Things certainly seemed to be looking up for Andrew Trumbetti entering his sophomore season at Notre Dame.
After making an impressive collegiate debut in 2014 as a true freshman defensive end – playing in 12 games, recording at least one tackle in eight of them and finishing with 5 ½ tackles for loss and a sack – the next step in the evolution of the 6-foot-3 ½, 260-pounder from Demarest, N.J. was expected in 2015.
But when nose tackle Jarron Jones suffered a regular-season-ending knee injury in August, the domino effect along the Irish defensive line took Trumbetti to places he did not anticipate. The simple switch from one defensive end position to the other became a personal albatross instead of a golden opportunity.
Jones’ injury forced “big end” Isaac Rochell to prepare for reps on the inside of the Irish line as well as outside, where his strength would help compensate for the loss of the 315-pound Jones.
So instead of competing with senior Romeo Okwara at the rush end spot – which is where he did his best work as a true freshman – Trumbetti was forced into a “square peg, round hole” scenario that bogged him down throughout much of his sophomore campaign. Even when there were sack opportunities for Trumbetti during the regular season, he couldn’t capitalize.
“When there were a few injuries, they moved me to strongside defensive end,” said Trumbetti, who registered tackles for loss in six games as a freshman, including a critical sack in a home victory over Stanford.
“I was skeptical about it because I’m not as big as Isaac. I was about 25 pounds underweight. When I got a chance to contribute more late in the season, it just felt good going out there and being able to do what I could for the team.”
But those opportunities proved to be few and far between compared to his rookie campaign. After finishing with 21 tackles in ’14, Trumbetti entered the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State with a mere 12 stops, including no sacks and a half-a-tackle during the regular season (against Texas in the season-opener).
With playing time in November came productivity. Jerry Tillery had hit the freshman wall, and fellow nose tackle Daniel Cage was fighting through his second season at Notre Dame where stamina and the nicks of a long football season began to take their toll.
When Trumbetti made his first start of the season against Wake Forest in the 10th game, he promptly put himself in the right place at the right time for a 28-yard interception return for a touchdown. When he started again next week against Boston College, Trumbetti recorded three tackles – a high-water mark for the season.
With Sheldon Day suffering what the Irish originally thought was a broken foot during preparation for Ohio State, the need for Rochell to slide inside for reps was even more acute. Trumbetti started his third game in four outings and saved the best of his sophomore campaign for last.
He was credited with four solo tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hurries against the Buckeyes. As the game unfolded, Trumbetti began showing up around the football on consecutive plays, prompting ESPN play-by-play man Sean McDonough to rave over his suddenly dominant performance.
Among the standout plays by Trumbetti was a beautiful job of slipping between two blockers and stopping quarterback J.T. Barrett for a one-yard gain. He discarded running back Ezekiel Elliott to make his first sack of the season. He ran down Elliott from the backside for a two-yard loss. He teamed up with James Onwualu to sack Barrett in the fourth quarter as the Irish forced one of three field goals.
With Okwara out the door, Trumbetti becomes the heir apparent at the rush end position, which is his most natural fit. He’ll enter the spring of ’16 as the only notable pass-rushing threat on the roster with a mere two sacks to his name.
Clearly, however, it was a step forward for Trumbetti from the Wake Forest game through the Fiesta Bowl.
“Honestly, I don’t know where next year is going to take me,” Trumbetti said. “I don’t know if they’ll have me playing strongside or weakside. I’m sure I will (play weakside), but I really don’t know yet.
“I’m not going to speak for the coaches because it’s ultimately their decision. Maybe they’ll move me (to weakside) and make that my permanent position.”
Odds are they will. Not only was that Trumbetti’s most productive position, but Okwara is gone, and although Day is too, Jones, Tillery and Cage all return inside in ’16 and the Irish need pass rushers.
Trumbetti not only anticipates a greater role in ’16, but also is relishing his move into the “upperclassmen” classification as the new leadership emerges on the Irish defensive line.
“We have great leaders from the top,” Trumbetti said. “It’s a matter of the juniors becoming seniors and becoming great leaders.
“Isaac Rochell has got to be a great leader next year. He’s got to hold people accountable. He was good this year, but Sheldon was the guy. Next year, Isaac is going to be the guy.”
And chances are, Trumbetti once again will be the guy who was ascending as a freshman before taking one for the team in 2015.