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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Notre Dame defensive lineman Jerry Tillery says the Irish line matches up with Clemson's, regarded the top D-line in the country.

Sunday, December 23, 2018 1:00 am

Irish stack their D-line with best

Clemson's amazes Kelly, but his team racked up 31 sacks

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Cotton Bowl

Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

When: 4 p.m. Saturday

Records: Notre Dame (12-0), Clemson (13-0)


SOUTH BEND – Clemson's defensive line is one of the best units in the country. The Tigers' fearsome front, led by ACC Defensive Player of the Year Clelin Farrell, ranked No. 2 nationally in sacks, No. 2 in tackles for loss and No. 3 in rush defense.

When asked Wednesday on “SportsCenter” what stands out about Clemson on film, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly didn't hesitate.

“Defensive line, first and foremost,” Kelly said. “Generally, you get one or two defensive players that are elite, they've got four that jump out at you.”

So if Clemson has what many consider the best defensive line in the country, it should have the best defensive line in the Cotton Bowl, right? Well, maybe not.

Notre Dame's line has plenty of talent, as well, and has made life miserable for opposing running backs and quarterbacks alike this season. The Irish have given up just 3.7 yards per carry and have netted 31 sacks in their 12 games. Only one running back – Navy's Malcolm Perry, running the triple-option – rushed for 100 yards against the Irish.

Notre Dame's front, anchored by senior Jerry Tillery and flanked by juniors Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, takes a back seat to no one.

“That's always the story when teams come play Notre Dame,” Tillery said. “We played Michigan, it was Michigan's great defensive line. ... Last year, N.C. State's defensive line was going to come in here and steal the show. But the story's always different after the game, people are always talking about Notre Dame's defensive line.

“So we're looking to change the narrative in this game, too.”

The Irish defensive line has certainly heard the hype surrounding their Tigers' counterparts. But as Tillery said, they've heard hype before and have risen to the challenge each time.

“We know what we can do as a D-line, we know what we bring to the table,” said Kareem, who has 11 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks this season. “We're one of the best D-lines in the country. We really don't listen too much to that outside noise.”

The road to get the defensive line to where it is now, capable of making such grand pronouncements, began when coach Mike Elston shifted back to coaching the line before the 2017 season. He'd coached linebackers in 2015-16 after leading the line from 2010 to 2014.

The front improved significantly under Elston in 2017 and took another big step forward in the offseason this year.

The coach has been particularly pleased with how well the upperclassmen like Tillery held their teammates accountable in the offseason during the periods when NCAA rules prohibit contact with coaches. 

The result has been a dedicated and focused group wreaking havoc on opposing offensive lines this season. Tillery, Kareem and Okwara alone have combined for 29 1/2 tackles for loss.

“Now you've got really good players, that are bought into the process, that are listening to the coaching, that see themselves getting better,” Elston said. “They then hold each other accountable to that and then you throw in that you're having success on the field and it's just been really, really positive.”

Elston has also heard the noise about Clemson's defensive line and all the talent waiting for the Irish there. Like his players, he believes the Irish match up.

“There's a lot of pride taken in what we're doing on our side of the ball,” Elston said. “Nobody on our group wants to be outshined by anybody. We tout ourselves and we break down every day of being the best defensive line in the country, that's what we want people to see in our play.

“We can't just say it, we've got to go out and do it. ... (Clemson)'s been there for a long time as one of the best defensive lines in the country. What a great benchmark for us to be gauged on.”