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Breaking Down Notre Dame’s Defensive Line

Scott Pagano, a defensive lineman from Clemson, announced earlier this week that he will not be transferring to Notre Dame. We wrote about Pagano in a previous GDD article that you can read here. On Friday (April 14th), the graduate transfer from Clemson announced that he will be transferring to Oregon.

Coaches, players, and fans would have loved to have Pagano playing for Notre Dame next season. He would have provided a much-needed boost to a position group that has some glaring weaknesses. First and foremost is depth. Although the Irish defensive line has 9 players that saw the field last season, only 6 of those players played a significant amount of snaps (Tillery, Cage, Bonner, D. Hayes, J. Hayes, and Trumbetti).

Notre Dame’s defensive ends will need to have a much bigger impact this year. As you might recall, last season the Irish were ranked 117th in total sacks. Mike Elko’s defense focusses on creating pressure and causing turnovers. To do this, the Irish will need consistent production from their ends. Daelin Hayes is by far the most exciting player in this group, and (naturally) the one with the highest expectations.

The interior positions on the defensive line, where Pagano plays, may be the biggest concern for Notre Dame. Jonathan Bonner and Jerry Tillery project to be the starting defensive tackle and nose guard (respectively). Aside from those two, Daniel Cage (NG) is the only other interior defensive lineman that has seen significant playing time in previous seasons. However, injuries and conditioning have been a problem for Cage in the past. He has suffered a couple concussions and a knee injury during his time at Notre Dame. Additionally, he had to have hernia surgery this off-season, which limited his participation in the team’s winter/spring conditioning program.

Given the situation of the interior defensive line positions, the Irish may rely on true freshman Darnell Ewell to play a significant amount of snaps. Of the 5 incoming freshman on the defensive line, Ewell is clearly the most physically ready to play (6-4 295lbs). If any of those other freshmen (Tagovailoa-Amosa, MacCollister, Hinish, or Wardlow) start playing a noticeable amount of snaps next season, it will most likely be the result of injuries along the defensive line.

Even though there are tons of questions surrounding Notre Dame’s defensive line, there are two reasons to have hope. First, Mike Elston is their position coach. Prior to the arrival of Mike Elko, I thought Coach Elston was the best coach on the defensive staff. I believe he made the list of candidates to take over the Defensive Coordinator position after the team fired Brian VanGorder last season. Elston has spent the majority of his coaching career coaching defensive line. He’s comfortable coaching this position group, he has a ton of experience to draw on, and yeah… he’s pretty good at it.

The second reason to be hopeful is that Mike Elko’s defense as a whole will help cover up any weaknesses on the defensive line. Like I said before, Elko’s defense is all about creating pressure and turnovers. He will throw a variety of different blitzes and coverages at an offensive can keep them on their heels. This causes the opposing QB to hold onto the ball a second or two longer on passing plays, and it gives the defensive lineman extra time to create pressure.

Will Notre Dame’s defensive line be able to hold their own in the 2017 season? Only time will tell. One thing is certain: the defense as a whole should be much improved.