Brian Kelly stood in the background on Wednesday morning while Notre Dame’s defensive line drilled in front of him. He didn’t have much to offer as assistant Keith Gilmore put the position through fundamental work. And there might not be much for Kelly to say, at least when it comes to creating a pass rush.
An issue that’s dogged Notre Dame every season under Kelly – save that run to the BCS National Championship Game – may frustrate the Irish again this season.
On paper, Notre Dame just doesn’t have much of a pass rush.
The Irish were below average in the department last year, finishing with just 24 sacks. To put that in perspective, Alabama (52 sacks) and Clemson (48 sacks) led the nation in that statistic.
Now Notre Dame must replace its two best in Romeo Okwara and Sheldon Day after they combined for 12 sacks. The entire returning defensive line put up just four last year, with Isaac Rochell, Jonathan Bonner, Jerry Tillery and Andrew Trumbetti all posting one.
Linebacker James Onwualu is actually Notre Dame’s returning leader in sacks with three.
“Pass rush is where the money’s made,” Rochell said. “It doesn’t matter where you are or at what level or with what team. We’re definitely focusing on it. I think we have a lot of guys with a lot of potential.”
If there is potential there the Irish need it to come out. Soon.
Rochell, Trumbetti, Tillery and Jarron Jones could form a strong starting lineup with Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes offering quality support on the interior. It’s off the edge where Notre Dame lacks a pure pass rusher thanks in part to a rash of transfers at the position.
In theory, the Irish should have Kolin Hill, Jhonny Williams and Bo Wallace working into the defensive end rotation this spring. Instead, Bonner, a former defensive tackle, and Grant Blankenship got the second-team work on Wednesday. Early enrollee Daelin Hayes could be a solution, but he’s limited by off-season shoulder surgery.
“Certainly there’s nobody that is coming out of the woodwork that goes, ‘Well, he’s got 15 sacks in him,’” Kelly said. “But collectively what we have to be able to do is activate more players, we have to activate some more pressures from the boundary, some more pressures from the field.
“It’s not going to be from one guy. It’s got to be collectively from four or five different guys.”
The Irish had a similar refrain last year before Okwara led Notre Dame with eight sacks. But talk of blitzing linebackers never happened. For all Jaylon Smith’s natural ability he rarely got activated by Brian VanGorder. A player with the athleticism to go in the NFL Draft’s Top 5 finished with just one sack, and that came against Texas. In fact, Notre Dame’s linebackers didn’t make a single sack in October or November.
With Smith and Joe Schmidt gone will Notre Dame rethink its pass rushing approach? The Irish need to if they want to get pressure. The Irish have averaged more than two sacks per game just once under Kelly, although Notre Dame has finished with 26 sacks in 13 games twice.
During the BCS National Championship Game run, Notre Dame posted 33 sacks and the defensive line produced 31 of those.
The defensive line produced 16 sacks last season.
“Any great defense that’s getting tons of sacks, it’s not going to be an individual, it’s going to be a D-line thing,” Rochell said. “I think we’ll surprise people. I think we’re gonna be really good in that aspect.”