Depth, determination key for defensive line
Greg Hadley | Tuesday, April 14, 2015
They were the most consistent, uniform unit on Notre Dame’s defense through 2014. The four starters who began the year missed five combined games all season long. They all finished within one tackle of each other’s total.
But the Irish defensive line still fell short. Notre Dame finished 65th in the country in sacks, 87th in passing yards per game and 64th in rushing yards per contest. Senior Sheldon Day was stymied, first by double-teams and then by injury, collecting one sack in 11 games. The rest of the line — seniors Jarron Jones and Romeo Okwara and junior Isaac Rochell — had no starting experience to speak of and had to adjust to their new roles.
Four months after the end of last season, that entire line is back and eager to erase the memory of allowing 29.3 points per game.
“There’s kind of just an unwritten rule. We’re kind of just gonna work a little bit harder and do a little bit more,” Rochell said. “We didn’t have a good season last year, so coming into this season, something has to change, and something’s gotta give. You do the same things, you get the same results.”
And unlike last year, the Irish will not look to only Day to provide the bulk of the rush.
Notre Dame returns every starter from last season, as well as six other players who saw the field. In addition, freshman early-enrollee Jerry Tillery has made an immediate impact and taken reps with the first team in practice already.
“There’s not gonna be one guy that we look at and say, ‘Alright, he’s gonna have 15 sacks and lead the country.’ But we’re gonna have a number of guys that we feel like can bring pressure and pressure the quarterback,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously … Sheldon Day inside, he can bring some pressure. On the outside, we think we’ve got some guys who can come off the edge individually, but as you see, most of our guys, it’s a combination of linebackers, nickels, drops, inside pressures. It’s not gonna be one guy. It’s gonna be five, six different players that cumulatively will create.”
That concentration on depth has been on the forefront of Notre Dame’s new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore’s mind throughout spring ball, especially as several starters missed time due to minor injuries.
“I always talk about having two and a spare. A pair and a spare,” Gilmore said. “I want to go two deep and then have a third guy who can roll as a tackle or an end. So I’m looking at trying to develop 10 guys on a weekly basis.”
While last season may have been difficult for inexperienced players like Okwara, Rochell and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti, Gilmore said in the first week of spring practice such growing pains are necessary for a player’s development.
“I think the second year of being a full-time or a guy that plays a lot is when you really see the big change,” Gilmore said. “For instance, you see a guy like Isaac Rochell, playing a lot, starting games and having some success, and now when he comes into his second year being a full-time guy, do you see the guy jump to become a serious football player?”
Now, as spring practice draws to a close and Saturday’s Blue-Gold game approaches, Kelly said these second-year starters and depth players have demonstrated the improvements necessary to solidify Notre Dame’s pressure.
“ … We think guys have improved immensely in their individual technique,” Kelly said. “I think guys like Rochell is a better pass rusher. I think you’re gonna see, as we move forward, that Trumbetti and Okwara are better off the edge than they have been before, so I think they’ll all be improved from last year.”