Let the Battles Begin (Defense)

Most of the positions up for grabs on defense lack easy solutions. In several instances, the starter could be by default as opposed to clearly winning the job.

In the second of a two-part story, Irish Illustrated looks at Notre Dame’s top position battles on the defensive side of the football heading into the 2016 season.

A ton of talent has departed the Irish defense after a less-than-stellar season. Gone are defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate – all veteran players on a defense that allowed 24.1 points per game (tied for 39th nationally) and was a turnstile in the red zone.

Mainstays on the 2016 Irish defense include veteran big end Isaac Rochell, Sam linebacker James Onwualu, and cornerback Cole Luke. Certain starters include Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan, cornerback/nickel back Shaun Crawford, and strong safety Drue Tranquill, who sewed up starting spots on defense in the spring.

The following are the top position battles on the Irish defense heading into 2016.

NOSE TACKLE

Jarron Jones vs. Daniel Cage

Overview: The position has been in flux since November of 2014 when Jones suffered a lisfranc (foot) injury that limited him to 11 games and carried over into pre-season 2015. That’s when Jones added a knee injury to his list of ailments, which caused him to miss all 12 regular-season games before returning to action in the Fiesta Bowl. Cage has narrowed the gap with Jones. He had four tackles for loss in 11 games/seven starts last year. But he’s yet to prove himself as a playmaker from the middle of the Irish defensive line.

Spring: Jones used the 15 practices to continue the process of fully recovering from two significant injuries. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was not ready to christen Jones the starter when spring drills concluded. For Cage, it’s the continual battle to increase his work volume at 315 pounds, a goal that he has yet to reach halfway through his collegiate eligibility.

Projected winner: Jones – When healthy and properly motivated, Jones is a bear at nose tackle and a real barrier on the interior. Jones, like Cage, has been unable to maximize his work volume. If Jones and Cage are at peak efficiency in ’16, the fifth-year senior will win the job, although Cage is needed to provide depth and consistency. Consider this position a tag-team endeavor, unless the defensive tackle position remains unsettled, and then Jones will get reps at three-technique.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Jerry Tillery vs. Elijah Taylor vs. Micah Dew-Treadway

Overview: One year into his career with the Irish, Tillery is known more for his eclectic personality displayed in Showtime’s “A Season With…” than his actual productivity on the field during his rookie season. After coming up with a sack in his collegiate debut against Texas, Tillery made tackles in just five of the last 11 games. He did not play in the Fiesta Bowl due to a violation of team rules. Cage started seven games at nose tackle to Tillery’s three. In fairness to Tillery, three-technique or end is a more natural position for him than nose tackle. His most natural position on the football field is offensive tackle.

Spring: Tillery’s inconsistent performance/effort in the spring left defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder searching for answers as the practice sessions came to a close. Technically, he faced competition for the three-technique (formerly played by Sheldon Day) from red-shirt freshmen Taylor and Dew-Treadway. But neither performed well enough to put pressure on Tillery for the starting spot. Jones and Rochell are greater threats to take three-technique reps away from Tillery than Taylor and Dew-Treadway.

Projected winner: Tillery – At the present time, Tillery winning the starting job would be more of a default victory than an actual staking a claim for the spot. A motivated, consistent effort by Tillery likely would result in a fairly productive player. But with multiple outside interests – and the departure of his mentor, Day – it’s uncertain exactly what Tillery brings to the equation this fall.

RUSH END

Andrew Trumbetti vs. Jay Hayes vs. Daelin Hayes

Overview: A year ago, the loss of Okwara following the 2015 season didn’t seem like it would be significant. He had just 1.5 sacks over his final nine games in ’14. But Okwara recorded seven sacks over a five-game period during the second half of the ’15 season. His loss seems much more significant now with Trumbetti playing sparingly during his sophomore season. Trumbetti did, however, save his best for last with two sacks against Ohio State while Jay Hayes preserved a year of eligibility and transitioned to rush end during the spring. Trumbetti is at his more natural rush end spot as opposed to big end, where he played behind Rochell in ’15.

Spring: Jay Hayes did more than narrow the gap against Trumbetti in the spring. VanGorder intimated that Hayes had emerged as a front-runner for the starting rush end spot, which is a bit disconcerting. This is the position that requires pass-rush ability, and Trumbetti is a much more natural pass rusher than Hayes. But Hayes is bigger and more capable of consistency against the run than Trumbetti. The X factor is another Hayes, true freshman Daelin, an early-entry player who wasn’t completely healthy (shoulder) this spring.

Projected winner: Jay Hayes – When VanGorder makes up his mind about a player, it’s difficult for that player to get in the lineup. Trumbetti could be falling into that category with VanGorder, based upon his late-spring comments about Jay Hayes winning the spot. Daelin Hayes could help solve Notre Dame’s pass rush issues. He has the most talent. VanGorder spoke with confidence as spring concluded that a healthy Daelin Hayes would figure prominently at rush end.

WILL LINEBACKER

Te’von Coney vs. Greer Martini vs. Asmar Bilal

Overview: How do you replace a player of Jaylon Smith’s ability? With young, talented prospects, although none appear to be close to being on the verge of providing the productivity Smith did. Martini is the most experienced of the group, particularly against option-based offenses, but Coney held down the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Smith throughout the ’15 season. Bilal preserved a year of eligibility as a true freshman while getting the bulk of his snaps at Sam linebacker. He moved to Will in the spring.

Spring: With Coney and Martini both sidelined following shoulder surgery, it was a very productive spring for Bilal, who received virtually all of the Will linebacker reps over the 15 practice sessions.

Projected winner: Coney – Irish Illustrated’s personal choice would be the heady, instinctive Martini. VanGorder is more inclined to go with a healthy Coney and use Martini in dime sub-packages. Can Coney provide the consistency that is absolutely essential at the Will linebacker position? Only time and experience will determine the outcome. This could prove to be a position in flux throughout ’16. Even true freshman Jamir Jones could come into play at this unsettled position.

FREE SAFETY

Max Redfield vs. Devin Studstill

Overview: A broken thumb and a violation of team rules prior to the Fiesta Bowl limited Redfield to 11 starts at free safety last fall for what was an up-and-down junior season. Redfield had 14 tackles (11 solo) in a fine overall defensive effort against Clemson. Eight of his nine tackles against Boston College were solo as well. The inconsistency in the passing game/decision-making remains a concern.

Spring: Coming off the Fiesta Bowl suspension, Redfield had difficulty getting first-team reps as early-entry freshman Studstill hit the ground running. Studstill inspired optimism with his quick adaptation to the system and instincts for the game. Redfield ultimately turned in a solid spring and remained in the running for the starting spot.

Projected winner: Redfield – With 36 games and 23 starts under his belt, it’s difficult to sit Redfield in favor of a true freshman on the back end of a defense that already lost a veteran safety in Shumate. Redfield’s experience – provided he’s focused and disciplined enough to maximize his senior season – should win out, at least as the season begins. But this ultimately could go Studstill’s way, particularly as the season progresses.

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