We've done a lot of talking about the different position groups for this year's Notre Dame football team, and as any coach will tell you, every one has their role to play in making the Irish successful this fall. But the area getting probably the least attention may well be the most important: the defensive line.
There are plenty of reasons the front four isn't getting a lot of attention this summer — they lack the drama of the Everett Golson transfer, they lack the established star power of Jaylon Smith at linebacker and Tarean Folston at running back, and they lack the uncertainty of the secondary because everyone knows the key names. However, it will be vital that this unit takes a big step forward this year.
Notre Dame fans know how important a great front four can become. When the 2012 team started 12-0 and propelled Manti Te'o to the Heisman ceremony, Te'o was doubtless a vital cog in that defense that kept the Irish in every game. However, maybe more important was the disruptive defensive line led by Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Kapron Lewis-Moore.
The 2014 defensive line, like basically every part of the ND team, started off terrifically, but the injury apocalypse in November led to less impressive full-season numbers. ND totaled up just 25 sacks last year, led by Romeo Okwara with just four. That four was the lowest team-leading sack total since Ethan Johnson led the ghastly 2009 defense with four. (The good news is, nearly all of those 25 sacks came from a returning player.) This year's Irish front line is unlikely to be as good as that 2012 one was — few lines ever are — but if the group can improve from last season, it will go a long way towards helping ND win games.
Some of the key factors up front for the ND defense:
Sheldon Day (senior)
Day joins teammates Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell as the only defensive players left that saw significant time on that 2012 team. Day didn't rack up a bunch of statistics during that season, but as a freshman backup, he showed bursts of enormous potential. He is the face of this defensive line as we enter the season.
Day started strong a year ago, racking up five or more tackles in three of his August/September games, and had five more each in the Navy and Arizona State games. He passed up being a likely NFL Draft pick to come back for his senior year, and it's fair to say the one thing NFL scouts will be looking for from him this year is consistency. We've seen his talent explode in bits and pieces, but if he can make that happen regularly (think Nix in 2012), he will really become a monster.
Jarron Jones (senior)
Jarron Jones' junior season was shortened by a Lisfranc injury that knocked him out for the season, suffered during the loss to Louisville. Even prior to that, though, it had been an underwhelming year for Jones. Though he did have 7.5 tackles for a loss, tied for second on the team behind Jaylon Smith, Jones was unable to emerge as a consistent force. As the projected starter at nose guard, Jones stands to be the guy who benefits if and when Day gets extra attention from opposing offensive lines. Presuming he has fully recovered from that injury, this is the year for Jones to make his mark. If he can, that really opens things up for a couple of young studs on the defensive line...
Andrew Trumbetti (sophomore)
Trumbetti has impressed since the moment he arrived on campus in January of last year, and he had a solid freshman campaign. 21 tackles, 5.5 for loss, and one sack is nothing to sneeze at. He actually was briefly named a starter by coach Kelly prior to the 2014 season, but didn't actually make his first start until the bowl game. Now is the time for him to step forward and seize a starring role. He'll likely battle with Okwara and Isaac Rochell for a starting defensive end spot, but I suspect ND would be best off if he overtook both and became an every-down rusher.
Jerry Tillery (freshman)
Tillery, who enrolled early this January, is an interesting case. LSU was in hot pursuit of Tillery down the stretch of recruiting season, and they know a thing or two about dominant defensive linemen. Ole Miss was after him too. Tillery actually played both sides of the line in high school and was originally expected to go on offense at ND. How enamored were the Irish's offensive coaches of Tillery? Mike Denbrock said he cried after ND's coaches decided to play him on defense — and I'm not sure he was kidding.
However, based on reports at spring practice, defense was the right call — Irish veteran offensive linemen said they couldn't stop him. Linemate Trumbetti went on record predicting Tillery would become an All-American. Kelly, not prone to hyperbole, said Tillery was "unique" and that he'd never had a player quite like him. He could follow the Manti Te'o track of quickly playing his way into a starting role, although the Irish's best-case scenario would involve Tillery being a reliable and explosive backup before becoming a starter next fall. No matter what he does, he should be fun to watch.
There are, of course, other players that will play big roles. I've mentioned Okwara and Rochell, each of whom I imagine will be steady influences at worst and occasionally explosive at best. Sophomore Jay Hayes should put in some time. Maybe another surprise name will emerge. But in this Irish fan's opinion, the four names above are the ones whose performances will determine whether this Notre Dame D-line is good, or whether it's playoff-caliber.