As a sophomore at Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati, Daniel Cage was credited with an incredible 22 sacks before combining for 18 sacks during his junior and senior seasons.
When Brian VanGorder was named Notre Dame’s successor to defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, the Irish were in the midst of a mad scramble to add personnel on that side of the football down the stretch of the recruiting campaign. Among those targeted in the rush for talent was Cage, who chose Notre Dame over Michigan State the week of the signing date.
The No. 165 overall prospect as ranked by Scout, Cage immediately gave the Irish some much-needed bulk in the middle of their defensive line. He quickly was elevated to No. 2 nose tackle behind Jarron Jones, where he played in 11 of 12 regular-season games, finishing with four tackles and half a tackle for loss. He was one of 10 true freshmen who made his debut in the season-opener against Rice and one of six true freshmen who played at least 11 regular-season games.
Cage gets in the best physical condition of his life, which gives him much-needed additional work volume and mobility, thus allowing him to win back the No. 2 job from Jerry Tillery during fall camp and continue to form a tandem with veteran Jarron Jones. Cage also could emerge as a starter if Jones is delayed bouncing back from a significant foot injury.
Cage can’t get a handle on his conditioning/weight issues while the longer, leaner Tillery continues to progress with those ready-made college football hands and the ability to hold the point of attack. It’s difficult to play three nose tackles, particularly if everything falls into place for the veteran Jones, so Cage needs a productive summer and August camp.
The best physical comparison is 2005 recruit Derrell Hand, a 6-foot-4, 305-pounder three-star out of Philadelphia, although Hand – the No. 7 defensive tackle in Pennsylvania – was not nearly as touted as Cage, who was the No. 1 defensive tackle in Ohio.
A more comparable reflection in terms of freshman productivity would be Lance Legree (1997-2000), who actually preserved a year of eligibility in ’96 before opening the ’97 season as the backup to Corey Bennett. Whereas Cage did not start a game in ’14, he did contribute from the outset of the season, as did Legree, who started four games and finished with 16 tackles after Bennett went down with a knee sprain early in the ’97 campaign.
One of 16 four-to-five star prospects in the 23-man signing Class of 2014, Cage was a second-team nose tackle virtually from the outset of his arrival and a regular contributor throughout the 2014 season, which put the mammoth interior defensive lineman ahead of the curve. The arrival of early-entry freshman Jerry Tillery could change Cage’s career path, however, as he fell to third-team nose (behind injured Jarron Jones and Tillery) this spring.
Cage’s top contributions during his true freshman season came early in the season, which is a reflection of the battle to reach a higher work volume as well as some nicks along the way, such as the knee setback that kept him out of the 11th game of the season (Louisville).
Three of his four tackles on the season came in the first two weeks against Rice (one) and Michigan (two). He did make a stop and collaborated on a tackle for a loss in the regular-season finale versus USC. Cage’s greatest contribution during his rookie season was his ability to hold the point of attack and create a wide barrier around which opponents had to navigate.
“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.” - DL coach Keith Gilmore on sophomore DTs Cage, Peter Mokwuah