Four more smears: Irish set sack goals

With a new coach and some early pass rush success, Notre Dame’s defensive line is off to a surprisingly fast start.

Notre Dame’s defensive line doesn’t do technicalities, so it considers last weekend an unqualified success.

The weekly goal for that group is four sacks per game from their position, which would more than triple last season’s rate. Irish defensive linemen posted just 15 sacks last year – the team made just 26 quarterback takedowns total – and that reality made pass rushing a potential problem going into this season.

Last weekend Notre Dame’s defensive line posted four sacks, a slight stretch because that includes Jaylon Smith in the second quarter when he beat Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day to Jerrod Heard at the goal line. But because Smith was lined up as a defensive end on that play in a three-point stance, it counts.

And if he hadn’t dropped Heard, Rochell and Day would have. They collapsed the Longhorns’ No. 2 quarterback in near unison.

“Isaac tried to say he had a half sack on it, but after he saw the film he admitted it was all mine,” Smith said. “A lot of times guys break down (to tackle) and that’s how you become almost players, so they broke down and I kept running so I got it.”

The tag of “almost player” is something Day wants to shed after posting just 3.5 sacks in the previous three seasons. From that perspective, getting Texas starter Tyrone Swoopes once didn’t make Day’s opener a personal success. The sack was Day’s only tackle in the game despite a highly disruptive night.

For the game, Texas quarterbacks were pressured on more than half their drops. Notre Dame credited Day with four hurries and the team finished with eight.

“It’s all about evaluating myself with my finishing ability,” Day said. “So I would definitely say I didn't grade out that well personally.”

Still, Texas finished with just 163 yards total offense, converted 2-of-13 chances on third down and didn’t enter the red zone once. In addition to Day and Smith, Notre Dame got sacks from Romeo Okwara and Jerry Tillery.

Those sacks were nearly split too.

Okwara beat tight end Andrew Beck for his sack late in the third quarter, but Tillery also split his blockers on that play to nearly get Swoopes. When Tillery dropped Heard in the second quarter it was after a miss by Andrew Trumbetti with Okwara also in pursuit. While the brutal Texas offensive line played a part in the amplified rush with two freshmen starting, Notre Dame gets some credit too.

New defensive line coach Keith Gilmore might be a major part of that.

“We attacked the offensive line,” Day said. “It's crazy how much (Gilmore) has changed us and improved our game. We definitely saw a lot of improvement from our first year to this year.”

Virginia will be a tougher test on the offensive line, but not by much in terms of starting experience. The Texas line that opened last weekend arrived at Notre Dame with a combined 39 career starts. The Virginia line that started last weekend’s opener at UCLA had just 47, including first-time starter Jack McDonald at left guard.

Now Notre Dame gets another crack at its arbitrary sack goal. With Smith now technically part of the defensive line in certain alignments – don’t ask him the name of that formation, he won’t tell you – the group’s chances to score four go up.

“I’m very blessed with the opportunity that they’re letting me pass rush this year,” Smith said. “Anything we can do to help the team win I’m all for.”


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