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The Journal Gazette

Thursday, October 05, 2017 1:00 am

D-line rotation working for Irish

Unit has already more than doubled last season's sacks

CHRIS GOFF | The Journal Gazette

Notre Dame at North Carolina

When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, North Carolina

TV: ABC

Radio: 1190 AM, 107.5 FM

SOUTH BEND – Nearly midway through Notre Dame's season, it's clear that, if the Irish think more than one defensive lineman can do a job, then more than one defensive lineman will do the job.

So much of the focus this year has been on new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and the ways in which his unit would or would not come together. One of Elko's most successful tactical ploys has been turning Notre Dame's much-maligned front four into ... well, more than four.

Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes (no relation) have been the starting defensive ends all season. Jerry Tillery and Jonathan Bonner line up each week as the starting defensive tackles.

Once a game progresses, however, everyone is essentially an interchangeable part, with the exception perhaps of Tillery. Andrew Trumbetti, Khalid Kareem, Julian Okwara, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Micah Dew-Treadway and Kurt Hinish all factor into the D-line rotation.

By rotating so many bodies, Elko helps keep them from becoming fatigued. No one is running on empty in the fourth quarter.

“Having that in the back of your mind helps,” Daelin Hayes said. “You want to empty the tank every play, but it boosts the motivation.”

After years of being one of Notre Dame's weakest groups, the defensive line is finally starting to put up a good fight on a consistent basis. Last season, the line combined for three sacks. Five games into this season, the line already has 7.5.

This year's defensive line is also involved in more turnovers. Tillery and Okwara have each forced a fumble. Daelin Hayes has recovered two fumbles and Jay Hayes one. Last year's line? Only six fumbles forced or recovered all season.

Add it all up, and the guys in the trenches are a big reason for such a profound improvement in Notre Dame's overall defense.

“I'd give them an A-minus,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said of the line. “The minus is for a little bit of lost focus here and there, but their technique, ability to use their hands (and) discipline in how they fit in our front seven is probably an A-plus.

“We're getting some pretty good edge pressure from our front four. We're getting batted balls, and we're getting the kind of integrity that front four needs relative to the run fits. (D-line coach) Mike Elston has done a terrific job with that group.”

Players credit leadership in the D-line room.

“We've improved as a defensive line,” Jay Hayes said. “We know we can go to bigger and better places as a unit. The room is a brotherhood and real with one another and emphasizing being confident, emphasizing knowing what you're doing, and it's just a positive energy flowing through the room.”

Their power-in-numbers approach extends to the field. No defensive lineman has played more than three-fourths of the snaps. Tillery aside, they top out playing about 50 percent of the snaps.

“Ever since last year, we've been doubted,” Okwara said. “We've been progressing. There's a lot of rotation, so it keeps people fresh, which is different from last year when people were getting a lot of snaps. We're happy for everybody who's playing.”

cgoff@jg.net