A four-star prospect in 2014 and the nation’s 15th-ranked interior lineman according to Scout.com, Daniel Cage appeared in 11 games as both a freshman and sophomore, starting seven last fall.
To the detriment of the Irish defense, both campaigns concluded with Cage sidelined and/or bothered by leg injuries, and Notre Dame’s defensive line depth subsequently took a hit a pair of November 2014 losses, and later, in last January’s Fiesta Bowl defeat at the hands of Ohio State.
Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Cage, the 165th-ranked overall player in the 2014 class and, at present, a junior projected to play a key role in the Irish defense.
Cage splits snaps with returning anchor Jarron Jones, providing the Irish defense with an enviable – and perpetually fresh – 1-2 punch at the pivot position along defensive line coach Keith Gilmore’s 4-3 front.
Both members of the pairing would benefit greatly from a 45-snap workload rather than 70-80 snap challenge each Saturday and cumulatively through a 12-game slate.
No three-technique defensive tackle emerges alongside them and Jones is asked to perform the task, thus thrusting Cage into a full-time position on the nose, thus likely weakening both positions over the long haul.
Sophomore Jerry Tillery and redshirt-freshman Elijah Taylor exited spring ball as the 1-2 punch at defensive tackle, though neither earned the trust of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder during the 15-session spring. Should Jones have to move next door rather than work in congress with Cage, the conditioning of both big men would likely present as an issue, especially by the time the leaves begin to fall in South Bend.
It’s one both Cage and the Irish coaching staff can doubtless embrace.
Cage’s two-season arc is reminiscent of defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis (1992-95), a player that blossomed as a junior before earning All-America mention and fourth-round draft pick status as a senior.
Grasmanis’ first two seasons in South Bend included two monograms won and backup appearances in 16 games as a reserve, though only seven tackles to his credit. He took off as a third-year contributor, registering 49 tackles including 3 for loss with 2.5 sacks.
Like Grasmanis, Cage is expected to blossom in Year 3.
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
Cage was the final pledge of Brian Kelly’s 2014 class and in retrospect his lack of an offer from in-state newcomer Urban Meyer at Ohio State was a major coup for the Irish.
But the above serves as a commentary on both Cage’s ongoing development and the continuous misses by Notre Dame in terms of its recruitment of the sport’s second most important position in seasons prior and since.
Though his numbers are unremarkable (18 tackles last season after posting just four as a freshman), Cage is a true nose tackle and appears headed for a solid career – a middle man commensurate with a contending defense provided he’s used in tag-team with a superior athlete such as Jones.
Cage was thrust into action as a freshman – a necessity in the middle of a neophyte-filled 3-4 scheme – and was far more ready for competitive action last fall.
CAGE AT HIS BEST
The junior-to-be has posted a trio of stops on three separate occasions, most notably against USC in October last season. His best single-game efforts to date occurred on back-to-back outings, first vs. the Trojans, then at Temple in which Cage posted a combined four Stuffs among his five total tackles.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“We have a great competition and rotation at the nose tackle with Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage. My hope is that with the first and second guys you don’t see much of a difference. We can have a two-deep across the board and be solid. That’s what we’re aiming for.” – Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore