They call him Big Sexy.
It’s not clear what weight loss number Daniel Cage hit to earn that nickname, but Brian VanGorder gave it and the defense made it stick. On opening night against Texas it would have been an ironic tag as Cage labored his way into shape. After a career-best night against USC, that’s no longer the case.
Cage has earned his alluring alter ego.
“He’s done a great job with his body and changing that and he’s become a really functional football player for us,” said linebacker Joe Schmidt. “He eats blocks man, it’s great. He’s eating them a lot more, that’s for dang sure.”
When he enrolled two years ago Cage played a weighting game standard for most nose guards, ballooning as a freshman and fighting his way back to a healthy measurement. Cage has said he pushed beyond 350 pounds early in his career, not exactly a good look for a player just short of a 6-foot-1. During his first training camp practice as a freshman, Cage puked due to over exertion.
Now playing closer to his listed weight, Cage has grown into more than a placeholder in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. His three tackles (one stop for loss) against USC weren’t the best part of his performance, it was the career-high 31 snaps logged without much drop off.
Cage had averaged 24.2 true snaps during the season’s first six games.
“The vision that we have, his teammates and the coaches, is a lot bigger than where he is now,” said defensive end Isaac Rochell. “It’s not saying that he’s not working hard. He’s ascending tremendously and playing at a very high level and playing well. He can still get a lot better, which is good.
“He lost some weight and he looks good, to say the least.”
Cage has just 13 tackles this season, but that’s actually more than the player he rotates with in Jerry Tillery (nine). Outside the program, Cage has been lost in the cult of personality surrounding Tillery, who’s developed into a star of the Showtime series while Cage has barely featured.
That’s unlikely to change during the season’s final five games, even as Cage’s profile within the program continues to expand, in a good way. With Sheldon Day gone after this season but Jarron Jones back online next spring, Notre Dame could again have a stout three-man rotation at defensive tackle in 2016.
“I think it is a confidence thing,” Rochell said. “I think he’s coming off the ball harder just because he knows, ‘I’m un-blockable when I come off the ball.’ As the season progressed he started to see himself develop. He’s a big guy and he’s really explosive off the ball. When he puts those things together he can’t be blocked.”
Cage has grown in his understanding of VanGorder’s defense too, no longer needing to be subbed out for corrections. Day said Cage can now get right mentally while staying on the field, boosted by that improved conditioning. Added up, Notre Dame has an under-the-radar talent in Cage, a rarity within a program set to maximum exposure.
“He has so much potential. His ceiling is very high right now,” Day said. “If he continues to grow and work at his game, he could be very good.”