Defensive line looks to build on strong start
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, September 11, 2015
The noise was nonstop this offseason and all throughout fall camp.
The Notre Dame defense was getting nearly everyone back after injuries decimated it last season, particularly at linebacker. The secondary was also going to benefit from the return of senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell when he was finally cleared by the NCAA.
The biggest news up front on the defensive line, however, was the loss of senior defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who went down for the year with an MCL tear. In his place, sophomore Daniel Cage and freshman Jerry Tillery found themselves responsible for filling the void. Then came the NCAA’s denial of graduate student Ishaq Williams’ petition for a fifth year of eligibility. Suddenly the Irish defensive line became the question mark on defense.
One game, three sacks and 60 total rushing yards later, the Irish defensive line has made its statement, according to senior defensive lineman and team captain Sheldon Day.
“It was good seeing everything that we went through over the summer, spring ball and fall camp, the way [defensive line] coach [Keith] Gilmore has been on us about pass rush and how much we beat our work with the pass rush, and just to see it kind of come together and be successful at it,” Day said Wednesday.
“That’s part of our mindset: that we want to play with a little bit of an attitude,” junior defensive lineman Isaac Rochell said. “I think it’s a big deal and it results in a winning culture. [Defensive coordinator Brian] VanGorder stresses that all the time, and a lot of that stems from last year. When he called the defense soft, we changed our mentality. And in the first game, I think we did a good job. We were gang tackling, getting there, and that has a lot to do with attitude.”
Day said Cage and Tillery, thrown into the front line, were particularly impressive in their debuts.
“They played out of their minds, just running around for the ball,” Day said. “[Tillery’s] first time playing didn’t look like a freshman at all, just watching him fly around, make plays, have fun, finally see some excitement with football. Definitely good to see him and Daniel play well, kept his gap and did everything we asked him to do.”
Day, Cage, Tillery, Rochell, senior Romeo Okwara and sophomore Andrew Trumbetti combined for a dozen tackles on the day, including four tackles for loss and a sack apiece from Day, Cage and Okwara.
Day in particular wreaked havoc in the Longhorn backfield, earning four quarterback hurries on the stat sheet. All the same, Day said he was not pleased with his inability to finish plays off.
“I definitely left some sacks out on the table,” Day said. “I’m all about evaluating myself with my finishing ability. So I would definitely say I didn’t grade out that well personally.”
“We left so many sacks on the field,” Rochell said, agreeing with the captain. “We had a lot of quarterback pressures, but we want to get the quarterback. It’s cool to get quarterback pressures, but that’s quarterback pressures, it’s not a sack. It’s something we talk about a lot.
“VanGorder uses the term ‘almost guy,’ and he harps on not being an ‘almost guy.’ … We don’t want to be ‘almost guys,’ we want to make plays and be on the ball.”
Day said he communicates his personal quest for improvement to the entire defensive line.
“It’s definitely easy to get complacent, but we haven’t really [done] anything,” Day said. “So we are always trying to do what we can to get better each and every day, especially in the D-Line room. So much room for improvement.”
That ferocity and hunger separates this season’s defensive line from last year’s, Day said.
“[It’s] just the way our culture is in the defensive room, just trying to make sure we have a dominating performance every time we step on the field,” Day said.
Like Texas last week, Virginia will look to attack the Irish with a power-run game, carried by a pair of junior running backs in Taquan Mizzell and Albert Reid.
“It’s about dominating the offensive line, so we are definitely focusing on getting off, hands and footwork, and so we are definitely trying to make sure we work our technique this week,” Day said.
UCLA held the Cavaliers’ offense to just 98 yards on the ground, but Virginia junior signal-caller Matt Johns should provide a greater threat through the air than the Longhorns. Rochell said the Irish are looking forward to the challenge.
“The biggest thing with [Virginia] is attitude,” Rochell said. “They approach the game with an intensity that we haven’t seen, and that’s a big deal, especially on the road. So I think it’s going to start with us coming out in the first and second quarter and really getting after it.”
The Irish and Cavaliers kick off from Scott Stadium at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia.