When a program’s head coach expects his upcoming season’s pass rush to be manufactured by skills of the pack rather than a uniquely talented lead wolf, it’s also safe to assume that the effectiveness of said pass rush will vary week-to-week.
That’s been a common pre-season cause for pause in South Bend where edge rushers and dominant individual pass rushers have trickled through over the years but not flowed rapidly through the steady recruiting stream over the last three decades.
In fact, since the quarterback sack became an official statistic for the 1982 season, only four single-season Irish defenses have enjoyed seven or more sacks from more than one defender, and the list reads like a Who’s Who? of defensive football at the program over the last three decades:
-- Devon McDonald (*9.3) and Bryant Young (7.5) in 1992 for the 10-1-1 Irish. (*Includes the Cotton Bowl, prior to the inclusion of bowl statistics by the NCAA)
-- The trio of Bert Berry (10), Renaldo Wynn (9) and Kory Minor (8) in 1996, and they did so without the benefit of a bowl game (8-3 record)
-- The unheralded duo of Victor Abiamiri (10.5) and Derek Landri (7) en route to 10-3 in 2006
-- Stephon Tuitt (12) and Prince Shembo (7.5) to pave a path toward 12-1 in 2012
Combined records of those four seasons in South Bend: 40-8-1. Total sacks by the quartet of teams? *146.5
A quality pass rush is essential to playoff contention in the modern era and ideally it comes from the defensive front four (and their reserves), rather than through exotic schemes that stress other aspects of the defense.
Last season, first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit registered 26 sacks thanks to the helping hands of 17 different defenders. This season, expect another three handfuls of defenders to combine for the heavy lifting.
Who’ll lead the sack pack at season’s end? We have a few candidates:
DT Sheldon Day: Said defensive line coach Keith Gilmore of Day during a spring that included only light work in pads as the senior rested his knee: “Having Sheldon back, he's the catalyst for (the pass rush). We’ll get him in some matchup situations where he can win. Pass rush is about effort, not a great pass rush move every single time. It's about guys giving great effort, understanding the rush lanes, collapsing the quarterback and getting pressure as a group.”
DE/DT Isaac Rochell: Produced 17 stuffs to go with 7.5 tackles for loss and a team-best 10 official quarterback hurries. Rochell finished with just 2.5 sacks but was often successful at applying initial, pocket-changing pressure.
DE Romeo Okwara: Led the 2014 squad with a paltry four sacks (his only tackles for loss), though one Irish Illustrated metric suggests he played better at scrimmage than often credited by the fan base – Okwara finished with 15 “stuffs” which measures tackles for no gain, one, or two yards (none of which are counted if they result in first downs for the offense).
DE Andrew Trumbetti: Registered 5.5 tackles for loss with a sack and five official hurries as a part-time true freshman. His playing time will increase this season – and so will his effectiveness as a pass rusher. Added seven stuffs without the benefit of a starting assignment.
LB Jaylon Smith: Led the way with 19 stuffs while adding 3.5 sacks and a team-best 9 tackles-for-loss – a combined 31.5 stops made behind or within two yards of scrimmage. He added seven QB hurries and is among the best athletes in the sport. If Smith is activated as a pass rusher more often, whether off the edge or through stunts, quarterbacks will likely fall.
Rush Ends Kolin Hill or Doug Randolph: The winner of what appears to be a head-to-head battle for the role of dime package pass rusher will have an opportunity, albeit limited in terms of overall snaps, to contribute. (Note: Trumbetti could fill this role as well in addition to his rotation duties as a base DE.)
DE Jonathan Bonner: I’d be higher on this possibility if Bonner hadn’t had turf toe surgery in late April. Said Kelly of his redshirt freshman prior to the injury: “His traits are significantly different than anything else we have in the defensive line. Vertical jump is in the mid-30 (inches); strength is off the charts. If you look at his traits, they match up in NFL combine numbers, they match up with elite players.”
Which brings us to the fifth prediction in our summer series:
Andrew Trumbetti will lead the Irish with between 7 and 8.5 sacks at season’s end, pacing a squad that will reach a total of 30 (the Kelly-era high is 34) through 13 games.
Prediction #4 – Close and Late
Prediction #3 – When September Ends
Prediction #2 – Where There’s a Will
Prediction #1 – The Playmaker