Thrown to the fire

Thrown to the fire

With half of his 16 available defensive linemen true freshmen, defensive line coach Mike Elston is in the midst of his greatest coaching challenge to date.

A quick summation of Notre Dame's playing experience among three handfuls of scholarship defensive linemen is as follows:

Experienced: Sheldon Day

Career backup, one career start: Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara (new position)

Hasn't played in more than two years: Chase Hounshell

Career backup, multiple positions: Anthony Rabasa, Justin Utupo,

Relative Rookie: Isaac Rochell (no starts, did not play in final two games)

Rookies: Jacob Matuska, Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes, Kolin Hill, Pete Mokwuah, Andrew Trumbetti, Jhonathan Williams.

The phrase "Men Against Boys" appears applicable in South Bend this season.

“We signed a heck of a group of young players. The young defensive players are going to be really good," said Elston. "The problem is they are just in situations right now that, due to lack of depth they are going to have to play. But we knew Daniel Cage was going to have to give us some depth. We knew Jhonny Williams was going to have to come off the edge. We knew those guys were going to have to play.”

"With all the guys, you have to be careful with what you put on their plate because the work volume is higher than it's ever been."

To that end, Elston has channeled his inner Lou Holtz. That is, he hopes to make practice so difficult the players will welcome the respite of the game.

"You try to simulate it in practice. We're grinding them pretty good, we're getting after them. The way I look at it, the expectation is not for what they can handle, it's what the position needs," he said. "I don't coach them any differently than I do (junior) Sheldon Day. If you're going to back up Sheldon Day, you're going to be expected to play at the level Sheldon is playing at, and if you don't, we're going to get on you. You try to give them that type of pressure so when they get in a game, they don't feel like, 'Hey, this isn't anything like I practice.'"

Ready or Not

The challenge that presented for August 2014 was far different than that of season's past, when at least one veteran defensive lineman returned as a starter or part-time starter at each position.

By comparison this season, one of the unit's two no-doubt starters is a relative game day neophyte.

"Making sure you spread the reps around," said Elston of camp's focus. "For instance on the nose, you're trying to get all three guys ready to play winning football, which is hard to do. Jarron (Jones) is a young player and he needs as many reps as he can. A sophomore, Jacob Matuska, has never played a down of football. And Daniel (Cage) is basically a senior in high school. That's the challenge, but that's football, that's coaching."

Elston took time Tuesday to review many of his young and/or inexperienced pupils as training camp 2014 winds to a close:

Sophomore Isaac Rochell (SDE): “I am excited about Isaac Rochell’s development right now. He is playing more confident. He is playing more physical. He is playing with better pad level. We are still continuing to work on the pass rush, which is going to be a critical place for him to grow in. But he is playing faster and more aggressive which in this scheme is needed.”

Asked if Rochell could handle multiple positions (other than starting strong side defensive end): "You'll see him play all over the place. You'll see him play every position. He'll play all over. (including nose tackle.) Yeah, hopefully he can handle that work volume, I think he can. I don't know yet. We'll know after the first game, see how he handles it. I don't know what that number will be but hopefully it's up in that (40-50 snap) area."

Freshman Andrew Trumbetti (WDE): "About the middle of camp, the work volume started to hit him and he started to level off, but as of late you can really see that surge again of physical play. He's going to be a good player. Very excited about his development right now."

-- Asked if Trumbetti is a "high-motor guy" Elston offered, "We think so. Sometimes he's not and we have to remind him who he is. A lot of that though is that he's in Practice No. 16 and his first-ever two-a-days at the level that he's at (Notre Dame) and that work volume, you can see it just sucking out of him. When he's fresh and he's going, that's something that's a separator for him, how hard he works, how long he works, and the girding nature of that."

-- Asked how Trumbetti was able to make in-roads as a starter so quickly: "Well, lack of depth, No. 1. And the fact that he was already on the two-deep before he arrived on campus. That had something to do with it.

"It's important to him. He came in mid-year (January 2014) for this opportunity and he took advantage and had some success. His aggressiveness and physicality and how hard he practices, that was a distinguishing part of his game, but (by comparison) Sheldon (Day) was a guy that was just so initially quick with great hands and great leverage that you could see he was going to have to play (as a true freshman)."

True freshman Grant Blankenship (SDE): "Grant is in there with Isaac Rochell. Grant is a tough, rugged player. He's a freshman, he doesn't know what he's doing yet, but it's important to him, I think he'll be able to get to the level we need him to get to. He's non-stop. He has a high motor, which is fun to watch. He's going to make mistakes but he can make up for it with the way he plays in a lot of areas."

True freshman Jhonny Williams (DE, Rush End): "Jhonny's learning more defenses right now in one day of install than he probably ran the entire season last year. Along with, if you want to play him at defensive end on third down or second-and-long, what have you, he's going to have to play on special teams, too, so he's learning special teams. So that amount of work is on his plate. You have to be careful with a young guy because eventually they're going to reach an overload."

"He has to work on consistency. He has very good speed off the edge. He can help us with pass rush. I don't know to what level he can help us right now. We have to see him finish up camp, this preparation."

True freshman Daniel Cage (NT): "He just has to work on technique and fundamentals. It's incredible, when he does play with good technique and leverage, he's an immovable object. But like anybody else, if he stands up and plays with poor leverage that 330 pounds goes backwards as fast as it goes forward."

True freshman Jonathan Bonner (DT): "Bonner was recruited in the old system at outside linebacker, more like where Prince Shembo was. That didn't change up until we were working with him in June and we realized there was some initial quickness there, and some leverage that he played with that we might be able to move him inside, which we did.

"He's a freshman and you can already see he's going to be big. Why wait? He's a Whopper away from eating himself away from the one position (DE). Give him that Whopper and put him (inside)."

Redshirt-freshman Jacob Matuska (NT): "Jacob has a chance, he's going to have to play some. He'll have to play behind Jarron Jones. Between Jarron, and Jacob, and Daniel Cage, we're going to have to find 70 reps from those guys. It's different from last year where Louis Nix could take 50 or 60 reps and when you went into different packages, you could take him out."

Senior Anthony Rabasa (DE/Rush End): "He's doing good. He definitely has a niche, he's a good pass-rusher and that's his value right now. We're hoping to get him going and keep him going prior to the first game, but there's a lot of young guys that do what he does. We have to make sure we get the right guys in the right spot."

Senior Chase Hounshell (DT): Out of game action since December 2011 due to three shoulder surgeries, Elston noted, "Chase is working on consistency right now and if he can improve on that, he can help us. Chase is playing defensive tackle, three-technique."

-- Elston added of freshman Kolin Hill, at present a hybrid DE/OLB: "He's a pass-rusher. We're hoping to get him more involved." (He was not asked specifically about Hill until the session was concluding.) Also not discussed was two-deep defensive tackle Justin Utupo, a fifth-year senior that according to head coach Brian Kelly, moved ahead of Bonner in the recent pecking order.

IrishEyes.com Recommended Stories


Up Next


Tweets