Spring Preview: Defensive Tackle
Notre Dame returns every single defensive tackle from the 2019 roster, although there’s a chance not everyone will remain inside for the Irish.
Injuries will limit some at the position, but for the healthy defensive tackles the spring will be about developing depth and making even more plays.
Much like the offensive line, injuries will leave the defensive tackle depth chart a bit thin during the spring. According to sources, sophomores Howard Cross III and Jacob Lacey will both be limited to varying degrees during the spring, and there’s a chance for a position switch inside as well.
IS THERE ANOTHER LEVEL FOR HINISH?
Kurt Hinish was thrust into the rotation as a freshman despite the fact he really needed a redshirt season, but with the roster numbers at the time he had to play. But Hinish battled hard that season, and he hasn’t stopped battling in his three seasons at Notre Dame.
His production took a step back as a junior, and there were times when Hinish struggled to hold up at the point of attack. He competes, but as a senior he’ll need to do a better job of anchoring and preventing the number of times he gets driven off the ball. His run stop rate and pass rushing production both saw a dip in 2019, but he did register more official tackles for loss.
I’d like to see Hinish use his quickness more to his advantage, or should I say I’d like to see the staff use it more frequently. When he’s coming off the line low and fast he can be quite effective.
Hinish had just two tackles and one tackle for loss in the final five games, and it was clear he wore down late in the season. This is what happens when you’re an undersized nose tackle playing the competition that Notre Dame faces. A key for Hinish having a strong final season is his younger teammates developing. If he can have 5-8 snaps per game taken off his shoulders then we’ll see him more effective later in games and later in the season.
TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA POISED FOR A BREAKOUT
I was surprised how quickly Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was able to shake off the rust after missing all but one and a half games in 2018. He didn’t stand out in fall camp, but when games started he was impactful.
Evaluating Tagovailoa-Amosa is interesting because he didn’t actually make a lot of plays on the ball himself, finishing the season with just 2.5 tackles for loss and a half of a sack. Getting better at making plays on the ball is obviously an area where he will need to continue developing his game.
But what we saw last season was that his penetration skills made him highly disruptive. There were a number of plays made by teammates that were a result of the ball carrier or quarterback having to first make a move to avoid Tagovailoa-Amosa. By the middle point of the season a case could be made that he was playing as well, or better, than any healthy Irish defensive lineman.
His ability to get after the quarterback was a strength last season, and Tagovailoa-Amosa had an impressive 24 quarterback pressures, which ranked fourth on the defense.
Like Hinish, Tagovailoa-Amosa faded down the stretch, which isn’t a surprise considering his youth and the fact he was coming back from injury. Now a senior, Tagovailoa-Amosa needs to continue improving his conditioning level so that he can be as effective in November as he was in September through the middle of October. The spring will be step one to making that happen, and I won’t be surprised if he’s one of the standouts for the Irish this spring.
MATURITY NEEDED FOR ADEMILOLA
For me, there is no debating who is the most talented defensive tackle on the Notre Dame roster; it’s clearly Jayson Ademilola. His combination of punch and quickness is outstanding, and when he’s focused the New Jersey native is highly disruptive.
As a sophomore we saw him make a lot more plays, and his pass rush was the most improved part of his game. Despite playing 249 fewer snaps than Tagovailoa-Amosa and 205 fewer snaps than Hinish he still had more tackles than any other defensive tackle, and he was just one tackle for loss away from leading the DT’s. According to Pro Football Focus, his 10.5% run-stop rate was significantly higher than Tagovailoa-Amosa (7.5%) and Hinish (3.5%). He also earned the best pass rushing grade among the DT’s.
Ademilola is explosive off the line and has impressive block destruction ability for an undersized player. At times he can get knocked back, but his quickness and hand play make it hard for blockers to square him up, which limits how effective they can be against him. Ademilola is a penetrator, and when he stays low and fires off he’s extremely hard to block.
There are two things holding Ademilola back as a player right now, at least when it comes to being as good as he can and should be. One is he still needs to add more size and strength. The talented rising junior needs to continue putting in great work in the weight room, and if he can get up to and stay around 285 (while adding more strength) he’ll be even more effective inside. The other issue is Ademilola seems to lose focus at times. When he’s locked in and focused on just doing his job on the field he’s quite good.
This is a big offseason for Ademilola. If he can continue developing as a player and continue adding the needed maturity to excel, on and off the field, he’ll be in line for a monster junior season. If Ademilola does become a more focused player, one that is locked into doing his job and drowning out all the other noise, I could see him becoming one of the most disruptive interior players in the country.
He has that kind of talent.
BIG SPRING FOR FRANKLIN
Getting Ja’Mion Franklin back into the mix last season was a positive sign after he suffered a major foot injury as a freshman. Big men can struggle to come back from that kind of injury, so Franklin getting on the field for 114 snaps last season was extremely encouraging. Him holding up all season was also a positive.
Franklin is a thick, squatty player that brings much needed girth and power to the nose tackle position. The ideal scenario for Notre Dame is that Franklin can force himself onto the field for more snaps this season, which would allow him to be in more of a true rotation at nose tackle, which will help limit the number of snaps Hinish is forced to take.
To make that happen, Franklin needs to do a better job getting off blocks and impacting the football. Franklin emerging as a legit factor inside would also allow Notre Dame to use rising sophomore Jacob Lacey at both nose tackle and three-technique, and I love Lacey in a swing role.
This spring I want to see Franklin continue improving his conditioning level and I want to see him work on moving his feet once he engages. Franklin is powerful, and his natural leverage makes him a bit harder to move off the line. If he does a better job consistently working his feet once engaged he’ll be even more effective eating up space.
WHAT WILL SOPHOMORES PROVIDE THIS SPRING?
The sophomore class is talented, but there are a lot of questions about the position group this spring. Jacob Lacey battled through some injuries as a true freshman in 2019, but he showed the talent that made him one of the best freshmen on the roster. The fact he was banged up but stayed on the field and made plays speaks volumes about his toughness and talent.
I’m curious to see how the staff handles Lacey this spring. Will they hold him back as he continues to get healthy, or will he be full-go? Either way, the spring will be an opportunity for him to take positive steps forward from a technique standpoint. Lacey has the athletic tools and power to be a difference maker in an Irish uniform, but he was just a freshman last season and it showed.
Lacey playing more disciplined football, more assignment sound football and using his hands better at the point of attack will result in him being an even more effective playmaker. When he was right as a freshman you could see that talent, and now he needs to show it snap after snap, and game after game.
Howard Cross III flashed in his limited snaps this season, but he has a bright future if he can add enough size and strength, and hold up inside. He’s battling a shoulder injury and it is unknown how available he will be this spring.
The key for Cross, now and down the road, is continuing to improve his playing strength and adding girth while maintaining his quickness. If he can do that he has the potential to develop into an impact rotation player. His snaps will likely always be limited because of his size, but when healthy he has the talent to be a guy that is as effective as any interior player on the roster when it comes to production on a per-snap basis.
1. How will the overall health of the position be this spring?
2. Can the group as a whole be more effective against the run?
3. Will Tagovailoa-Amosa take the leap and start making more plays on the ball?
4. Can Ademilola mature and become a true difference maker?
5. How will the depth shake out this spring, and who steps up and seizes hold of key rotation spots?
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