Notre Dame’s deepest and most experienced area on defense remains fraught with numerous questions and a shortage of solutions where the beef is most needed.
“If we started tomorrow, I’m not sure who the starters would be,” said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder following Notre Dame’s 13th practice of the spring Wednesday.
If that strikes one as VanGorder rubbing sticks together to try to light a fire under a couple of interior defensive linemen, you’re probably on to something.
Jerry Tillery, who garnered about 10 times more publicity through Showtime’s “A Season With…” than his on-field performance warranted, entered the spring as the heir apparent at three-technique to the ultra-productive Sheldon Day after playing the nose throughout the ’15 season and cross-training at both inside spots.
“Inconsistent, he’s just really inconsistent,” was VanGorder’s short-and-to-the-point response regarding Tillery.
At nose tackle, Jarron Jones returns for a fifth year after missing all but the Fiesta Bowl last year following a knee injury during training camp. No endorsement from VanGorder there, either.
“There are about six names you could rattle off that are competing for the job,” VanGorder said. “We’ve just got to find out who the best player is going to be and who gives us the best chance to win.”
It is upon the spring practice field where the kinks are worked out. It’s a rare team – and the 2016 version of the Irish isn’t one of them – that can emerge from 15 spring practices with solutions all over the field.
Isaac Rochell is a “solution” at big end, and it appears the rush end spot is developing nicely with the combination of junior Andrew Trumbetti and red-shirt sophomore Jay Hayes emerging as the power guy to Trumbetti’s pass-rush prowess.
The loss of Day to the NFL is hugely significant both in terms of his productivity and leadership. He was the conscience of the defensive line the past two seasons with another strong personality – Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt – lined up behind him.
No such personality exists on the 2016 team at nose and defensive tackle.
At 6-foot-6, 310 pounds, Tillery has a full toolbox physically. At 6-foot-5 ½, 315 pounds, Jones has the sheer power to go with that length to form a barrier between the ends. But neither has shown the consistent work ethic to be named starters as spring concludes with every opportunity to do so over the last month.
At least Tillery flashed this week to offer defensive line coach Keith Gilmore something upon which to build.
“The last two days, I’ve been really happy,” said Gilmore of Tillery’s performance/effort. “Most of the spring, I was battling. It’s not just the learning part.
“We all forget that he’s a freshman. The expectation is really high and everyone wants him to do everything correctly now. I have to remind myself that he’s a freshman and to keep coaching him. He’ll be where we need him to be when the time comes.”
The same also is true regarding Jones, who not only is coming off a significant knee injury, but also was battling through his recovery from a serious ankle injury from the end of ’14.
When the light goes on Sept. 4 against Texas, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Irish will have a well-conditioned, motivated Jarron Jones, and it could come at the three-technique with Daniel Cage at the nose if the youngsters can’t come along quickly.
Sophomores Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway were projects when they arrived. To expect them to be ready for game competition after preserving a year of eligibility is unrealistic, although Taylor has shown some productivity.
“Elijah’s young and he’s showing flashes,” VanGorder said. “But we’re looking for the consistency. From spring ball to training camp, there should be significant growth on a lot of those players.”
The development at big end could lead to some solutions on the interior. Rochell, Jonathan Bonner and early-entry freshman Khalid Kareem all had productive springs. Bonner and Kareem will stay at big end, but Rochell is a situational insertion at tackle.
“I’m really happy with our big end position,” Gilmore said. “In Isaac, Bonner and then Khalid running with the 3s, we have a really good group of guys that are similar in abilities.”
Added VanGorder: “Bonner has had a nice development the last two years.”
VanGorder also said Bonner and Kareem will remain at the big end position. Both played well and are well-positioned physically. To move them inside would require a significant weight increase, which VanGorder believes would be counterproductive to their development.
Another possibility is moving Jones to the three-technique and tag-teaming the nose tackle position with Cage and Pete Mokwuah, although Gilmore said conditioning remains a road block for Mokwuah. Neither sophomore Brandon Tiassum nor senior John Montelus, who moved from guard, appear to be in the immediate picture.
“I’ve got an idea who would start,” VanGorder said. “But it’s going to be competitive going into training camp. Nobody has really has established themselves as starters at the d-tackle positions.”