The news of senior nose tackle Jarron Jones’ knee injury Friday has disrupted an otherwise solid, healthy start to the pre-season for the Notre Dame defense.
Jones – who also was bouncing back from a lisfranc (mid-foot) injury that required surgery after 11 games into the 2014 season – emerged last season as a steady performer and significant contributor on the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line. He finished eighth on the team in tackles with 40 while tying for second in tackles for lost yardage with 7.5. He also was third in quarterback pressures with seven despite missing more than two games down the stretch.
Although the Irish coaching staff was being cautious with Jones’ workload during the first week of camp, he continued to participate in practice and was moving forward – slowly -- in his return to the starting lineup.
The temporary loss of Jones – Brian Kelly will address Jones’ situation with the media following Saturday’s session at the LaBar Practice Complex – is significant, but does not create the dire scenario that came about on Notre Dame’s defensive front last season when experience was at a premium, even before injuries struck.
Entering last year’s season-opener against Rice, the starting defensive line of Isaac Rochell, Jones, Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara had a combined 10 career starts – eight by Day, one by Jones, none by Rochell, and one by Okwara, although that came at an outside linebacker position.
Those four combined for 46 starts in 2014.
Not only does Notre Dame have a vastly more experienced projected starting defensive front this year, but the backup unit gained valuable playing time with the frequent insertion of youngsters Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Jay Hayes and Daniel Cage in ‘14. As freshmen, those four combined to play in 37 games with 39 tackles and seven tackles for lost yardage.
The Irish also have 6-foot-3, 275-pound defensive end Jonathan Bonner, who preserved a year of eligibility last year while showing promise and the versatility to play on the interior. He appears to have bounced back from spring surgery to correct a turf toe issue.
The Irish are much better equipped to handle a Jarron Jones injury this year than they would have been last year, particularly with the early entry – and early promise – of true freshman Jerry Tillery, a 6-foot-6 ½, 305-pounder out of Shreveport, La., who went through the spring paces.
Tillery would move into the starting lineup at nose tackle in the absence of Jones, which would bump Cage up and into a better position to contribute as a backup. There also remain other options, which the Irish have experimented with during pre-season camp.
As he did in the Music City Bowl against LSU, Rochell has moved from end to nose tackle on occasion during the ’15 pre-season, including Thursday when the media was granted its second viewing.
A starting defensive line of Okwara and Trumbetti at end and Rochell and Day inside would remain a formidable and arguably a more effective front, particularly as it relates to Rochell compared to Jones as a pass rusher. If Okwara and Trumbetti are ready to play on a full-time basis at a high level, which they could very well be, this unit – with Rochell bumped inside – should be productive.
Depending upon how long Jones is sidelined – conflicting reports filtering Irish Illustrated’s way Friday night tended to lean toward a significant but not season-ending setback – Notre Dame may be able to withstand his injury without compromising its productivity along the defensive line, which they were unable to avoid in ’14.