Championship teams are made along the defensive line, which is why the greatest stumbling block to turning around Notre Dame’s 4-8 season remains a huge concern as spring drills reached the one-third mark Saturday.
Mike Elston, who moved from coaching the defensive line to linebackers in 2015, is back at his familiar stomping grounds where his boundless enthusiasm is a necessary ingredient if the Irish are to achieve success defensively in 2017.
“It starts with me every morning,” said Elston, the only remaining member of Brian Kelly’s original Notre Dame coaching staff. “I’ve got to have the energy and enthusiasm, which I’ve supplied for them.
“I’m in charge of putting the gas in their engines and starting it up. We’re trying to get the competitive level up. We’ve got good depth, so there’s competition for playing time and against the offensive line.”
Depth -- as in bodies -- and the talent to compete against the level of competition the Irish will face this fall are two different things. There’s promise with sophomore Daelin Hayes at one end spot and red-shirt junior Jay Hayes manning the other.
The length, athleticism and potential within Jerry Tillery’s 6-foot-6 frame are building blocks. So, too, is the versatility that Jonathan Bonner offers as an interior presence.
Nose tackle Daniel Cage, who has had a history of concussion issues, is the big body the Irish need on the interior. Andrew Trumbetti, working with Jay Hayes at strongside end, has ample playing experience.
Youngsters such as ends Julian Okwara, Khalid Kareem and Ade Ogundeji, and tackles Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum, are in the mix. Junior Elijah Taylor, one of the promising up-and-comers, is sidelined with a foot injury.
There are bodies, but a paucity of proven talent, which could prove to be a huge shortcoming as new defensive coordinator Mike Elko tries to resuscitate a front that hasn’t been the same since Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara walked out the door following the 2015 season.
The Irish are banking on a more aggressive, proactive approach up front compared to 2016. Interior linemen are creasing gaps as opposed to taking on blocks head-up. Elko is offering a variety of looks to out-number offensive lines and create confusion. But do the Irish have the talent to pull it off?
“Schematically, it’s a little bit of a difference, but in terms of coming off the ball, vertical penetrating, knocking guys off the ball and creating a new line of scrimmage and trying to create pass rush, I think we’re going to be able to that with the guys we have,” Elston said.
“There’s some movement differences where if they do this, we’re going to do that, which is a positive for us because it puts our guys in some good situations.”
Notre Dame’s up-front defenders have been given the schematic tools they need to be more disruptive.
“D-linemen want to have production,” Elston said. “They don’t want to be taking on double teams and combos all day. A lot of things within Coach Elko’s package allow them to do that.
“So that part of it gets the excitement going and generates a lot of enthusiasm. I’m super positive about where we are. We’ve got a long way to go and we’re only in practice (five), but the guys are working hard.”
No Irish defensive end has more raw ability than Daelin Hayes, who saw action in spurts as a freshman in 2016. It’s an uphill climb. Brian Kelly has said on a couple of occasions that Hayes is still in the infancy stage of processing the game of football and how it needs to be played up front.
“He’s an athlete,” said Elston of Hayes. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”
The other Hayes, Jay, has pulled ahead of Trumbetti in the battle at strongside end.
“Jay Hayes is 280 pounds,” Elston said. “He’s big and physical, so Jay can give us a lot of snaps if he can continue to grow in the areas he needs to.”
If the two Hayes’ are the keys at defensive end, no one is more integral to the success/failure of Notre Dame’s defensive front than Tillery, whose progress his first two years in the program was measured.
“He’s being challenged,” said Elston of Tillery. “We’re demanding a lot from him. It’s every day, every practice. Every period we’re in, we’re going to grind Jerry Tillery to play up to his potential and develop into a great, dominating defensive tackle.
“I think he can do it. I think he’s committed to it. He’s spending a lot of time on his craft. I might be eating lunch and he comes in, grabs a seat and watches what I’m watching. He’s asking questions. He’s really committing himself to it, and that’s what it’s going to take from him.”
Elston acknowledged the vast interests in Tillery’s life beyond football that aren’t always conducive to the development of a dominant interior defensive lineman.
“You compare him to a guy he worked with, Sheldon Day, who was in every day,” Elston said. “He was professional about how he approached it. Not that Sheldon didn’t have outside interests, but Jerry has more interests in other areas of his life.
“Jerry goes on spring break to London. He’s different that way. He’s got to plant his feet and commit himself to being a great defensive lineman. I think he’s working that way.”
Trumbetti’s lack of consistency, shorter arms by defensive end standards, and the inability to handle the pounding up front have slowed his growth. Okwara and Ogundeji have more of the physical dimensions the Irish are looking for up front, but strength and inexperience are limiting factors at the present time.
Elston calls Dew-Treadway “a big thing of putty that we’re trying to mold into a player.” Kareem has yet to make a significant dent and Tiassum remains a long way from active productivity.
There are no easy answers along the Notre Dame defensive line as they are currently configured. Elston’s boundless enthusiasm is Notre Dame’s greatest tool in bridging the gap.
“I’m very excited about how they’re working, how detailed they are,” Elson said. “They’re in all the time watching footage of practice, Wake Forest’s clips of Coach Elko’s defense, technique…they’re just so committed to it right now. Then you get on the field and they’re working their butts off.
“It’s certainly not clean and polished and where it needs to be, but I love the way the guys are working. We’re taking a step forward every day.”