Best of the Best: Irish Interior DL

The third edition in our week-long series ranking the best position groups of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

#3 – Interior Defensive Linemen

Both in reality, and specifically for our ranking purposes, a defensive end in Notre Dame’s 3-4 fronts and scheme is considered an interior player, not a true defensive end or edge player. The edge rushers and former cat linebackers will be reviewed later in our series.

The Elite: Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix – Though Irish fans (and coaches) remain miffed at the pair’s efforts in their final season of eligibility, that relative fall from grace doesn’t erase 2012, a season in which the pair ranked among the top 10 defensive players in the nation. Nix was underrated as a junior in 2011 as well. (Tuitt had his moments in 2013 after beginning the season “30 pounds overweight” to quote his position coach.)

Standouts/Difference Makers: Ian Williams, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sheldon Day – Day’s final chapter has yet to be written, and for the sake of the 2015 season, it’s imperative he join the rarified air of Nix and Tuitt above…Per Kelly, Williams was the best football player on the head coach’s first Irish squad prior to suffering a season-ending knee injury against Navy in late-October 2010...As for Kapron Lewis-Moore, is there a more undervalued single-season player in the Kelly era than the fifth-year senior in 2012?

Quality Starters: Ethan Johnson, Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell – I considered Rochell for the section above, but if his career ended today, that slotting would be presumptive…Pending his recovery from November foot surgery, Jones is likewise on the cusp of joining a higher class…Johnson was an enigma during the Kelly era: solid when healthy, but rarely close to 100 percent with a nagging ankle injury (he tried to play through a broken bone).

Aided the Cause: Sean Cwynar, Kona Scwhenke, Tony Springmann, Justin Utupo – Cwynar did yeoman’s as an undersized nose guard starting in place of injured Ian Williams during Notre Dame’s 4-1 finish in 2010. He was solid as Nix’s 2011 backup as well…Utupo fared well as a fifth-year backup in 2013 and this listing is relative to his role that season…Springmann was a spark as a redshirt-freshman in 2012 before losing the remainder of his career to injuries…Schwenke’s four-year arc was mishandled by the coaching staff but he nonetheless improved enough as a junior in 2012 and senior in 2013 to aid the program up front. As an aside, and for perhaps the final time on these pages: How much would a fifth-year player such as Schwenke have helped last fall?

Couldn’t Carve A Niche: Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, Chase Hounshell, Tyler Stockton – Stockton ended up helping at the tail end of his career due to injuries up front while Hounshell could do the same, albeit at tight end this fall…Newman was the program’s Scout Team Player of the Year winner as a senior, which while commendable, isn’t ideal…Williams was recruited over, it happens.

On Deck for 2015: Jay Hayes – One of the program’s most important players for 2016-17, and a key reserve this season.

Finding a Foothold this Fall? Daniel Cage, Jacob Matuska, Pete Mokwuah

On the Horizon: Jerry Tillery – See Jay Hayes.

Why They’re No. 3: For the equivalent of a three-season span (late 2010-through mid-season 2013), only one program yielded fewer rushing touchdowns than did Kelly’s Irish – the Alabama Crimson Tide. And though Manti Te’o’s middle linebacker play is part of that equation, the consistent, stout efforts of the defensive interior made it possible.

Single-season grades for the Irish defensive interior allow for variance per the film reviewer, but the following seems fair:

2010: B-minus overall (C-minus through 8 games; A-minus over the final five)
2011: A-minus
2012: A+++
2013: C+ due to late-season attrition
2014: B+ first seven games; Triple F-minus final six.

The 2012 efforts cannot be overlooked: Notre Dame played for the National Title because of its defensive interior.

For a program that’s received its fair share of heat for struggling to recruit to the position, there’s been consistently strong play during the Kelly-era from those that pledge Irish, especially the starting sect.

Note: The No. 4 position group of the Kelly era…