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Defensive line surpasses expectations in 2017

| Friday, September 15, 2017

Sixteen tackles for loss and three sacks.

Impressive enough stats for a single defensive lineman in one season. It may not stack up with Boston College senior defensive lineman Harold Landry’s 2016 season — 22 tackles for loss and a nation-leading 16.5 sacks — but it paints the picture of a disruptive player against the run with some work still to do rushing the passer.

But those numbers aren’t from one player, or one season. They were the combined career stats before the season began of every single Notre Dame defensive lineman who will see playing time so far in 2017. Eight Irish defensive linemen had seen the field before, for a combined 14 seasons. And they didn’t have much to show for it. Yet.

Only senior end Andrew Trumbetti and junior tackle Jerry Tillery had recorded a sack. The other four players combined for two-and-a-half a tackles for loss, courtesy of senior end Jay Hayes and junior tackle Elijah Taylor. The rest of the slack for 2017 was to be picked up by inexperienced underclassmen.

Irish senior lineman Andrew Trumbetti fights through a block during Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame StadiumEddie Griesedieck | The Observer
Irish senior lineman Andrew Trumbetti fights through a block during Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

Needless to say, the Irish defensive line was not highly regarded. That’s what happens when you take a line that struggled the year before and lose two players to the NFL. And then lose Taylor for the spring with a lisfranc injury and have senior Daniel Cage opt to sit out the season.

Expectations were low coming into the season. In the words of captain left tackle Mike McGlinchey, the media gave the unit, “a ton of crap.”

Two games into the 2017 season, the Irish defensive line has shattered expectations. First, they held Temple to just 2.3 rushing yards per attempt. Then they followed that up by standing firm against Georgia’s highly-rated rushing attack, featuring seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who were each held under 75 yards. The Irish defensive line unit had proven things had changed against the Bulldogs, but Trumbetti said the players on the line already knew that.

“We didn’t need the Georgia game,” Trumbetti said. “We knew the strides we made coming into the season. We practice against the best line we’re going to go against all year, so we’re not focused on what people say.”

“We weren’t focused on any of that. We don’t care. We know how hard we worked in the offseason and that’s all that matters.”

Through just two games, the unit looks set to easily eclipse their totals from last season, having already recorded 9.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. That turnaround has been spearheaded by defensive line coach Mike Elston who moved back to coaching the line this offseason after two years coaching Irish linebackers. Senior Jay Hayes said Elston — who Irish head coach Brian Kelly tipped as “ready to be a head coach,” in August — has provided the group with the motivation they needed to succeed this year.

“He’s great with the guys,” Hayes said. “He’s really made it a brotherhood. He’s added that care factor and there are so many things off the field he’ll do that makes us want to play for him, and we really appreciate that. He coaches us hard, though, don’t get me wrong. He coaches us hard every day. He yells, he’s honest, he does all type of stuff but it’s always out of love. What we do reflects his coaching, so he’s really changed the room around.”

“He’ll get the guys together — legally, of course — to go get food, to welcome us to his house. He just goes the extra mile.”

Elston’s work ethic has been passed on to the players. Trumbetti said that although the players are more than capable of having fun, they’re always serious when they need to be.

“I feel like I try to set an example,” Trumbetti said. “A lot of the upperclassmen set the example. Jay can be the jokester but it’s not like he’s taking away from what we’re trying to do. When it’s time to work, we work and that’s it. That’s the way it is for everyone: We know when to have a good time and when to get serious.”

Hayes elaborated on his role off the field, saying he may not be the most serious player on the team, but keeps spirits up for the good of the team.

Irish senior defensive lineman Jay Hayes follows a play during Notre Dame's 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish senior defensive lineman Jay Hayes follows a play during Notre Dame’s 20-19 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I don’t think I’m the team clown,” Hayes said. “I’m just a big brother who bullies you a little bit. I talk to everybody, I know everybody on the team, I take pride in that. So I go into the locker room, ask how everybody’s doing, give positive energy going, then once our relationship gets going, then I’m ‘Come here, give me your snacks. Come here, give me your cupcakes. What you got? Give me your protein shake. Give me all this. Give me this T-shirt. Give me your cleats.’ I’m a good guy though, I just like when my teammates have fun too.”

“We’re a sort of brotherhood along the defensive line. We call each other out when we’re not being physical. We emphasize being physical, being fast. We emphasize being confident, knowing what we’re doing. That’s what we do in the D-Line room and we get a positive energy flowing.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise along the defensive line has been how underclassmen have stepped up so far. Freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and sophomores Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara have each recorded a tackle for loss for the Irish. Trumbetti said the entire team is confident regardless of which players are on the field.

“We’re not worried when any of us go in,” Trumbetti said. “It’s just really great to know that I don’t need to watch Jay and Jay doesn’t need to watch me. You don’t have to run in there like you’re worried about the guy’s experience, you trust the guy on both sides. That’s great for the coaching staff and great for the team.”

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

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