Notre Dame left spring practice with a lot of bodies along the defensive line. Then defensive ends Jhonny Williams and Kolin Hill announced their decision to transfer, lessening the depth on the edge.
But a much bigger blow came on Friday when defensive tackle Jarron Jones tore his MCL and was lost for the season. The 6-foot-5, 315-pounder from Rochester, N.Y., was coming back from a foot injury suffered in the first quarter of 2014’s home finale against Louisville. While his progress from that injury had been slow, he was making strides and was on track to start the season on the field.
The question that is now being asked by all Notre Dame fans is how much will Jones’s injury affect the 2015 Irish?
Obviously, it’s not going to help. Jones established himself as a powerful presence in the middle of the Irish line last year and a healthy Jones, along with Sheldon Day on the interior, would have been a major strength for Notre Dame.
In some ways, though, last year’s injury may help Notre Dame in 2015. Daniel Cage and Jay Hayes saw meaningful snaps as freshmen and Jacob Matuska made some plays at that position as well.
Another option is to move defensive end Isaac Rochell inside. Rochell played tackle in the Music City Bowl and seemed to take to the position quite naturally. He is a big, strong guy who isn’t a natural pass rusher, so he would be a fit as a replacement for Jones. The problem is that he sets the edge very well against the run at end. While Andrew Trumbetti has a bright future, he just doesn’t boast the size (6-3, 260) needed to be a force up front like Rochell.
The wild card is true freshman Jerry Tillery. The early entry was the talk of spring practice and will be at the very least part of the rotation in the middle. Tillery (6-6, 305) is similar in size to Jones.
It is true that none of these players are known commodities. But the good news is that Notre Dame has a few options, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them will pan out.
Notre Dame comes into the season with lofty goals and despite the loss of Jones, the bar is still set very high. While the injury stings badly, it is by no means a death blow to the Irish’s hopes of earning a spot in the College Football Playoff.
— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.