First rate: Defensive line

D-line appears to be one of ND’s strengths, but until the Irish show more production against the run and pressuring the quarterback, several ’15 foes remain stronger on paper.

Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule is jam-packed with quality defensive lines, which makes the burden on the well-equipped offensive line as well as first-time, full-time starting quarterback Malik Zaire significant.

How much talent exists on the defensive lines of Notre Dame and its 12 opponents? With graduation hitting Stanford hard, the Cardinal can’t crack the top 10 on this list, simply because so much talent/depth is returning.

Of course, Stanford has a tradition of rebuilding stellar defensive lines, and 2015 likely will be no different. But for the purposes of our First Rate series, there’s just too much returning talent up front on defense to place the Cardinal ahead of the pack.

Even high-loss teams like Temple, Wake Forest, Texas and Virginia were stout up front defensively in ’14 while Boston College – which lost six times – ranked second in the country against the run while the seven-loss Longhorns had 40 sacks.

If you appreciate stellar play in the trenches on the defensive side of the football, Notre Dame and the vast majority of its 12 opponents will offer some of the best of the best in 2015.

13) Massachusetts (DT-Pete Angeh, DE-Sha-Ki Holines)
Statistically/production-wise, there are only two choices for ranking last along the defensive line in this group, and the “edge” goes to the Minutemen, who ranked 90th or lower in all four of the major defensive categories. UMass allowed 191.8 yards rushing per game with only 10 FBS programs recording fewer than its 15 sacks. DE Holines is the leading sack man up front with a mere two. QB Blake Frohnapfel will have to have a banner season to offset a defense that allowed 30 or more points in nine games and at least 40 points six times.

12) Navy (DE-Will Anthony, NG-Bernard Sarra)
The Midshipmen were gashed up front regularly in ’14, allowing 198.6 yards rushing per game, including 218 to Notre Dame. Only New Mexico State had fewer than Navy’s 13 sacks in ’14. But the two returning starters – DE Anthony and NG Sarra – are impactful. Anthony had a breakout season with an impressive 32 solo tackles and 11 stops for lost yardage. Sarra is a roadblock.

11) Stanford (No returning starters)
The First Rate series loses some of its accuracy when Stanford finishes in the top 10 in all four major statistical categories, and then loses every one of its most significant contributors up front, led by third-round draft choice Henry Anderson and David Parry. The Cardinal benefits from the transfer of Cal DE Brennan Scarlett, who battled injuries with the Bears. DT Harrison Phillips is the top returning sack man on the defensive line with two. The Cardinal need DE Aziz Shittu to emerge.

10) Temple (DT-Matt Ioannidis, DE-Praise Martin-Oguike, DE-Sharif Finch, NT-Hershey Walton)
DE Martin-Oguike is one of the top returning DL sack men with 7.5 and 10 tackles for loss. DT Ioannidis had 3.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss while tying Martin-Oguike for the team-lead among defensive linemen with 26 solo tackles. Although the Owls had a middle-of-the-road 27 sacks, they ranked 13th nationally against the pass, which means they were getting some pressure.

9) Wake Forest (NT-Tylor Harris, DT-Josh Banks, DE-Wendell Dunn)
Despite such an anemic offense in ‘14, the defense held its own by finishing in the upper half of the nation in scoring defense, pass defense and total defense. Their 28 sacks tied for 55th nationally, which was two more tackles of the QB behind the line than Notre Dame. NT Harris also led the nation with three blocked kicks. DT Banks is the top returning sack man with four in ’14. This is a unit on the rise.

8) Pittsburgh (NT-Khaynin Mosley-Smith, DE-Darryl Render, DE-Rori Blair)
The Panther defense struggled down the stretch of the ’14 season, allowing 147 points during a three-game stretch against Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina. But there is promise up front with a veteran defensive line anchored by NT Mosley-Smith. DE Blair is the top returning sack man with five in his rookie season. DE Render showed disruptive tendencies in ’14. Look for this unit to lead a much-improved rush defense that allowed 160.8 yards per game a year ago.

7) Georgia Tech (DT-Adam Gotsis, DE-KeShun Freeman)
The Yellow Jackets boast a nice one-two inside-outside punch with DT Gotsis (3.0 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss) and DE Freeman (37 solo tackles, 4.5 sacks, 9.5 tackles for loss) returning on a unit that was slightly above the norm (62nd nationally) against the run. DT Jabari Hunt-Days is back from academic woes and DE Kenderius Whitehead will assist Freeman on the pass rush.

6) Notre Dame (DT-Sheldon Day, DE-Isaac Rochell, NT-Jarron Jones, DE-Romeo Okwara)
Notre Dame’s defensive line is just sixth on this list? The fact is it remains more promise than production as the Irish head into the 2015 season. They ranked 72nd nationally against the run while 69 other FBS schools recorded more than their 26 sacks. That being said, DT Day is the most accomplished tackle among the Irish/their 12 opponents while NT Jones and DE Rochell have a chance to be consistent if not consistently dynamic defensive linemen over the next two years. The depth is better than it has been in a while, too.

5) USC (DT-Delvin Simmons, NT-Antwaun Woods, DE-Claude Pelon)
First-round draft choice Leonard Williams was a force last season with 7.5 sacks on a defense that ranked 26th nationally vs. the run (133.4 ypg.). Simmons is more run stopper (24 solo tackles) than pass rusher (1.0). Woods is a veteran at the nose tackle spot coming off a surgically-repaired torn chest muscle. Greg Townsend, Jr., and Cody Temple – two players who have been slowed by injury – could play significant roles.

4) Virginia (DT-David Dean, DE-Mike Moore, DT-Donte Wilkins)
For a team that lost seven times a year ago, the Cavaliers boasted a noteworthy defense that ranked 32nd in scoring defense (24.1 ppg.), 28th in total defense (353.2 ypg.), and 18th in rush defense (120.7) while allowing just 3.36 yards per carry. DE Moore should be the feature performer up front with depth on the inside behind DTs Dean and Wilkins. Some think DT Andrew Brown – who battled injuries in ’14 -- is the best of the bunch. If DE Eli Harold hadn’t turned pro early, this unit would sit at the top of the list.

3) Texas (DT-Hassan Ridgeway, DE-Naashon Hughes)
Tons of promise up front for the Longhorns in the second year of the Charlie Strong era despite the loss of DT Malcolm Brown in the first round of the NFL draft. After finishing 25th in total defense, 31st in scoring defense and 11th in pass defense, and even with the loss of Brown, the Longhorns could be even better in the trenches. Texas knows how to get after the QB with 40 sacks in ’14. Only 11 other programs had more. DT Ridgeway had six of those sacks while DE Shiro Davis had 3.5.

2) Clemson (DE-Shaq Lawson, DT-Carlos Watkins)
Clemson lost eight starters on defense, including first-round draft choice Vic Beasley up front, on a defense that finished fifth nationally in run defense (103.4 ypg.) and first in total defense (260.8 ypg.). Lawson, with his 7.5 sacks the past two seasons, should emerge as the next “name” for the Tigers. Tackles Watkins and D.J. Reader have experience if not a bunch of starting assignments. DE Kevin Dodd is Lawson’s bookend.

1) Boston College (DT-Connor Wujciak, DE-Kevin Kavalec, DT-Truman Gutapfel)
DT Wujciak anchors a defensive front that helped lead the Eagles to a No. 2 ranking nationally in rush defense (94.5 yards per game) while tying for 13th in sacks with 32. There’s no dominant pass-rusher per se with multiple players making a contribution. DE Kavalec had 10.5 tackles for loss in ’14. Gutapfel forms a barrier on the inside with Wujciak.

Here is the running tally:

1. USC (13--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st, DL 5th)
2. Clemson (18 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th, DL 2nd)
3. Notre Dame (20 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd, DL 6th)
4. Pittsburgh (27 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th, DL 8th)
5. Stanford (28 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 11th)
6. Georgia Tech (34 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th, DL 7th)
7. Texas (36 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th, DL 3rd)
8. Boston College (40 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th, DL 1st)
9t. UMass (42 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th, DL 13th)
9t. Virginia (42 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th, DL 4th)
11. Navy (46 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th, DL 12th)
12. Wake Forest 53 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th, 9th)
13. Temple (56 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th, DL 10th)

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