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Notre Dame Football Positional Breakdown: Defensive Line

In part two of our eight-part series, I will take a look at another group needing to improve dramatically from last season. The defensive line at Notre Dame has underwhelmed since the graduation of Stephon Tuitt several years ago. This group has some talent, but like the safeties, lacks the depth to compete if injuries begin to pile up. Rushing the passer has been a huge issue (Notre Dame ranked 114th in the country last season in sacks), and while the interior defensive line has had some recognizable names, teams have continuously broken off big run after big run. With Brian Van Gorder gone and Mike Elko in, there should be some improvement, but it might take some time to see drastic results. Some of the young talent is reason for optimism, and that is why the defensive line sneaks in ahead of the safeties in our series breakdown.

2016 Depth Chart

SOUTH BEND, IN – SEPTEMBER 26: Isaac Rochell #90 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Sekai Lindsay #35 of the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Last season’s depth chart saw an experience group struggle. Starting at strong-side defensive end (SDE) was senior captain and former four-star from Georgia Isaac Rochell. Rochell never lived up to his lofty ranking coming out of high school, but that shouldn’t take away from his play. Many saw him as the next Stephon Tuitt. The similarities were there at a young age. Both came out of the Georgia high school ranks as top 150 type players. Both were also bigger defensive ends with tremendous athletic ability. It was easy to see why people wanted Rochell to be the next Tuitt. However, Tuitt was much more polished and athletic than Rochell. Tuitt could rush the passer with both power and speed and set the edge on outside runs, while Rochell was known for his run stuffing prowess. Rochell was a solid, but an unspectacular college defensive end.

On the opposite side, another former top 150 recruit, Andrew Trumbetti, manned the weak-side defensive end (WDE) position. WDE has been a position on the roster devoid of talent for quite some time, and when Trumbetti came in as a freshman he was seen as the answer for the next several years. This has not been the case. Trumbetti has consistently struggled against both the run and the pass. Questions about his speed and play strength have made it difficult for him to hold down a specific position. He has made the switch to SDE for his senior season, but it might be too late for Trumbetti to become a reliable rotational piece.

Jarron Jones was the anchor of the interior defensive line. Coming out of high school in New York, Jones was seen as a very talented but raw prospect. He dominated his competition, but New York is not a traditional high school football hotbed. During his time at Notre Dame, Jones had questionable work ethic and was often injured, but his athleticism and football ability jumped out. In fact, while speaking with a few scouts prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, many thought he had first round talent. Others scouts saw him as a developmental OFFENSIVE line target. He ultimately went undrafted for a variety of reasons; many of which stated above. There is no denying the talent (6 TFL and a sack against Miami), but there is also no denying the questionable work ethic. There were too many games where he was absent from the stat book. Jones also missed the entire 2015 season with a knee injury. Notre Dame will miss Jones in 2017, but his college career was more flash than production.

Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery were the other two key cogs along the interior. Cage has been a solid nose tackle during his time in South Bend, but his extensive concussion history has left him sidelined multiple times and there are legitimate concerns about his future on the field. Tillery was solid as a true freshman, but regressed as a sophomore and showed some on-field character issues in the USC game. Tillery has special talent, but needs to answer the call as an upperclassman.

Other defensive line contributors were Jay Hayes, Elijah Taylor, Jonathan Bonner, and freshmen Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara. Each played sparingly in 2016 and will look to provide Notre Dame with more quality snaps in 2017.

2017 Depth Chart

<> during the second half at Fenway Park on November 21, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Fighting Irish defeat the Eagles 19-16.

Isaac Rochell (7th round to the Chargers) and Jarron Jones (UDFA signing of the Giants) are gone and Daniel Cage (concussions) is questionable to play meaningful snaps ever again. However, if the spring game is any indication, the Notre Dame defensive line is tremendously improved. Daelin Hayes was a terror (3 sacks) from the WDE position, and Julian Okwara also flashed as his backup. If the spring game is any indication, Jay Hayes is much improved and should win the starting job at SDE. Hayes has some natural pass rush ability, and should provide much needed pressure from that side of the defensive line. Competing with him are senior Andrew Trumbetti and highly regarded sophomore Khalid Kareem. Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister should redshirt and Adetokunbo Ogundeji could carve out a role as a situational pass rusher if he performs well this summer, but it will be hard to find playing time outside of special teams.

The starters in the middle are Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner, but Cage will definitely see playing time if healthy. Incoming freshmen Darnell Ewell and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa are  possible early contributors, but we won’t know the extent until they step foot on campus this summer. Tagovailoa-Amosa could also see time at SDE. The other incoming freshman, Kurt Hinish, is destined for a redshirt season. Other rotational pieces include Micah Dew-Treadway, Elijah Taylor, Pete Mokwuah, and Brandon Tiassum. Taylor is the most likely candidate to emerge once he is fully healthy from offseason foot surgery.

2018 Commits and Targets

The 2018 defensive line class is off to a great start. Notre Dame currently has two commits on the defensive line, twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. General consensus is that Jayson is a superior prospect to his brother, but they are both talented players. Jayson is a top 100 nationally ranked defensive tackle while Justin is a 3-star edge rusher. Notre Dame would like to land another defensive tackle and two more defensive ends. If they accomplish this, it could be Brian Kelly’s best defensive line class in years.

The top defensive tackle prospect is 3-star Ja’Mion Franklin out of Maryland. Some will look at his star rating and wonder why he’s a top of the board target, but the staff identified Franklin early and he has blown up this spring in the camp circuits. He was also invited to the Opening Finals in Oregon. A fourth-star is on the horizon if he continues to perform against top competition. Franklin plans to make a college decision by July 1st, and Notre Dame is the perceived favorite. Clemson has not offered, but they are the only realistic threat if an offer comes. The other defensive tackle worth monitoring right now is PJ Mustipher, younger brother of Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher. Other programs are making Mustipher a bigger priority, and I don’t expect him to sign with Notre Dame as of today. Penn State, Tennessee, and Ohio State are all in the mix.

The top defensive end on the Irish board is four-star Thomas Booker. Booker is also from Maryland and should see a boost to his ranking on national recruiting websites soon. The Notre Dame staff has made him a priority and are the favorite to land him. Booker is a high academic kid, and has wanted Stanford offer the entire process. Stanford has not offered, and that is to Notre Dame’s benefit. I expect Booker to announce for Notre Dame this summer. Jayson Oweh is another high academic pass rusher with Notre Dame interest. Academics are a huge, huge factor for the Oweh family, and people close to the situation believe he is seriously considering his Harvard football offer. Oweh also has Ohio State and Penn State offers, which is a huge accomplishment for an athlete with only eight high school football games under his belt. Notre Dame should receive one of his official visits and be a major player in his recruitment.

If you are looking for a pure pass rusher in this class the names to know are Cameron Latu (Utah), Tyreke Smith (Ohio), Joseph Ossai (Texas), Azeez Ojulari (Georgia), and Abdul-Malik McClain (California). It’s hard to tell where Notre Dame stands with these four at the moment, but getting them on campus this summer and in the fall for official visits will be key. As always, a great season on the field will only help.

2017 Outlook

The defensive line is in much better shape under the direction of Mike Elko. The scheme will help cause turnovers and create negative play more frequently. Notre Dame has lacked elite pass rushers under Brian Kelly, but Daelin Hayes looks to be the best bet in a long time. His backup, Julian Okwara, also has a ton of potential. The youth and talent is on the way, but it might not show fully year one.

Notre Dame fans still want to see consistency from Jerry Tillery at defensive tackle, and until someone produces double digit sacks the talk is just talk on the outside. Jay Hayes and the others in the SDE mix need to demonstrate the ability to provide a pass rush, and Bonner and Cage need to hold the point of attack and control the run game. Speaking of youth and talent, Darnell Ewell and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa could push for early playing time, and with depth issues on the interior it is easy to see them making their way into the two deep come September. Trumbetti has switched positions, and has been passed up by multiple players on the roster; anything they get out of him is a bonus.

Overall, there is room for optimism, especially at the WDE spot. The 2017 defensive line has the ability to be a major strength if certain guys step up. Right now, there are simply too many unknowns and question marks to have them higher than seventh on our list.