Welcome back to Part 4 of this series.
Better or Worse: Wideouts and Tight Ends
Better or Worse: Offensive Line
*Rankings are from 1 (poor) to 10 (great).
2014 Front Seven (Prediction from 4/15/14)
The Irish had to replace quite a bit of experience last year and here is what I said last spring:
There's no hiding from the lack of experience heading into this season. Right now, I'm not including Jarrett Grace in these projections. Overall, just one player is back (Jaylon Smith) who started every game last year and without Grace only a total of 23 career starts return from the entire front seven.
Elsewhere I think Notre Dame is in decent shape and Brian VanGorder's defense should help add a little more oomph to the front seven. If this we're still Diaco's defense someone like Matuksa might still be a year away from consistent playing time, a young freshman DE like Trumbetti might not see the field at 250 pounds, teams would be running away from Jaylon Smith, and we would be asking Sheldon Day to 5-tech more often rather than unleash his skills more as a 3-tech.
With less emphasis on size this year it opens the door to more depth helping out. We can debate the merit's of Bob Diaco's BBDB defense but VanGorder certainly should add a lot more versatility with his scheme.
Notre Dame was in decent shape last year until injuries and some better offenses faced the team. In fact, for a while things came together about as well as imagined even when Jarrett Grace never was able to get healthy.
The disruption of the defense stayed fairly steady throughout the whole season--a byproduct of the aggressive VanGorder defense--as the Irish totaled 13 sacks through 7 games and then 13 sacks over the last 6 games. Tackles for loss totaled 36 through 7 games then 34 over the final 6 games.
Where everything absolutely fell apart was stopping the run as Notre Dame limited opponents to 102.7 yards through 7 games and then, oh this hurts to type, 251 yards over the final 6 games.
2015 Front Seven
We sometimes take Notre Dame's recruiting for granted simply because it's not perfect and it's not quite up to the standards of of the elite teams like Alabama and Florida State. The Irish had to replace a lot of very good players from 2013, and while there wasn't much experience to do that, it could have been a lot worse than being able to utilize a few nationally ranked 4-star linemen in combination with a 5-star linebacker.
Heading into 2015 Notre Dame now has to replace...no one.
This unit is going from bringing back 23 starts last year to 110 career starts this year from a group of Smith (26), Day (19), Okwara (13), Rochell (13), Jones (12), Schmidt (8), Onwualu (8), Morgan (4), Grace (3), Martini (2), Trumbetti (1), and Matuska (1). Additionally, Blankenship (11), Cage (11), Hill (9), and Hayes (3) added 34 games of experience without starting.
Notre Dame paid the price of a devastated defense late last year but the injuries allowed the program to gain experience that should help out this year. Add freshmen in Bonner, Coney, Dew-Treadway, Mokwuah, Tillery, Tiassum, Taylor, Barajas, and Bilal, plus veterans Deeb and Randolph and there is plenty of young depth to be choosy with to see the field.
Looking at the other categories this unit of the defense should be very good if they stay healthy. The linebackers should be more versatile than last year through moving Jaylon and Schmidt around if the need arises. The one major missing piece is that legit consistent edge rusher but that need is minimized by VanGorder's scheme.
I don't know if it's appropriate to say that Notre Dame can go 3-deep at most positions within the front seven but after last year I would say the coaching staff has to be a heck of a lot more comfortable to use that depth if they need in 2015. That's a huge crutch to lean on, especially against the weaker opponents on the schedule.
Maybe the one reason why I don't see any big improvements in talent and productivity is that there isn't likely to be a new player who comes in and blows everyone away. The numbers could increase nicely with normal jumps from the likes of Jaylon Smith, Nyles Morgan, and Andrew Trumbetti, plus maybe Jerry Tillery lives up the spring hype. But there's no Jadeveon Clowney-type newcomer who is going to transform Notre Dame's biggest weakness on the edge.
Get back to stopping the run at the rate we saw early on in 2014, stay healthy, and be around 20% to 25% more disruptive in the backfield. If the Irish can do this in the fall the front seven should be among the best in the country.