. But I want him to be a well-rounded football player. He’s not there yet, but he has the potential (to be an elite pass rusher). He’s got some athleticism and a good first step. He’s got to understand the nuances of how you approach an offensive tackle, what you do to him, and when you do it.”

• Daniel Cage/Peter Mokwuah: “Got to get them in better condition. When you have those big guys, they get worn down toward the middle and end of practice. But they’re showing some flashes, especially in the run game. We have to improve and get some pass rush from them.”

• Jerry Tillery/Micah Dew-Treadway: “They’ve had a chance to get more reps than probably they expected. They probably should still be in high school right now, but here they are at Notre Dame.

“It’s starting to wear on them a little bit, just the intensity and the wear and tear of having to really get after it play after play. But I think both of them are going to be really good players. Tillery is ahead right now, but both of those guys will be special players.” Top Stories