When Sheldon Day packed his bags in the University of Phoenix Stadium locker room following his last game in a Notre Dame uniform, departing with him were his 141 career tackles, 7½ sacks and 32 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
There is no one on the 2016 Irish roster that can replicate those numbers from the defensive tackle position, let alone the game-altering impact he had beyond the measureable statistics.
Therein lies the genesis of Notre Dame’s defensive concerns as training camp opens in Culver, Ind., Saturday.
Sophomore Jerry Tillery returns on the interior, shifting from nose tackle to three-technique to replace Day, who creased gaps like a slippery pig shooting through the narrow gap between a fencepost and a chain-link fence.
Fifth-year senior Jarron Jones returns as the likely starter at the nose after missing all but the Fiesta Bowl following a pre-season knee injury, which came on the back end of his recovery from a foot injury suffered in November of 2014.
The third certainty in the equation is junior Daniel Cage, who actually started seven times last year to Tillery’s three at nose tackle.
“It’s those three guys – Cage, Tillery and Jones,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly Friday at his introductory press conference to kick off the start of the ’16 pre-season.
“Tillery presents the most position flexibility of the three. Cage is much more of a shade nose. Jarron can do some things in a passing situation that are very intriguing to us. Each one presents some pluses and minuses.”
When you add it all up, the minuses outweigh the pluses and there remains a void because a) Day was that good and b) none of the above-mentioned three have shown that they can be an every-down player.
“I think we can get between 20 and 30 plays (from each),” said Kelly of Jones and Cage. “That’s an expectation we would have for them because we’re going to be playing in third-down situations in nickel.”
Look for Isaac Rochell to slip inside in passing situations, although Rochell has found himself at nose and defensive tackle each of the past two seasons when the Irish needed to be a bit stouter against the run.
But not only is 20 or 30 plays out of Jones and Cage not enough, it’s a disappointing number if Kelly’s estimation is correct. The Irish needed Jones to have the fortitude and maturity to reach beyond his work volume from a couple of years ago. Cage has a squattier frame, which can be rep-limiting, but not a legitimate excuse halfway through his collegiate career for a lack of stamina.
For the Irish to make improvements to an already leaky defense, the Jones-Cage tandem needs to offer considerably more, and Tillery has to develop a level of toughness commensurate to the job description at defensive tackle.
“Jerry is going to play well if he’s not worried about school and other things,” said Rochell of the multi-faceted Tillery, whose interests off the gridiron sometimes are greater and more focused than they are between the white lines.
Kelly hinted the possibility of reinforcements from sophomore Elijah Taylor who, after preserving a year of eligibility in ’15, is better prepared for his first year of competition at a forceful 6-foot-2¾, 285 pounds.
“We think there are a couple of young guys that may be able to give us some things in there,” said Kelly, although only Taylor, and not defensive line classmates Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum, was mentioned.
“Elijah Taylor is extremely strong and can hold the point,” Kelly said. “He may not be as dynamic yet, but he’s a guy you can’t move. He’s one of the stronger players on our team.”
More likely, however, it will be Jones, Tillery and Cage handling the bulk of the interior defensive line snaps with Rochell moving inside on 2nd- and 3rd-and-long. That’s a far cry from Day’s 100 percent effort and disruptiveness on virtually every snap he took in an Irish uniform.
“We’re going to have to play a lot of guys against Texas,” Kelly said. “They’re a tempo team and it’s going to be hot. Some of those young guys are going to have to play roles for us. If we can get a four- or five-man rotation in there, we should be in pretty good shape.”