Notre Dame already lost senior nose guard Louis Nix III, who, after undergoing season-ending knee surgery Nov. 21, signed with an agent, negating the possibility he would return for a fifth season.
And the No. 25 Irish (8-4) could lose another pillar of their defensive line. Junior end Stephon Tuitt will decide whether to return to school or enter the NFL draft after Saturdays Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers (6-6) in Yankee Stadium.
Coach Brian Kelly said in a news release that Tuitt was evaluated by the NFL and projected as a second-round pick.
Nix and Tuitt will not be easy to replace.
Nix had 122 tackles with 14 for loss, including 2 1/2 sacks, in 34 games over three seasons, and Tuitt enters the Pinstripe Bowl with 122 tackles with 23 1/2 for loss, including 20 sacks, in 34 games over three seasons.
But Kelly said he feels comfortable with the future of the defensive line without Nix and the chance of not having Tuitt for one more season.
I like what I see right now, Kelly said last Saturday. (Sophomore) Jarron Jones is doing a terrific job. (Sophomore) Sheldon Day, (freshman) Isaac Rochell, watching those guys play the last few days has been really enjoyable, in a sense that theyre getting quality reps, first-team reps.
(Junior linebacker) Ishaq (Williams) has been playing a lot of defensive end for us, so hes getting a lot of time in there. Were seeing a good rotation of some of those younger players. Were going to get (junior) Chase (Hounshell, who missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries) back. Were going to get (junior and former Bishop Dwenger standout Tony Springmann, who missed this season with a dislocated left knee) back. Then well get a couple defensive linemen in the fall. I feel like weve got the guys there necessary for us to be a solid defensive line in the fall.
There were plenty of times this fall that Notre Dame had a chance to look at a defensive line much different than the one it started with against Temple, with Nix between Tuitt and sophomore Sheldon Day.
Day was slowed throughout the year by an ankle injury that limited him to 10 games. He was able to make seven starts and had 31 tackles with five for loss.
And with Hounshell and Springmann lost before the season started, that put more pressure on senior Kona Schewenke, who had only played in 19 games in his first three seasons; Jones, who didnt play as a sophomore; and freshman Isaac Rochell to produce this year.
For us, its not a duty or a job, its what we love, Schwenke said. We dont hesitate to step up and take up on a row when someone goes down. We see it more as an opportunity for us to try to impact the team. I feel weve come a long way and have done a great job this season.
Schwenke was the first linemen called on to do more after injuries hit as he switched between replacing Day at end and Nix at nose guard when those two battled injuries. He started six of the 11 games he played in, while battling an ankle injury of his own, and finished with 21 tackles.
Jones came on later for the Irish after starting the season on special teams and weathering a demotion to the scout team in the middle of the season. After Nix was lost for the season and Schwenke was limited against BYU in the home season finale, Jones made seven tackles and blocked a field goal and followed it up with four tackles in his first start in the season finale against Stanford.
Rochell played in 11 games and made 10 tackles, and with freshman Jacob Matuska, who didnt play this year, getting into the mix next year, there is plenty of reason of optimism.
Definitely improvement every day, Day said of the younger lineman. I see Jarron picking up his game, Isaac, Jacob Matuska, just guys like that. (Defensive line coach Mike) Elston is doing a great job with us, making sure we are trying to move our game forward. I have a lot of confidence in them.
Note: Kelly told Irish Illustrated that senior quarterback Andrew Hendrix, who didnt play as a freshman, has requested his release from the program in order to transfer to another school.