Daniel Cage was going to play in this game. He just wasn’t clear on the sideline.
Two-and-a-half years ago the defensive tackle from Winton Woods High School on the north side of Cincinnati was torn between Notre Dame and Michigan State. He didn’t go Irish until the morning of National Signing Day. Yet the final commitment in the junior class was also the first signed National Letter of Intent to hit Brian Kelly’s desk that morning.
“Me going to Michigan State was a very close call,” Cage said. “It was a phone call away.”
Cage could probably start on either defensive line Saturday night. And the fact he’ll wear a gold helmet has nothing to do with “Rudy” or tradition or national exposure. Because when the Irish started to show interest during his junior year, Notre Dame was just another school.
“It wasn’t the first one on our list at all,” said mother Bionne Cage. “And it was completely about where Daniel wanted to go.”
At one point, Louisville looked like the pick. Michigan State worked itself into contention later. Notre Dame, under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, thought Cage was too short for its system at barely six-feet tall. It wasn’t until Brian VanGorder took over Notre Dame’s defense barely a month before National Signing Day that the Irish became a full player.
Fortunately for the Irish, assistant Mike Elston, who still recruits Ohio and coached defensive linemen back then, had kept Notre Dame’s recruiting interest simmering.
So while Brian Kelly suggested Cage made academic gains to put himself in position for a full offer, Bionne said Notre Dame’s stance was purely athletic.
“I wouldn’t say academics was the issue at all,” Bionne said. “I know there was a different coordinator and they wanted somebody much taller, somebody 6-foot-5. It was height. I never heard that other story.”
Once at Notre Dame, Cage began to struggle on the field and off. He got reserve reps as a freshman and sophomore. He needed coffee breaks many afternoons to stay awake in class. He couldn’t sleep at night and took up writing a novel to pass the time before dawn.
Notre Dame got to the root of the issue this spring, diagnosing Cage with sleep apnea and putting him on a CPAP machine to help him get actual rest. The machine aids Cage’s breathing after a test revealed he struggled to inhale while sleeping and sometimes stopped.
“I can’t sleep without it now,” Cage said. “It helps me sleep 100 percent better.”
With his body struggling to breathe, Cage often woke up exhausted. A problem that could be brushed aside in high school needed a fix in college with Notre Dame’s taxing schedule.
“His health is better, he's getting sleep,” Kelly said. “Then it's a trickle down from there. He's getting the right nutrition, which is giving him an opportunity to train better at a higher level. “So all of that's coming together and just having a handle on his personal life moving forward, stronger in the weight room all those things.”
Cage said he played last season around 330 pounds but has since cut down to 308. Now he’s grabbed hold of the starting defensive tackle job, beating out fifth-year senior Jarron Jones for reps despite not carrying the same reputation.
Cage nearly notched Notre Dame’s only sack of the season last week against Nevada when he enveloped Tyler Stewart near the goal line. More significantly, he logged 33 snaps against the Wolf Pack, more than double Jones’ work.
“It’s a tremendous difference, just the way I move, flexibility and doing certain things,” Cage said. “It helps a lot just to get some of that weight off and be able to move.”
The junior still keeps some late nights, working on his novel that’s hit nearly 100 pages while also writing poetry. Cage doesn’t have a title for that novel but called it a “really wild” collection of thoughts from his imagination. The sociology major admitted Notre Dame has been the challenge he expected when signing here over Michigan State two-and-a-half years ago.
It’s also one he now has the energy to take on. During the week that means anchoring VanGorder’s defense while balancing a full academic load. Come Saturday night, it means stuffing one of college football’s most committed power run games.
“I know what’s coming,” Cage said. “But it’s my job to keep focused on the game plan, keep focused on what I’m supposed to do and keep attacking every play.”