Programs are often know for certain strengths. Notre Dame is known as “Tight End U,” and no one has produced more top-end offensive linemen in recent seasons. Penn State was known as “Linebacker U” for the longest time. The way Clemson has produced wide receivers in recent seasons is hard to ignore.
While tight end, offensive line and even wide receiver has been a strength of Notre Dame’s over the last couple decades, an area that has gained just as much notoriety is the defensive line, but for the wrong reasons.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s the Irish seemed to produce outstanding defensive lines every year, and two of the best defensive linemen in the country during that stretch wore Notre Dame uniforms: Chris Zorich and Bryant Young.
Over the last two decades the Irish have produced some strong individual players, but outside of a couple of stretches (2002, 2005, 2012) the overall play of the Notre Dame front has been average at best. Recruiting was often blamed, rightfully so, as the Irish struggled to land top linemen. There were years where they were able to land a top player or a top class, but consistency was a major problem.
Considering how important defensive line play is too competing for championships, the inability to consistently produce top lines was a major road block for the Irish.
Mike Elston coached the Irish defensive line at Notre Dame from 2010-2014, which means he oversaw the 2012 unit that fueled the team’s trek to the title game. But the consistency needed still lacked, on the field and on the recruiting trail. This was true at all positions, not just the defensive line.
After coaching linebackers in 2015 and 2016, Elston returned to coach the line when Mike Elko was hired as the defensive coordinator for 2017, and he’s maintained that role under Clark Lea. Since then, Elston has built a situation in South Bend that is beginning to create a brand new dynamic up front.
From a recruiting standpoint and an on-field production standpoint the Notre Dame defensive line has taken a huge leap forward.
PASS RUSH IMPROVEMENT
Rushing the quarterback was a major problem for Notre Dame for a long time, especially having a defensive line that can produce a legitimate pass rush. From 2010 to 2017, Notre Dame had just one season where the defensive line produced more than 20 sacks. It should come as no surprise that the season it did top that mark was 2012, when the Irish went 12-1.
Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has registered 49.5 sacks from its defensive line alone. It’s the best two-year stretch of the last two decades. The Irish front four combined to register 47 tackles for loss this season, which despite playing one less game is already more than it produced last season.
Pro Football Focus ranked the 2018 Notre Dame defense as the fourth best pass rushing team in the country, giving it a 90.6 grade. Despite the loss of All-American defensive tackle Jerry Tillery to the NFL, and season-ending injuries to ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara, Notre Dame’s 2019 defense ranks sixth in the country in pass rushing and once again earned a 90.6 grade.
Notre Dame ranked fifth in pass efficiency defense this season and sixth last fall, and the ability of the defensive line to pressure the quarterback has been a major reason. Just ask senior safety and captain Jalen Elliott.
“The d-line is pretty special,” Elliott said follow a recent bowl practice. “… It gives us a lot of time and a lot of leeway. Sometimes it might not be the bets coverage or you might slip or something might happen, but when you have a great defensive line those mistakes don’t get seen.”
NEXT MAN IN SHOWS DEPTH AND QUALITY COACHING
This has clearly been the best two-year stretch of pass-rushing production that we’ve seen at Notre Dame in a very long time. Just as impressive is Notre Dame has done it in different ways. In 2018 it was mainly about Tillery and Okwara being two of the best pass rushers in the entire country. Tillery ranked second nationally in pressures by a defensive tackle and Okwara ranked seventh among all defenders.
In 2019 the Irish lack a dominant individual pass rusher, instead relying on a group effort. Being able to produce almost identical numbers in back-to-back seasons, and doing it in two completely different ways, is incredibly impressive. Elston took a unit that had to deal with injuries, personnel losses and a lack of size and experience up the middle, and built on the outstanding production we saw in 2018.
Notre Dame had 11 different linemen register a tackle for loss this season and nine different front four players registered a sack. That is not something we saw at Notre Dame in the previous decade. Part of that was playing a deeper rotation and the new redshirt rule, and part of it was out of need.
Hayes was Notre Dame’s best defensive lineman the first three games, but in game four he was lost for the season. Okwara had a relatively disappointing season, but he was still the team’s best pass rusher until he got hurt in late October. In November we saw the Irish also have to play without a healthy Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa at defensive tackle, and standout sophomore Jayson Ademilola missed the last two games with an ankle injury.
When one player went down someone else stepped in. After Hayes was lost, senior Jamir Jones stepped into the lineup and finished his career with his best season, by far. Jones was a productive run player and did damage as a pass rusher. After the injures up the middle, sophomore Ja’mion Franklin got more snaps and handled himself well, and Jacob Lacey battled through his own injuries and played well in November. Even freshman Hunter Spears was thrust into the lineup in the win over Boston College and the talented freshman performed well.
No matter who went into the game we saw production and quality play. That speaks volumes about the talent Notre Dame has up front, but it also speaks volumes about the quality of coaching at the position.
I recently spoke with a FBS coach that is familiar with Elston and the job he has done, and he raved about what he sees from the Irish line from a technique standpoint and how the unit plays the game. He praised the hand play of the group and the advanced technique that is employed from front four players across the board.
It is comforting for a defensive coordinator to know he will get consistent production from his unit, even when his standouts or stars aren’t playing at a high level, which is what we saw the season. When Okwara and Kareem weren’t performing as hoped for, other players stepped up. When Okwara and Kareem did dominate the line took over games. Senior Ade Ogundeji was a beast in the last two games of the regular season. That group consistency was crucial to the defensive success this season, especially considering the lack of experience Notre Dame had at linebacker this season.
Coaching is only part of the equation. You also need talent, and Notre Dame has certainly upgraded its talent level in recent seasons.
Throughout Kelly’s tenure, whether it was Elston running the show or former defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the Irish were able to land top players. Notre Dame signed three Top 100 defensive line recruits in 2011 (Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Ishaq Williams), and the 2016 class added the current group of ends.
What Notre Dame struggled to do was add depth at the position, often coming up short on overall numbers. There were years when Notre Dame completely missed at either end or defensive tackle, and multiple years where they failed to meet numbers. For example, the Irish signed five players that ended up at end in the 2016 class, but it failed to land a defensive tackle. The year prior the Irish signed four tackles, but did not land an end.
Over the last three years, Elston has restocked the depth chart both inside and outside, meeting numbers and talent needs each season. In fact, Notre Dame’s 2019 and 2020 classes have added an influx of talent that we have not seen in South Bend in quite some time. It’s been one of the best line hauls in the entire country.
Over the last two seasons (2019-20 classes), Notre Dame has signed seven composite four-star defensive line recruits. It’s the best two-year stretch of the Kelly era and ties for the best since 2002, when Rivals started doing recruiting rankings.
The talent has been inside and outside, with the Irish landing three four-star ends (Isaiah Foskey, Jordan Botelho, NaNa Osafo-Mensah) and four four-star defensive tackles (Jacob Lacey, Hunter Spears, Howard Cross III, Rylie Mills). 2020 signee Aidan Keanaaina is one signee not in that group, but he’s a four-star talent that was graded as such on my Big Board, and Notre Dame had to beat Ohio State to land him.
Very few teams in the country can match what Notre Dame has done on the recruiting trail up front. Alabama (13), Georgia (9) and Florida (8) are the only teams to sign more composite four-star or better defensive linemen in the last two classes, although two of Florida’s eight signees are currently listed as linebackers on their depth chart. Notre Dame has signed more composite four-star or better DL recruits than LSU (6), Auburn (6), Clemson (5) and Ohio State (4).
There is still room for improvement, of course, as Notre Dame has not signed a five-star defensive lineman during that stretch, while Clemson has signed three, Georgia has signed three, Alabama has signed two and Ohio State has signed one. In fact, none of Notre Dame’s front four players were composite Top 100 recruits, although Botelho ranked as the nation’s No. 43 overall player in the 2020 class according to 247Sports. 2017 signee Jayson Ademilola was ranked No. 48 nationally according to 247Sports as well. Botelho, Lacey and Mills were all ranked in the Top 150 by at least one service.
But from a depth and balance standpoint the Irish can put its defensive line recruiting the last two seasons against the best programs in the country. It wasn't that long ago that Notre Dame fans lamented about the inability to recruit the defensive line as well as other top programs, and it was often used as an excuse as to why the Irish could not compete for championships.
Elston has ended that conversation and has put the Irish in position to start reloading along the defensive line with some of the best talent in the country. It's no longer about rebuilding, and that is where you want and need to be on defense.
DRAFT SUCCESS IS NEXT
Putting players into the upper rounds of the NFL Draft helps recruiting, of that there is little doubt. Tillery was picked in the first-round (No. 28 overall) of the 2019 NFL Draft, marking the first time since 1997 (Renaldo Wynn) that Notre Dame has a defensive lineman taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Many draft experts project Okwara to be a first-round pick in the 2020 draft, and Kareem has a chance to be taken on day two of the draft as well.
The more Elston starts putting players into the early rounds the easier it will be for him to land better and better classes, which only makes the defense better and better.