First Rate: Defensive Line

Notre Dame’s defensive front has a chance to be the strength of the Irish stop unit. Much will depend upon the evolution of Notre Dame’s interior defensive line.

While more than half of Notre Dame’s upcoming opponents generally are considered to have one of the top 50 defensive lines in the country, much of that is based upon reputation while there are several other units on the Irish slate that simply are trying to piece together an effective defensive line.

The usual suspects sit atop the list with one very glaring exception. If you take away the names of the teams and simply evaluate which defensive lines have the most productive talent returning, it’s N.C. State in front, followed by Michigan State and Stanford, who know how to recruit defensive line talent.

When you take into account Notre Dame’s 12 opponents versus a promising Irish offensive line, there’s yardage to be gained this fall.

13) Navy (DE-Amos Mason) – The losses are significant with the departure of veteran NG Bernie Sarra and DE Will Anthony. Sarra was stout in the middle and Anthony recorded 7½ sacks and a noteworthy 61 stops from the end position. Only Mason returns as a starter on the three-man front, although he had moments of productivity in ‘15. The Midshipmen have uncommon size at NG with senior Patrick Forrestal (6-4, 305), but he has yet to prove he has the strength to be effective, let alone as productive as Sarra was. Navy will be hard-pressed to match last year’s No. 32 national ranking against the run (143.0 ypg.).

12) Army (DE-John Voit, DE-Jordan Smith) -- What was an inexperienced three-man defensive front heading into 2015 developed into a productive unit as the season progressed. The Black Knights knocked off nearly 30 yards rushing per game allowed from 2014 to 2015, although the sacks leveled off after a quick start. Army will miss NG T.J. Atimalala, but ends Voit and Smith combined for 97 tackles, five tackles for loss and a couple of sacks (both by Voit). Just as importantly, they were – by Navy standards -- stout at the point of attack. Sophomore NG Cordarrell Davis takes over for Atimalala after playing in just three games as a freshman.

11) Syracuse (NT-Kayton Samuels) – There are no defensive ends with playing experience against Power 5 competition, although senior Gabe Sherrod was a productive player at FCS Delaware State in 2014. Red-shirt freshman Jake Pickard, the lone returning scholarship defensive end, will man the spot opposite Sherrod. Samuels has the most playing experience of the group, but he had just 15 stops and 2½ tackles for loss in 12 starts a year ago. Sophomore DT Chris Slayton showed promise in a reserve role. The Orange will be hard-pressed to improve upon the 181.8 yards rushing allowed per game in ’15.

10) Nevada (NT-Salesa Faraimo) – Faraimo is the only established player up front following the departure of four prominent performers in ’15, led by Ian Seau (10 sacks, 18½ tackles for loss) and 2nd-team all-Mountain West Lenny Jones. Seau, Jones and DT Rykeem Yates combined for 90 career starts, 46 sacks and 89½ tackles for loss. Faraimo’s 23 tackles and one sack represent the lion’s share of productivity returning to the Wolf Pack defensive line. Head coach Brian Polian will be counting on what is referred to in Reno as the “Sensational Six” recruits from 2014, three of which (DEs Patrick Choudja and Malik Reed, and DT Korey Rush) are expected to start. They better be really good to reverse the 191.4-yard rushing trend established against the Wolf Pack in ’15.

9) Duke (DT-A.J. Wolf) – There’s nary an upperclassman to join Wolf in the starting lineup after the departure of Kyler Brown, Carlos Wray and Deion Williams, who combined for 123 stops in ’15. Wolf is sound against the run (54 tackles, 3½ for loss), but offers little by way of pass rush. It’s going to be up to a bunch of youngsters after the Blue Devils managed a meager 17 sacks. The projected defensive ends combined for three starts last year – all by then-freshman Marquies Price. There likely will be some slippage from the 153.8 yards rushing allowed per game.

8) Texas (DE-Naashon Hughes, NT-Paul Boyette) – The losses are significant up front on a defense that allowed a startling 219.2 yards rushing per game, including 214 against Notre Dame, who also threw for 313 yards against the Longhorns. The greatest loss is fourth-round draft pick Hassan Ridgeway (3½ sacks). Hughes is the top returning sack man with 5½. Boyette – one of two 315-pounders on the interior – each had three sacks. DT Poona Ford has yet to live up to his reputation. Sophomore ends Breckyn Hager and Charles Omenihu will see their playing time increase significantly. A handful of four-star freshman defensive linemen, led by NT Gerald Wilbon, will be counted on for an immediate contribution.

7) USC (No starters returning) – It’s nothing short of a full-fledged overall up front for the Trojans, who lost 1st-team all-Pac 12 NT Antwaun Woods, DTs Delvon Simmons and Claude Pelon, and NT Cody Temple. Add the fact that Kenny Bigelow tore his ACL in the spring. That means the leading tackler up front is DE Porter Gustin, who was effective in recording 5½ sacks as a freshman. Senior Jabari Ruffin is a hybrid end-linebacker who will need to provide some rush. As many as four sophomores could be starting along the defensive line, including 330-pound NT Norah Jefferson. USC’s recruiting rankings will be tested with this green, inexperienced bunch.

6) Virginia Tech (DE-Ken Ekanem, NT-Woody Baron) -- Three starters are gone from a defense that allowed a stunning 180.7 yards rushing per game and a unit that had just 26 sacks. But defensive coordinator Bud Foster was retained by the Justin Fuente regime, and that gives the Hokies a chance for a rapid rebound, particularly if Ekanem – a 3rd-and 2nd-team all-ACC selection the last two years – can return to the 9½-sack form of ’14. Baron and Nigel Williams step into the tackle spots vacated by Luther Maddy and Corey Marshall. Junior DE Seth Dooley moves into a starting role while DTs Ricky Walker (sophomore) and Tim Settle (freshman) give Virginia Tech depth on the interior.

5) Miami (DE-Al-Quadin Muhammad, DE-Chad Thomas DE-Trent Harris, DT-Courtel Jenkins) – There’s starting/playing experience up and down the Miami front, and that doesn’t even include Florida transfer Gerald Willis, who should emerge for the Hurricanes this fall. Former Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski – who has produced four first-round draft choices since 2009 – has plenty with which to work for DC Manny Diaz’s unit. Muhammad (54 tackles, five sacks) was productive in ’15. Look for this group to make a significant leap forward after allowing 200 yards rushing per game in ’15.

4) Notre Dame (DE-Isaac Rochell, NT-Jarron Jones, DT-Jerry Tillery) – Seemingly as many questions as answers, although the Irish are much better stocked than they’ve been up front with the potential for some quick solutions. Rochell, with an impressive 63 stops from the end position (he bumped inside late in the season), is the leading returning tackler among Notre Dame’s defensive front seven. Jones is not a returning starter due to a knee injury that caused him to miss all but the bowl game. But a healthy, motivated, well-conditioned Jones could be a load. Notre Dame’s other top nose tackle – Daniel Cage – is improving in measured increments. Tillery has shoes too big to fill with the departure of Sheldon Day. But Tillery has noteworthy length and ability, again, if properly motivated. The rush end position has potential and depth in Andrew Trumbetti, Jay Hayes and Daelin Hayes. A real key to the season will be the productivity of the interior defensive linemen.

3) Stanford (DE-Solomon Thomas) – Stanford entered the 2015 season with a string of four years in which the Cardinal allowed no more than 104 yards rushing per game. But there was slippage a year ago with opponents rushing for 139.9 yards per outing, and that was with Aziz Shittu and Brennan Scarlett, who are now gone. (Note: Notre Dame rushed for 299 yards and 8.5 yards per carry against the Cardinal.) Size and strength up front was an issue a year ago and it could be again. Thomas is a versatile player (3½ sacks), but he gives away some bulk. Some combination of senior Luke Kaumatule (a former TE), now-healthy sophomore Harrison Phillips (ACL), senior Jordan Watkins, and freshman Dylan Jackson will help piece the front together.

2) Michigan State (NT-Malik McDowell) – Only four of 14 opponents rushed for more than 125 yards against the Spartans in ’15, but with third-round draft pick Shilique Calhoun and NFL free agents Lawrence Thomas and Joel Heath gone from the line, only one starter returns in Michigan State’s four-man front. That one guy – nose tackle Malik McDowell – is a very good one. In fact, he’s on most pre-season first-team All-America lists after his 8½ tackles for loss, 4½ sacks and eight QB pressures. Seniors Damon Knox and Evan Jones, and junior Demetrius Cooper have been around, but with limited productivity. Nebraska transfer Kevin Williams should help. Youth will be served with freshman Josh King at end.

1) N.C. State (DE-Bradley Chubb, DT-B.J. Hill, DT-Kentavius Street) – To ignore the Wolfpack defensive front, which even some pre-season magazines have done, would be a mistake. You’ll hear plenty about them come the week of Oct. 8 when the Irish head to Raleigh to take on the Wolfpack, who ranked 39th in the country against the run. The Wolfpack lost Mike Rose, who had 10½ of N.C. State’s 32 sacks, but there’s plenty more where that came from. Chubb leads a disruptive group of ends with 5½ sacks a year ago while Hill gets the push from the middle with 7½ sacks in ’15. Sophomore Darian Roseboro moves into the starting lineup at end. Justin Jones adds depth on the interior.

1. USC (14 – QB 3rd, RB 2nd, WR 1st,  OL 1st, DL 7th)
2. Notre Dame (16 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 6th,  OL 2nd, DL 4th)
3t. Stanford (24 – QB 5th, RB 1st, WR 11th, OL 4th, DL 3rd)
3t. Michigan St. (24 – QB 8th, RB 4th, WR 7th, OL 3rd, DL 2nd)
5t. Virginia Tech (31 – QB 9th, RB 7th, WR 2nd, OL 7th, DL 6th)
5t. N.C. State (31 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR 4th, OL 10th, DL 1st)
7. Texas (33 – QB 4th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 6th, DL 8th)
8. Miami (34 – QB 2nd, RB 10th,  WR 9th, OL 8th, DL 5th)
9. Nevada (39 – QB 7th, RB 8th, WR 5th, OL 9th, DL 10th)
10t. Syracuse (42 – QB 6th, RB 11th,  WR 3rd , OL 11th, DL 11th)
10t. Duke (42 -- QB 11th, RB 9th, WR 8th, OL 5th, DL 9th)
12. Army (62 – QB 12th, RB 13th, WR 13th, OL 12th, DL 12th)
13. Navy (63 – QB 13th, RB 12th, WR 12th, OL 13th, DL 13th)


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