When it’s spring football and you have enough scholarship bodies to fill four entire defensive lines, you know you’ve made some progress.
But when none of those defensive linemen go by the name of Sheldon Day or Romeo Okwara, it’s difficult to say you’re better than you were three months ago when you were lining up against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
“The biggest thing right now for us is just being physical at the point of attack,” said defensive line coach Keith Gilmore following Notre Dame’s sixth practice of the spring Tuesday morning.
“The young guys are learning how to step up and play. (But when) you’ve lost Sheldon and you’ve lost Romeo, I’ve got to find some guys to be physical at the point.”
There are plenty from which to choose, but a paucity of players that jump out as impact, game-altering performers.
Day was that kind of player for a couple of seasons, and Okwara fit the bill in ’15, particularly in the second half of the season.
Day finished last year’s campaign with 45 tackles, 15½ tackles for loss, four sacks, 13 quarterback hurries, four passes broken up, four passes defensed and two fumbles forced.
Okwara totaled 48 tackles, 12½ tackles for loss, seven quarterback hurries and eight sacks – seven of which came in a five-game span during the back half of the schedule.
Both provided a much-needed presence on a defensive line/unit that managed a relatively modest 25 sacks in 13 games. Both will hear their names called in the upcoming NFL draft.
“You’re always talking about a pass rush,” said Gilmore of the spring emphasis. “That’s something that never ceases.
“We’re putting more emphasis on getting off the ball and being physical at the point of attack. We’re trying to build a tough football team. We’re trying to build a tough defense.”
It’s not as if the Irish don’t recognize their best options along the front four. In fact, the starting quartet – at least at this stage of the long-term preparation for the fall of ’16 – is set.
• Isaac Rochell returns as the starter at big end in ’16, marking his third season as Notre Dame’s No. 1 guy at the position.
• Jarron Jones returns at nose tackle after missing all but the Fiesta Bowl last year with a knee injury.
• Jerry Tillery slides from nose tackle to the three-technique previously manned by Day.
• Andrew Trumbetti, who had to wait his turn most of the season behind Rochell, is back at a more comfortable rush end position now that Okwara has vacated the spot.
“It’s his time,” said Gilmore of Rochell, who had 63 tackles and 7½ tackles for loss, but just one sack in ’15.
“Isaac will be a three-year starter. That’s pretty impressive to be a three-year starter at Notre Dame. His production went up last year. We’ve just got to continue to develop him where he feels comfortable being that guy.”
Asked to cite the best pass rushers of the spring, Gilmore pointed to Rochell first.
“He had (sack) opportunities last year that he didn’t cash in on,” Gilmore said. “The next step is just getting him over that hump of going in and finishing the plays. He’s got all the technique down. He knows what to do. It’s just a matter of converting and making plays. I think he’s going to be the guy.”
Trumbetti the pass rusher isn’t quite as far along. He’s even further behind Rochell in terms of rush defense. But if there’s a defensive lineman this spring that appears on the verge of a breakout season, it’s Trumbetti.
“(Trumbetti is) at a comfort level now that he can play with confidence,” Gilmore said. “I’ve seen his pass rush improve. Sometimes he would run too deep or run past the quarterback.
“He’s starting to understand the quarterback drops and the depth of the quarterback and how to level rush. That’s going to really help him in his production.”
Notre Dame’s best one-two punch at a position along the defensive line is at the nose where Daniel Cage has seen a ton of action his first two years, particularly in ’15 when Jones was sidelined.
Still in the process of rebounding from an August knee injury, Jones’ reps are being doled out judiciously this spring.
“Jarron Jones was very disruptive against Ohio State,” Gilmore said. “He gave us a push and caused an interception. I just want to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy so we can get the full benefit of his abilities.
“Cage has had a good spring. In Cage and Jarron, in my mind, you’ve got two starters at that position.”
The least established position up front is the three-technique, which Tillery is learning after playing the nose as a freshman. His backups –Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway – both preserved a year of eligibility in ’15.
“He’s working on it,” said Gilmore – after a long hesitation -- of Tillery’s transition to three-technique. “He played some there last year, so it’s not totally new. But it’s only our sixth day of (spring) practice and the fourth in pads.
“The three-technique has a little more thought to it and a few more obstacles than the nose. The thought process has to change. The nose is probably easier. But he does have a great amount of athleticism and I think he’s going to be a special guy there.
“He has to learn more about protections and knowing when he’s got the one-on-ones and when he doesn’t. At the three-technique, sometimes he has contain, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes he’s got a two-way go, sometimes he doesn’t. Sometimes they slide the protection to him and he’s got to become like a nose.
“There are just a few more intricacies to playing the three-technique.”
Jonathan Bonner is the first man off the bench right now as a situational interior defensive lineman in Notre Dame’s sub-package pass rush. Grant Blankenship, who will be a junior this fall, also should benefit from a move back to rush end from big end.
Wildcards include early-entry freshmen Daelin Hayes (rush end) and Khalid Kareem (big end). A healthy Daelin Hayes in the fall could be a huge addition to the pass-rush equation. Jay Hayes, who’s bounced from the outside to the inside back to the outside, could give the Irish some pass rush off the edge.
“My intent last year was to have more of a rotation,” Gilmore said. “But as you get into the thick of things, you go with the flow of the game and what your heart feels is going to win for you at that point.
“We’re better as a unit. We may not have better individual players, but as a unit collectively, we’ll be better and I hope to have a better rotation.”
Spring Depth Chart
• Big End: Isaac Rochell, Jonathan Bonner, Khalid Kareem
• Nose Tackle: Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage, Pete Mokwuah, Brandon Tiassum, John Montelus
• Three-technique: Jerry Tillery, Elijah Taylor, Micah Dew-Treadway
• Rush End: Andrew Trumbetti, Grant Blankenship, Jay Hayes, Daelin Hayes.
(Look for more on Notre Dame’s defensive line prospects on irishillustrated.com.)