On this Thursday night, the wait staff at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Granger, Indiana, will scramble to locate the last of its remaining bread bowls and push together a long string of tables in the back corner of the restaurant. They are accustomed now to the onslaught of 4,500 pounds of hungry men wrapped in blue-and-gold sweatpants who ramble through their doors each week.
Thursday night is discounted burger night at the usually pricey chain restaurant, which makes it a perfect night for the Notre Dame defensive line to get a little taste of the good life on a college student’s budget. The first time the group of 16 Fighting Irish linemen and their coaches showed up for what has become a weekly tradition, the woefully unprepared waiter saddled with serving them plopped one lonely bread basket in the middle of their table. No one reached for the bread. The waiter was greeted instead by more than a dozen sets of tilted heads, indignantly raised eyebrows and otherwise blank stares.
“The next week when we came,” said fifth-year senior Jonathan Bonner, “they were ready for us.”
This a group that makes sure everybody gets theirs.
No position group at Notre Dame has had a more dramatic and impactful turnaround in the past two years than the defensive line. Like the well-dressed waiters, opposing quarterbacks know by now to prepare to see a lot of them.
The No. 3 Irish have allowed one passing touchdown in their past four games and currently rank second in college football for yards allowed per passing attempt (5.3). Saturday at Yankee Stadium, they’ll play a key role in trying to slow down No. 13 Syracuse, a team that has topped 50 points five times already this season, in perhaps the biggest remaining obstacle to an undefeated regular season. Head coach Brian Kelly credits much of that defensive success to the “selfless” four-man pass rush on which no longer really cares which of them gets the credit.
When Kelly shook up his coaching staff after a 4-8 season in 2016 — one in which his defense had fewer sacks than all but one Power 5 team — he asked longtime assistant Mike Elston to return to a familiar spot in the defensive line room. Elston, who is also the team’s associate head coach, was coaching the linebackers at that time and had spent the past year staring at the backsides of a group he saw as apathetic and lacking accountability.
“I really questioned at that time the unit’s care factor,” Elston said. “… We certainly didn’t care about each other the way we currently do. That was one thing we had to fix in the room. I believe that has been not only fixed, but it’s a thing that’s flourishing.”
Elston’s first act in his new role a couple of years ago was to lock all the defensive linemen in a room and make them search for the key. He and his linemen attended an “escape room” in South Bend where willing participants have an hour to work together in a locked room to solve a series of riddles to unlock the door. Long story short, they didn’t get out.
How do you bring together a group of college-age guys who weigh an average of 275 pounds apiece? Food is a pretty safe place to start. Elston hosted the defensive line at his house for regular meals. They started invading the local Chipotle en masse. And this year, they discovered the “balling on a budget” possibility of burger night at Ruth’s Chris.
“It’s pretty nice that it’s only $10,” said defensive end Julian Okwara. “There are a lot of burgers consumed. We can’t afford that on any other night, but it’s fun to get there and just talk about something other than football with your guys.”
Okwara embodies Notre Dame’s new pass rushing ethos: Be patient, trust your teammates and eventually the big plays will come to you. The athletic junior had a habit earlier this of forcing quarterbacks into the arms of his teammates, or at least forcing them into bad throws. He has been credited with 21 hurries (three times as many as anyone else on the roster) but rarely got the satisfaction of his own sack before racking up 2.5 in a recent win at Northwestern.
“I mean, it goes back to the relationships we have. We’ve been working each other for so long that it’s not robotic. It’s a flow. It’s organic.”
A part of the turnaround on Notre Dame’s defensive line is, of course, an upgrade in talent. The Irish have roped in a handful of nationally coveted prospects who are now fully mature contributors. Junior Khalid Kareem, who has a team-high 10 tackles for loss, was committed to play at Alabama before changing his mind. That same year, the Irish flipped five-star recruit Daelin Hayes from rival USC, and the year earlier, they managed to pluck Jerry Tillery (seven sacks in 2018) out of LSU’s backyard.
Elston and the rest of the Irish defensive staff have elected to step back and let those talented linemen go to work rather than try to manufacture pressure. The Irish rarely bring more than their four down linemen after the quarterback in passing situations.
They also allow that group much more freedom. Rather than strict assignments, Notre Dame’s pass-rushers are taught to adapt on the fly. If an offensive tackle is cheating to the outside, for example, Kareem or Hayes can try to exploit that and beat him inside even if that doesn’t match their job responsibility in the defense that was called. The key to such a flexible style is having teammates who can recognize when one player is switching things up and react accordingly. If one player sees another going for the big play, he has to be able to adjust his plans and play a supporting role.
“I mean, it goes back to the relationships we have,” Kareem said. “We’ve been working each other for so long that it’s not robotic. It’s a flow. It’s organic. If I rush too far inside, I know Bonner or [Tillery] is going to be there to make me right. I’m not too worried about that.”
Elston said the ability to count on each other is what sets the 2018 group apart from other dominant lines the Irish have had in the past. They are, for instance, a step ahead of the 2012 group loaded with NFL talent that helped lead Notre Dame to its last undefeated season.
His players say they knew they had arrived at that point months ago when it came time for the first meetings of spring practice. The group had too many bodies to squeeze into its usual meeting room, so after a couple of days, it traded to a larger space usually occupied by the defensive backs. When Elston entered the new room for the first time, he found a row of empty chairs in the back and a group of large men wedged elbow to elbow around the tables toward the front. They wanted to be as close as possible.
The film sessions in that room have grown this year into a battleground where no one — not even Elston — is safe from a few wisecracks. The jokes are good-natured attempts to hold each other accountable. No one is above a correction from his teammates, even if things might not seem to serious from the outside looking in.
The linebackers and defensive backs who wander past the door now refer to the tightly packed room as “the café.” There is music blaring. There are usually a few guys laughing. There is, obviously, plenty of food. “They walk by like, ‘Oh, y’all in the café,'” Bonner said. “It might look like that. But no, that’s us getting work done. That’s what works for us.”