Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated

Kelly’s Best Recruits: Defensive Line

Highly-rated Kelly recruits Louis Nix III, Stephon Tuitt and Sheldon Day helped construct the best defensive front by far during the current era at Notre Dame.

SCOUT DEFENSIVE LINE RANKINGS

1. 5* DE-Aaron Lynch (2011) – No. 10 overall; No. 2 DE
2. 5* DE-Ishaq Williams (2011) – No. 20 overall; No. 4 DE
3. 5* DE-Stephon Tuitt (2011) – No. 44 overall; No. 10 DE
4. 5* DT-Sheldon Day (2012) – No. 50 overall; No. 6 DT
5. 4* DE-Grant Blankenship (2014) – No. 91 overall; No. 10 DE

6. 4* DT-Louis Nix III (2010) – No. 102 overall; No. 9 DT
7. 4* DE-Isaac Rochell (2013) – No. 153 overall; No. 17 DE
8. 4* DT-Daniel Cage (2014) – No. 165 overall; No. 15 DT
9. 4* DE-Andrew Trumbetti (2014) – No. 166 overall; No. 20 DE
10. 4* DT-Elijah Taylor (2015) – No. 203 overall; No. 20 DT

11. 4* DT-Jay Hayes (2014) – No. 233 overall; No. 21 DT
12. 4* DE-Julian Okwara (2016) – No. 243 overall; No. 30 DE
13. 4* DE-Kona Schwenke (2010) – No. 267 overall; No. 33 DE
14. 4* DE-Khalid Kareem (2016) – No. 282 overall; No. 34 DE
15. 4* DE-Jacob Matuska (2013) – No. 299 overall; No. 32 DE

16. 3* DT-Kurt Hinish (2017) – NR; No. 28 DT
17. 3* DE-Micah Dew Treadway (2015) – NR; No. 34 DE
18. 3* DE-Anthony Rabasa (2011) – NR; No. 50 DE
19. 3* DE-Justin Utupo (2010) – NR; No. 50 DE
20. 3* DE-Jhonathon Williams (2014) – NR; No. 51 DE

21. 3* DE-Romeo Okwara (2012) – NR; No. 65 DE
22. 3* DT-Brandon Tiassum (2015) – NR; No. 66 DT
23. 3* DT-Pete Mokwuah (2014) – NR; No. 66 DT
24. 3* DE-Tony Springmann (2011) – NR; No. 66 DE
25. 3* DE-Jonathan Bonner (2014) – NR; No. 79 DE

26. 3* DE-Kofi Wardlow (2017) – NR; No. 86 DE
27. 3* DE-Chase Hounshell (2011) – NR; No. 97 DE
28. 3* DE-Adetokunbo Ogundeji (2016) – NR; No. 99 DE
29. 3* DE-Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (2017) – NR; No. 126 DE
30. 2* DE-Bruce Heggie (2010) – NR; No. 200 DE

DEFENSIVE LINE HAUL

During the 2008-11 recruiting cycles, Notre Dame built the foundation for a defensive line that carried the Irish to the national championship game against Alabama in 2012.

Three-star defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore (2008) was the first piece with standup edge rusher/OLB Prince Shembo and mammoth nose guard Louis Nix III arriving two years later in Brian Kelly’s first recruiting class at Notre Dame.

When the Irish added five-star end Stephon Tuitt in 2011, the defensive front that would hold 10 of 12 regular-season opponents to 14 points or less had been formed.

The Irish sacked the quarterback a decade-high 34 times in 2012, including a combined 21½ by the Kelly-recruited trio of Tuitt (12), Shembo (7½) and Nix (2) with Lewis-Moore contributing six. Freshman Sheldon Day pitched in with a couple of sacks as well.

Since the gathering of four-star Nix, five-star Tuitt, five-star Aaron Lynch (who left after the 2011 season), and five-star Ishaq Williams (who never quite panned out before he was suspended) – plus Day in 2012 -- the Irish have struggled landing impact players up front.

Only Romeo Okwara during his senior season (2015) and Isaac Rochell have been consistent performers with Jarron Jones sprinkled in. Notre Dame’s 31-20 record from 2013-16 is greatly reflected by its struggle to recruit along the defensive line.

INSTANT DEFENSE

Pass rushers as productive as Stephon Tuitt don’t come along very often at Notre Dame.

From 2011-13 – he left a year of eligibility on the table to enter the NFL draft (2nd-round pick of Pittsburgh Steelers) – Tuitt recorded 21½ sacks in 35 games.

At 6-foot-6, 325 pounds – and perhaps a bit more than that in ’13 when he returned off his mark physically – Tuitt was an absolute barrier along Notre Dame’s defensive front.

In 2012, Tuitt had 12 sacks while staking a claim for stardom in the season-opener in Dublin when he returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown against Navy.

Tuitt’s impact for the Irish, however, seemed rather fleeting. He was gone in a flash and, so too, was Notre Dame’s point-of-attack dominance up front.

MR. DEPENDABLE

Without Tuitt and Nix, the Irish don’t sniff the rarified air in 2012. But over the course of four seasons, Notre Dame’s most reliable defensive lineman recruited by Kelly was Sheldon Day, who served as one of four captains on the 2015 team.

Some knee issues along the way forced him to miss a handful of games during his sophomore and junior seasons. But Day was a warrior, firing of the football with a degree of quickness that belied his 6-foot-2, 285-pound frame.

Day likely had no business playing in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State in his final game in a Notre Dame uniform. But he gutted it out an ankle injury, leaving one last positive impression of a player who never took a play off.

His 32 tackles for loss is a high-water mark for defensive line play at Notre Dame during the Kelly regime.

OLD RELIABLE

Isaac Rochell was to Notre Dame’s defensive end play from 2013-16 what Sheldon Day was to defensive tackle play from 2012-15. In fact, Rochell totaled 166 tackles in his career with the Irish – 25 more than Day – although he wasn’t nearly the gap-creasing presence.

Rochell finished with a Kelly-era-high 166 tackles among defensive linemen with 21 tackles for loss and a modest 4½ sacks. Though he never achieved stardom, he served as a mature, steadying force during the troubled times of the Brian VanGorder era.  

ONE AND DONE

Notre Dame’s highest-rated defensive lineman coming out of the prep ranks since 2010 was five-star end Aaron Lynch, whom Scout listed as the No. 10 overall prospect and No. 4 end in the country in 2011.

From the outset, Notre Dame and Lynch were mismatched. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco – insisting on a more disciplined approach from freshmen Lynch and Tuitt – kept both on the sideline in Notre Dame’s “come-from-ahead” loss at Michigan (35-21) in the second game of the ’11 season.

But when Lynch was on the field, the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder could play. In 12 games as a freshman, Lynch had 33 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 5½ sacks despite not playing on a regular basis.

Lynch’s most impressive stat as a rookie – 14 quarterback pressures, twice as many as the No. 2 man on Notre Dame’s list, Darius Fleming.

Born in Cleveland, but a product of Island Coast High School in Florida, Lynch transferred to South Florida after one season with the Irish and ultimately became a fifth-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers.

OFFENSE TO DEFENSE

Four former/current Notre Dame defensive linemen rated as offensive line prospects by Scout coming out of high school:

• Jarron Jones (OT) -- Over four seasons spanning five years, Jones played 34 games on the defensive interior, starting 13. He finished his Notre Dame career with 105 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and 4½ sacks. Six of his tackles for loss came against Miami last season.

• Jerry Tillery (OT)– Notre Dame’s need along the defensive line was acute when he arrived in 2015. He shared the nose tackle position with Daniel Cage in ’15, starting three games. He started 11 of 12 games in ’16 at defensive tackle. He has 49 career tackles and a sack in 24 games. With half of his college eligibility remaining, there’s still time for Tillery to emerge as a difference-maker.

• Darnell Ewell (OG) – Scout’s No. 146 overall prospect and No. 7 offensive guard will play nose tackle this fall.

• Jonathon MacCollister (OT) – Scout’s No. 76 offensive tackle is slated for defensive end duty this fall.

POSITION FLEXIBILITY

• Daelin Hayes – Ranked 240th overall and the No. 12 outside linebacker by Scout following his injury-marred prep career in Michigan.

Although he’s listed as the starting right defensive end heading into the ’17 season, Hayes is more of a stand-up outside linebacker whose versatility will come into play rushing the quarterback, defending the run and dropping into pass coverage.

His pass break-up (and subsequent Devin Studstill interception) against Michigan State showed just how much range/versatility Hayes brings to the Irish defense. In 12 games, Hayes had 11 tackles. He’ll enter his sophomore season seeking his first career sack, which over the long haul should be his forte.

CURRENT RANKING

1. Stephon Tuitt (see above)
2. Sheldon Day (see above)
3. Louis Nix III (see above)
4. Isaac Rochell (see above)

5. Romeo Okwara – Turning 17 within days after enrolling at Notre Dame in the summer of ’12, Okwara found himself on the Irish special teams as a freshman and played more of an outside linebacker role his first two years in the program. By his junior year in ’14, he had grown into a defensive end. He capped his Notre Dame stint in ’15 with a team-leading nine sacks and 13½ tackles for loss.

6. Aaron Lynch (see above)
7. Jarron Jones (see above)
8. Jerry Tillery (see above)

9. Andrew Trumbetti – Has a chance to finish his Notre Dame career with 49 games played, but has yet to make a consistent impact for the Irish. His 63 tackles, 8½ tackles for loss and two sacks have been sporadic production, and now he must contend with left defensive end frontrunner Jay Hayes. New DC Mike Elko may maximized Trumbetti’s potential in his last go-round with the Irish.

10. Ishaq Williams – Some may be surprised to see that Williams played in 35 games and made 45 tackles with six tackles for loss from 2011-13, including 22 tackles and 3½ tackles for loss in ’12. But he never put it all together – certainly nothing near his five-star status -- before getting caught up in an academic scandal.

11. Daniel Cage – Injury-plagued nose tackle has 30 games, 32 tackles and five tackles for loss under his belt. Concussions and now summer knee surgery leaves him in limbo…unless Notre Dame preserves a year of eligibility and brings him back in ’18.

12. Daelin Hayes (see above)

13. Justin Utupo – With Notre Dame’s defensive line decimated by injuries in November of 2014, Utupo was called upon and produced, finishing with 23 of his 30 career tackles in his final season. He also had an interception and a sack.

14. Kona Schwenke – Twenty-three of his 30 tackles came in his senior season in 2013. He recorded half-sacks in ’12 and ’13.

15. Jonathan Bonner (22 games, 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss)
16. Jay Hayes (13 games, 12 tackles, 1 tackle for loss)

17. Grant Blankenship – A promising freshman season in ’14 (12 tackles and a sack) quickly faded in ’15 before leaving Notre Dame.

18. Tony Springmann – He played just one season – 2012 – and had 11 tackles as a surprise contributor at the nose. Injuries prevented him from continuing his career beyond that promising red-shirt freshman campaign.

19. Jacob Matuska (20 games, 1 tackle; moved to TE senior year)
20. Julian Okwara (11 games, 4 tackles)


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