Class: Senior (Eligibility: 1)
On The Depth Chart: Cage ran with the second-team defense most of spring, working behind Jerry Tillery at nose guard.
Post-Spring Status: Unchanged
Believe it or not, when Daniel Cage signed with Notre Dame four years ago he was ranked on Scout.com as a comparable talent to Darnell Ewell. Cage slotted at No. 165 overall, not far behind Ewell at No. 146. And while the hype around Ewell today dwarfs what Cage had when he enrolled, consider his freshman season as a bar the Irish would love their Next Big Thing to clear.
Cage played in every game until going down with a knee injury in November and offered more than just a big body in the middle. The Ohio product was a factor in the blowout of Michigan in September. Even though he finished with just four tackles that season, it was a strong first step in South Bend.
At that point Cage looked capable of playing up to his recruiting ranking. For the record, 247 and Rivals both listed Cage as a three-star while ESPN joined Scout in the four-star realm.
Unfortunately for Cage, that November tap out was a precursor of the past two seasons when concussions sidelined him in November. With three concussions on his medical report to date, it’s not clear when/if a fourth might come. If it does, Cage could be forced to make a bigger picture decision that goes beyond football.
CAGE AT HIS BEST
Judging an interior defensive lineman based on statistics can be foolish, but Cage’s career-high of three stops came in three different games as a sophomore against Texas, Virginia and USC. He also forced a fumble against Stanford last season when the Irish defense played one of its best games of the season. There haven’t been many standout moments in Cage’s career, but he’s been a solid space eater whenever he’s been on the field.
“Daniel Cage has had his best spring, and that’s going to continue to transfer.” – Brian Kelly in April
BEST CASE SCENARIO
Cage continues to round into shape after taking steps forward during spring ball. The player who looked woefully out of shape in early March returned to a capable defensive tackle by late April. The Irish need Cage to be more than a situational player this season considering the depth issues on the defensive line’s interior. In the eight games he played last season, Cage hit a high snap mark of 41 but played fewer than 30 snaps three times. If he can give the Irish 40 snaps every week (he did just once), it would be a big boost to the defense. Tackles, sacks and other stats won’t matter as much as snaps played. Notre Dame needs more of those from the hulking defensive tackle.
WORST CASE SCENARIO
This is bigger than football for Cage considering a concussion can be a life-altering injury. He wouldn’t be he first player to retire following multiple concussions. Taking Cage off the depth chart would weaken it in serious ways because the Irish would have to give 40-plus snaps weekly to some combination of Darnell Ewell, Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway. Not ideal. If the Irish lost Cage during training camp it might even prompt Mike Elko to shuffle the line to create a little extra depth.
This is a tough one considering Cage’s medical status and past production as a part-time player. He’s built like Ian Williams but hasn’t produced like him. He’s also built like Hafis Williams, Derrell Hand, Tyler Stockton and Brandon Newman, but Cage is far better than those former defensive tackles. Let’s go with an optimistic reading of Cage’s career and compare him to 6-foot-1, 285-pound Lance Legree, who was a five-year contributor from 1996-2000 but was never a full-on starter until that fifth year. Like Cage, Legree played a supporting role in his first year of action, advanced in his second, and then took a step back in his third due to injury. But in his final season Legree exploded with 11 starts and 50 tackles. Cage might not be able to keep up with that. Getting close would be a win, though.