Fall Camp Preview: Defensive Line

The month of July brings us close to the beginning of another fall camp for Notre Dame football. With practices set to begin soon we are taking a look at each position group ahead of the workouts. We continue our series with a breakdown of the Irish defensive line.

Where We Left Off in Spring

This spring saw a lot of turnover and some shuffling around. In addition to the loss of graduating Andrew Trumbetti we saw Jay Hayes grab most of the headlines with a transfer–first to Oklahoma and then later to Georgia. Rising senior Brandon Tiassum is staying in school through December in order to graduate and transfer but was removed from the team during the winter. Earlier this year, Jonathan MacCollister transferred to UCF and is now a tight end with the Knights. Elijah Taylor wasn’t able to come back from his foot injury in 2017 and elected to transfer, while Pete Mokwuah wasn’t invited back for a 5th-year.

For a number of days in January, Jonathan Bonner was leaving the program too but reversed course and will return for his final season. Other than all of this, it was actually a quiet spring for the defensive line!

Bonner and Jerry Tillery switched positions with the former moving to nose guard and the latter to 3-tech. Additionally, linebacker Jamir Jones moved to weak-side defensive end otherwise the two-deep pretty much stayed the same all spring and continued to develop.

Number One Camp Story Line

By and large it seems Notre Dame knows what it has at defensive line going into camp absent a big surprise from one of the young players. One place for competition is on that weak-side where Daelin Hayes (544 snaps in 2017) played significantly more than Julian Okwara and has not yet exhibited the propensity to get after the quarterback like classmate.

When is pass-rushing not a concern, right? The Irish could get decent pass-rushing from other areas (Coney was particularly effective in the second half last year) it’s just not looking real great outside of either Hayes or Okwara for the defensive line’s pass-rushing role. One of these players having a big camp could really give an extra jolt to what should be a very good defense.

Anticipation Level: 6/10

The defensive line for me is all about seeing if anyone can grow from solid/good/serviceable into something better and more reliable. Jerry Tillery is already there, but if you want a bit of a pessimistic take for this unit, I’m not sure anyone else is quite there, yet. A couple of guys are knocking on the door.

My focus for camp is on the following 3 players:

1 Khalid Kareem – This isn’t much of a hot take in that I think Kareem will be in the same breath as Tillery as the best defensive linemen on the team by the early parts of the season. If that’s true he should build off his really good spring and lock down a starting spot and tons of minutes in September. If we’re not hearing about him playing at a high level I’ll be quite worried.

2 Kurt Hinish – This is the 3rd straight year of me saying Jonathan Bonner is a solid guy but really not that much an impact player. The switch for him to nose guard doesn’t really give me the warm and fuzzies so I’m really focused on how well Hinish can compete to be a starter. In general, the nose guard position doesn’t appear to be all that big or strong which is a concern.

3 Jayson Ademilola – Freshman wildcard! This time last year we were excited about the debut of Darnell Ewell and that hasn’t gone so well. Ademilola hopefully becomes that impact freshman and in his defense he should be more prepared and will have the added benefit of playing multiple positions across the line.

By |2018-07-18T10:44:22+00:00July 18th, 2018|Football|44 Comments

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Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I’m very excited about this group. I thought they were pretty good last year, and if they minimally grow into their positions they’ll be better. It’s possible one or two of them could make big jumps.

spider-man
spider-man

I am cautiously optimistic about this group. One concern is that it seems like the starters play too many minutes – which might contribute to the November swoon. I’d like to see more PT for the 2nd string.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Agreed on all fronts. That seems to be what really sets the Alabama’s and Clemson’s apart, they keep rotating 2-3 deep at every position of the DL and feed off the energy that each guy brings. Instead, by necessity, ND has more plodding guys they seemingly play the bulk of the time and eventually they wear down. Clearly if they thought they had the depth to do it, they would, so hopefully it seems like with all these high recruits for 2018 and 2019 coming soon maybe they’ll get there. Obviously probably not to the level of getting the whole line drafted like the powerhouses do, but we can dream.

KG
KG

It’s not just that the Bamas and Clemsons rotate 2-3 deep at the DL positions, it’s the players they are rotating. You can argue nature vs. nurture here, but the reason Clemson has 1-2 DL players taken in the first round each year is a combination of A. they land really, really, really good recruits at those positions and B. that gives them the luxury of rotating young guys in, keeping the starters fresh and giving the young ones experience, so they are ready to take over the next year when the upperclassmen enter the draft. We can point to recruiting stars for a few of our guys, but besides Tillery, who would play, for sure, in Clemson’s system? Perhaps Hinish, Kareem, and Ademilola would get reps and the chance to shine in that system, I don’t know. But we don’t have the numbers to make it a SYSTEM like Bama or Clemson do, and at many positions BK’s staff over the years (despite assistant turnover) seems reluctant to trust younger players. Maybe that’s the difference between having ten 4/5 star recruits in your Dline stable and having four or five.

It’s strange and kind of frustrating that we allegedly have the same amount of scholarships, yet a Clemson can just churn out wave after wave of elite DT/DEs, while we have to burn redshirts off of undersized guys named Okwara on a regular basis.

Underthrown Shoelace
Underthrown Shoelace

*Something about not paying players and academic restrictions*
Or it could be something that is actually within BK and the staff’s control like recruiting prowess or trusting young players.

Whatever the reason, the general lack of high-end defensive line (and defensive talent overall) is disheartening.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

It’s not just the academic restrictions. It’s the fact that it’s easier to get suspensions and even kicked out. The standards are higher than other schools.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I see us moving in that direction. We are steadily getting better d-line commits over the past couple of years. Over the past 4 years, we’ve had 3 pretty solid d-line classes. No, they’re not as good as Bamas, Clemson’s, or TOSU’s, but they’re much better than they have been.

I see the arrow pointing up with this team and a chance to go back to back 10 win seasons. That would help with getting better recruits, which helps win more games. Is all of the negativity about the 4-8 season still? That was horrible, but it’s done now. I agree a lot can go wrong and the season could be a bust, but this team seems as prepared to win 10 games as last years team.

KG
KG

“All of the negativity”–I’m not that negative.

Could we win 10? Sure. Can we also lose 4? Also, sure. That’s the window. 4-8 was an aberration, yes. I don’t expect that to happen again any time soon, unless all hades breaks loose in terms of injuries and other things outside the realm of control. But you, I, and everyone else saw us face plant against Miami. We can be a 10 win team, but 12-0 seems as much an aberration at this point as 4-8. And every time we hit 10, the next year we drop back. That’s historical pattern, not negativity.

We have a lot of good, solid players. We don’t have waves of them, nor do we have guys being talked about as the best in the country, now that we lost Q and Glinch and Adams. Could some develop into those? Yes. Are we hamstrung by a BVG defense? No (though we’ve got a 1st year DC, despite how wonderful everyone, including me, thinks he will eventually be). Saying this year is as prepared to win 10 as last year sounds to me like when everyone was saying “oh, our defense will be fine, may even get better!” when Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day moved on. Sure, it could happen. I’m not willing to say we’re going to run the ball as well, replacing two of the best OL we’ve ever had and an uncertain backfield. Our passing game…well… Our D is better–possibly the best it will be since ’12, and that may get us to 10 wins, which would be great. However, our recent history is 2 steps forward, 1 1/2 back. Let’s not get into the whole “if you don’t think we’ll win 10 games what’s wrong with you?” business. We had our best rushing offense in forever and a solid D for the first time in 5 years, and we got to 10 games with a bowl win against a 2nd-tier SEC team (yeah, I said it–come at me, Tigerbros). This isn’t a “that’s not good enough, Fire Kelly” rant–not in the least. It’s just an assessment of where we are at. I’m not willing to predict 10 wins based off of what I see returning and our schedule and our recent history. That’s not “negative”–“negative” would be “well we suck and Kelly can’t get it done.” We’re anywhere from a #10-#20 team, depending on breaks and player development. Saying we’re not in the caliber of two teams that have been in the playoffs the last three years (and the championship game 5 out of the 6 participants) isn’t “negative,” it’s fact.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Fair enough. I replied to your comment, but it was really a response to the negativity I’ve been seeing throughout the fan base. I agree, that’s a fair assessment.

KG
KG

I don’t really check anywhere but here, and even here I’m infrequent outside the season. The podcast circuit has been strangely positive, in my opinion–lots of 10 win predictions. I don’t think it’s crazy, but I’m surprised that I’ve heard few being more conservative with it. Of course, I’m the kind of person who makes season predictions by saying “well, I could see a max of 11 wins, a minimum of 6, so that probably means we win 8 or 9”

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Never forget: the Irish Illustrated crew basically all predicted 10-2 or 11-1 on the podcast the year we went 4-8.

KG
KG

And they’re doing it again. And I think even Mike Frank was saying 10 is possible, which is interesting because he’s usually conservative.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

By the advanced stat numbers, Notre Dame is projected to win 50%+ in every game on the season. I don’t see a 10-win season as a crazy prediction, even if with the schedule I’d agree with your projection that 8-9 seems more likely to actually happen.

KG
KG

I’ve said multiple times that 10 wins is possible, not crazy. From above:

“The podcast circuit has been strangely positive, in my opinion–lots of 10 win predictions. I don’t think it’s crazy, but I’m surprised that I’ve heard few being more conservative with it. ”

I specifically say “I don’t think it’s crazy.”
It seems odd that I’m not seeing anyone predict anything less than that, given our losses from a team that won 10 games by including the bowl game.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

I don’t think it’s quite that odd, the projected S&P rank for the team is 7th. Many projections are showing ND should be a quality team.

That, and for anticipation purposes it doesn’t serve well to call a disappointing 7 or 8 wins. Probably better for those that cover the team to paint a projection of the chance at something special. Most models that I’ve seen seem to show that isn’t out of line.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

I believe that S&P+ projected ranking is from early in the offseason, before Hayes and Watkins left. I would anticipate a lower preseason ranking once he rejiggers the numbers – maybe only slightly lower, of course, but returning production is a big factor and that is a not-insignificant chunk of returning production.

MikeyB
MikeyB

He specifically mentions Hayes leaving in his projection. And it looks to me like he is not including Watkins in his projection either, based on his charts at the end of the article.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

ACKSHUALLY, I’m pretty sure the numbers are from when he ran them in February, but the ND article he wrote was from early May after they both left, so it references Hayes having left. My understanding is he runs the numbers before starting the series (which begins in mid-winter), then re-runs the numbers right before the season.

Michael Bryan

You are correct in the timing but returning production in that is solely production-based, i.e. not starts. So Hayes is losing just 20 tackles (3.5 TFL / 1 sack) and Watkins 24 tackles, 8 PBU / 1 pick. Whether right or not, they will impact S&P+ projections very little.

Publius2010
Publius2010

Well Kelly needs to show some ability to build on 10 win seasons instead of continuing to faceplant the following year. Fun things to say in year 9!

MDIRISH
MDIRISH

As with recruiting in general, D-line recruiting seems to get more and more top heavy. There’s Bama and Clemson, then maybe Michigan, Ohio State and a couple others I can’t think of. Notre Dame can have a top ten line and still not be elite. In a way, I think that’s kind of comforting. Things have improved on the recruiting front but the body types we’re getting aren’t ideal. I still think we have to just narrow the D-line gap all we can and try to leverage our strengths at e.g. O-line and TE.

KG
KG

Agreed, and I think we are narrowing the gap, in terms of numbers. The fact that Pete Mokuwah (or however you spell it) never played is an improvement over where we used to be. But DL eliteness especially seems to be a predictor of playoff entry (minus Sparty and possibly Oklahoma’s teams), so it’s an easy area to point to and say “we’re better, but we aren’t there yet.”

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Yep, that’s all right.

But, to the point above: I think Tillery is the only person on our defensive line that would be clearly in the 2-deep at Clemson this year. They really are a world apart from us right now.

spider-man
spider-man

I agree, although I think Okwara could sneak into the Clemson rotation too.

While Clemson, Bama, and tOSU are clearly A+ quality on the line, ND seems to have improved from C+ (overall quality) to solidly in the B range – with continued recruiting at this level, they might crack the B+/A- level (but, as noted above, that is clearly a significant step below the elite A+ level). I did not do a thorough look through the roster, but my impression is that ND’s current bottom tier d-line recruits could be a part of the rotation if needed; this is an improvement on the BVG era, where we did not expect some of those guys to ever leave the sideline.

hooks orpik
hooks orpik

Jay Hayes is on Georgia. We’ll see how much he plays and all but I think we might be a little too low on some of the ND guys. I think most in the ND rotation would have a chance to find some playing time on the tip-top teams. The differences (which you and MDIRISH sort of touch on) :

-the ND rotation, like I was saying initially, is like 6-7 players, while SEC powerhouse teams (plus CLEM, tOSU, UM) it’s like 10+ DL
-beyond just quantity being greater, quality is better too with more higher-end talent that’s tough to recruit beyond the typical football factories. For us a Tuitt type is a once in a while standout. For them, they constantly have 2-3 Tuitt’s (or better) at any given time.

MikeyB
MikeyB

This group and Wimbush are what could put us over the top this year. I think we know what the LBs/Secondary are going to give us. But if they want to go from a top 15 defense to top 5, it’s going to happen because Tillery/Khareem/Okwara/Hayes become pass rushing machines. If they are able to take that step (and Wimbush is able to get closer to 60% than 50% completions), we could be looking at a top 5 team. But I think both of those things have to happen for this to be a playoff contender.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

I agree.

kiwifan
kiwifan

Just dropping in after a long hiatus. Seems like a lot of player exits hit this off season, I’m thinking higher transfer rate (not talking discipline actions) than normal maybe?
After reading these reviews to catch up, I’m surprised people are as positive as they are. Sounds like we have a suspect QB, ordinary RBs, no deep threat receiver even if we had a deep threat passer, and weak pass rushing. Top teams with double digit regular season wins are usually strong in all those areas.

Is it the schedule that has folks confident?

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

I think the optimism is a combination of wildly optimistic ND media combined with the high S&P+ projection. As per above, I think the S&P+ projection is going to slide back a little before the season, but the ND media (by and large) are always going to blow smoke, in part because that’s what their clientele want.

I think you’re mostly right. Realistically, I think this is going to be another season like last year. Based on the concerns you list, I think the likeliest finish is 9-3, then 8-4, 10-2, 7-5 then a huge falloff to either 11-1 or 6-6 depending on how optimistic/pessimistic you are.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

Careful though, if you get too specific about WHY you don’t think this is going to be a 10-win team, you’ll get more downvotes than upvotes!

juicebox
juicebox

People don’t really come here in July to read a bunch of negative stuff about the team. There are other sites for that.

And there’s a difference between being negative and pessimistic.

KG
KG

I just don’t like the wild swings. Often the people who are like “we’re definitely winning 10 games!!!” are the ones who get the most upset when we lose to Northwestern (which, I’ll point out, we’re playing at their place, after we play Navy in San Diego, so we get the travel + just played Navy “bonus” against a team that’s sneaky good and whose coach loves nothing more than to beat us, as he’s done as both coach and player…). My career for 17 years was basically to look at worst-case scenarios in an attempt to mitigate them, so yes, I tend to expect we won’t have everything go right. Winning 10 games this year will be a Very Good season. I think we’re probably looking at the last few years of BK, so I’m hoping he ends able to recruit enough talent for the next guy to find ND attractive. A string of 9-10 win seasons would be good for that.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

I mean, I come here for quality analysis and a well-informed and respectful community of writers and commenters.

Is there anything pessimistic about saying we have an unproven OL, a subpar throwing quarterback, lack of depth and talent at RB, possibly no defense-stretching WRs, and no historical evidence that BK can win 10 games in back-to-back seasons? I feel like it’s an accurate statement based on what we know from in-game performance, yet that proved to be a very unpopular sentiment here.

I didn’t say the team is going to suck or is going to go 4-8, I simply said that I don’t understand why so many people are predicting 10 wins.

I’m in KG’s camp, here. I think the team will win 8, maybe 9 games. I’d love to see 10 wins. If BK can string 3-4 years of at least 9 wins together and continues to recruit Top-10ish classes, we’re good.

KG
KG

I assume you mean “we’re good” in the same sense I do, that 3-4 years of 9-10 wins and Top-10 recruiting classes will set the table nicely for the next guy, not that it’s the goal in and of itself. Just want to head that off before the cries of “accepting mediocrity” are thrown at you.

irish_bandit_10
irish_bandit_10

Yes, that’s what I meant. Obviously, I’d like to see the team get to the playoffs somewhat frequently and, maybe once in my lifetime, win the whole thing.

Russell Knox
Russell Knox

Pessimistic would have been a better choice of words in my earlier post.

juicebox
juicebox

As far as number of people leaving, this year isn’t much different. Maybe 1 or 2 bodies more, since we were over the 85 limit, but it isn’t anything out of the ordinary.

What is different is that two contributors (co-starter level at worst), Watkins and J. Hayes, took grad transfers. Presumably this is because they got passed on the depth chart.
Hayes would have still played a lot, but I believe there were rumors about Hayes leaving almost every year. So I am guessing it didn’t take much lost playing time for him to leave, as I can’t imagine he will be getting more playing time at UGA.

As was discussed in the DB recap, they basically don’t rotate CBs, so if Watkins got passed, he’s got no reason to stick around after already getting his degree. Unfortunately, I think his bone issues hampered some of his development. I think he missed the better part of 2 years.

This is a similar situation to Hegarty a few years ago. He got passed by N. Martin(I think), but then went on to start for Oregon. Hopefully both of these guys have as good seasons as Hegarty. I don’t remember him getting drafted, but do think he maid a practice squad in the NFL.

nd09hls12
nd09hls12

Agree with all of this. Hayes is a big loss regardless, even if Kareem would have gotten 5-10% more snaps than him if he stayed and both were healthy. Watkins only really matters if Pride or Love get hurt, at which point it goes from very much no big deal to big deal pretty quickly (I don’t think Crawford can play outside corner with any consistency, given that he couldn’t play slot with any consistency and that much better suits his skill set).

juicebox
juicebox

I’m with you on that. Hayes is a big bummer, despite not being a huge surprise. Hopefully Watkins doesn’t become a big bummer. But it would be really nice to know we have at least a replacement level starter as a backup. Now we sit back and hope.

Underthrown Shoelace
Underthrown Shoelace

Golson being out of eligibility is the main reason for the confidence.

kiwifan
kiwifan

As I recall, he’s the only QB in recent memory that got us to a regular season #1 ranking and a 50/50 shot at a national championship. Recent memory being a couple dozen years.

I’ll go hide now.

kiwifan
kiwifan

Make that final regular season #1 ranking

Publius2010
Publius2010

Can any of them play runningback?