SOUTH BEND - Notre Dame opens the 2017 football season Saturday against Temple (3:30 p.m., NBC) at the renovated Notre Dame Stadium.
The Fighting Irish are desperately searching for a bounce-back season after flailing to an anemic 4-8 mark a year ago.
The News-Sentinel is going to take a daily look this week at each position group leading up to Saturday with today's analysis of the defensive front seven.
There is no hiding the porous defensive numbers that loom from Notre Dame's season-opening loss a year ago at Texas.
The Fighting Irish allowed 50 points, over 500 yards of Longhorn offense and didn't manage to register a single quarterback sack despite the game extending into double overtime. However, senior linebacker Drue Tranquill envisions better things ahead for the Notre Dame defense in its 2017 opening game, particularly the front seven.
“I don't think there's necessarily a redemption mindset in us,” Tranquill said recently. “I think it's been more of a kind of idea of total preparation and controlling what we can control.
“We can't control what happened last year. It is what it is.”
One of the many changes that new defensive coordinator Mike Elko implemented when he was hired in January was the actual utilization of the players. More athletes getting repetitions (as opposed to fewer last season) – and understanding what their responsibilities are - will result in fresher, faster, more productive players.
“You're always looking for depth,” Tranquill explained. “Last year, in order for guys to play, they had to understand the defense. They had to understand the schematics behind what you're doing. When you have a complicated defense, not a lot of guys can grasp it.”
That proved true a year ago when former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder complicated the gameplans to the point that only certain players could get into the games. So when games got into the fourth quarter, the Fighting Irish players wilted, which went a long way in explaining how Notre Dame lost seven of its eight games by a one score or less, as well as why VanGorder was fired in the middle of the season.
The Fighting Irish began this off-season by losing veteran defensive linemen Daniel Cage to injury (concussions) for the extended time being, but in training camp, veteran coach Brian Kelly said the emergence of sophomore Daelin Hayes was a bright spot. Hayes' emergence could help the Fighting Irish vastly improve upon their 118th ranking in quarterback sacks nationally from a season ago.
“Daelin is very intentional in everything that he does,” Kelly said. “To his workouts, to what he eats, to his film sessions, everything is extremely intentional. That is going to pay off.”
Hayes will start at one defensive end position, while Jay Hayes will be at the other, with senior Andrew Trumbetti, who Kelly said is in the best physical shape of his life, will back both up and get a lot of snaps.
The ends will surround third-year players Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner in the middle, but behind those two, the Irish lack experience.
True freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish will get playing time, according to Kelly, but in limited amounts.
“Let's keep it all in perspective,” Kelly said of the young players making the two-deep depth chart. “We're not talking about 50 plays here. We're talking about a role that we believe that they can fulfill for us, and they have handled it because they have the physical ability to go in there and compete.”
If there is a defensive position group that Notre Dame fans can embrace with comfort – both on and off the field – it would be the linebacking corps.
Tranquill will join Greer Martini on the outside, while Nyles Morgan will play the middle. All three student-athletes have displayed such strong leadership that they will serve as team captains.
“Notre Dame has a really big front four,” Temple coach Geoff Collins said recently. “They've got speed in the secondary and they've got experience at linebacker. (The linebackers) can make plays. You see them being the quarterback of the defense.
“I've been impressed with watching their tape.”
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