There was a time during the 2016 pre-season where I was sure this unit was going to do good things. Many were down on the defensive line overall, and particularly at certain spots. I thought they’d surprise and overachieve.

I was way off.

If you are depressed or in a bad mood please do not read this, or at least, save the article for another time.

Snap Count

DE Isaac Rochell- 679 (56 tackles, 7 TFL, 1 sack)
DT Jerry Tillery, JR- 627 (37 tackles, 3 TFL)
DE Andrew Trumbetti, SR- 467 (25 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
DT Jarron Jones- 432 (45 tackles, 11 TFL, 2 sacks)
DE Jonathan Bonner, r-JR- 255 (7 tackles)
DT Daniel Cage, SR- 246 (10 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
DE Daelin Hayes, SO- 155 (11 tackles)
DE Jay Hayes, r-JR- 155 (10 tackles, 0.5 TFL)
DT Elijah Taylor, r-SO- 31 (4 tackles, 1 TFL)
DT Pete Mokwuah, r-JR- 18 (1 tackle)
DE Khalid Kareem, SO- 15 (no stats)
DE Julian Okwara, SO- special teams only

BOLD denotes out of eligibility/transfer
Eligibility is for 2017 season

My first lukewarm take is that not a single player on the defensive line had what could be considered at minimum a good year. At best, Isaac Rochell was okay but disappeared for long stretches of the season.

It’s tempting to say Jarron Jones had a good final year. His Miami performance was legendary and he did play very well in a couple other games. But, what about the other 9 games or so?

It’s difficult to put into words how unproductive Andrew Trumbetti has been for the Irish since his freshman year. Has he been the poster boy for too much information from VanGorder leading to a scrambled brain? Yet, why didn’t he get a little better after VanGorder was fired? Heck, how has he not even lucked into more disruptive plays thanks to the work of others?

Notre Dame football just completed a season where its main weak-side defensive end didn’t register a sack and couldn’t even muster 1 tackle for loss. It’s almost like you have to be trying on purpose to be bad to accumulate stats like that at this level.

Much has been said about Jerry Tillery’s work ethic, internal drive, and focus on the football field. To his credit, there were times when he would put together impressive consecutive snaps and flash his potential. However, he arguably took a step backwards from a decent freshman campaign and then didn’t cover himself in glory with his antics inside the Coliseum.

Bonner has mostly been ineffective throughout his career. He was someone I was hoping would take a step forward in 2016 and he still feels every bit the question mark today as back in 2015.

The snap count is very sobering while showing just how little Cage played this past year. Everyone please keep saying your prayers that he is going to be healthy enough to play in 2017.

I’m not sure disappointment is the right word but getting such a lackluster first season from Daelin Hayes is going to be tough to deal with heading towards spring. Even if he’s 50% better as a sophomore that’s going to surpass Trumbetti but where are we in the big picture, still?

When VanGorder was fired it was Brian Kelly specifically mentioning that Jay Hayes was going to get more playing time—and he did not. Your guess is as good as mine with what’s going on with Hayes and his development.

Elsewhere, Taylor looked like an All-American for a couple plays against USC so that’s cool. Mokwuah has moved from dead weight to someone who could be a serviceable backup. See, it’s not all bad is it?

Oh yeah, there are a couple wasted redshirts on Kareem and Okwara that are likely to sting really bad in the future.

New Faces

DT Micah Dew-Treadway, r-SO
DT Brandon Tiassum, r-SO
DE Ade Ogundeji, r-FR
DT Darnell Ewell, FR
DT Kurt Hinish, FR
DE Jonathan MacCollister, FR

The Irish are only losing 2 linemen so the need for extra bodies is far from overwhelming. However, the defense is now in a bad spot where the two best players are gone, a new combination of starters needs to step up, and quality backups need to be found as well.

The return of Dew-Treadway (missed all season with a foot injury) is certainly welcome. He was receiving some quality praise during August camp. Do we know how that will translate into next season? Who really knows, right?

Tiassum will be entering his third year in South Bend and still appears like he’s a long-term project. Likewise for Ogundeji who could make a big jump in his second year but realistically has longer to grow into his considerable frame.

Depending on the shape of the new Irish defense prepare yourselves for Ewell or Hinish to make an impact. On the interior they offer something the defense needs badly right now: Strength, stoutness, and an edge. By all accounts, MacCollister is going to be a project similar to Ogundeji and we’ll likely check back with him in spring 2018.

Grade: D+

Everything isn’t about backfield disruption. In fact, the Irish rush defense dropped their opponents average by over half a yard from 2015 to 2016, leading to a 33-spot rise in S&P+ rush defense rankings to 23rd overall.

To be fair, the hurricane game against NC State didn’t boost the rush defense all that much. On the other hand, it’s tough to look back on the season and appreciate any strong rush defensive performances (sub 4.0 YPC or thereabouts) except for the Miami and Virginia Tech games.

The ugliness comes when you consider the modest numbers from 2015 and still we saw a 50% drop in tackles for loss and a mind-numbing 81.2% drop in sacks in 2016.

If there’s a worse season in Notre Dame history I’d be happy to read about it. Looking at this you can see why new defensive coordinator Mike Elko probably wasn’t too keen about D-line coach Keith Gilmore sticking around. Whether you blame Gilmore or not this season will forever stay at the bottom of his resume.

If you want to stay positive there’s obviously nowhere to go but up for this unit. The bad news is that they have a long way to go just to get to replacement level among Power 5 teams.