While neither player was healthy at the same time last year, Notre Dame will realize a harsh reality this spring: Replacing Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt is a difficult task.
The two 300-plus pound defensive linemen anchored Notre Dame's front seven during 2012's run to the BCS Championship, but turned in disappointing 2013 seasons thanks to a few nagging injuries. Both players leave big shoes to fill, though, and the process of filling them begins in March.
The problem, to some extent, is that Notre Dame won't have a full outfit of players to evaluate this spring. Defensive tackle Tony Springmann appears limited at best for spring practice following a torn ACL in August and an ensuing infection in his surgically-repaired knee in the fall. 2014 recruits Grant Blankenship, Daniel Cage, Jay Hayes and Pete Mokwuah aren't on campus yet, either.
There's a silver lining to all those absences, though: It'll give Jarron Jones plenty of reps at nose guard, and lend an opportunity to someone else to work inside as well. Jones showed promise toward the end of 2013 but at this point needs as many reps as he can get, seeing as he's the early favorite to start at nose guard this fall but doesn't have a lot of in-game experience.
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Opposite Sheldon Day are three intriguing names at defensive end: Chase Hounshell, Isaac Rochell and Andrew Trumbetti.
Hounshell missed the last two seasons with injuries but is finally healthy heading into March, and should compete for playing time.
Rochell backed up Tuitt and Day as a freshman last fall and saw a good amount of snaps -- though keep an eye on his weight heading into spring practice. He weighed in at 280 pounds last year, but adding to his 6-foot-3 frame could make him an ideal candidate to start for a defense that'll continue to operate out of a 3-4 base defense.
Trumbetti is undersized for a typical Notre Dame defensive end, coming to South Bend as an early-enrolling freshmen at 260 pounds. But he's a former track athlete who also returned kicks for his high school team and possesses excellent athleticism.
Also in the mix this spring will be graduate student-to-be Justin Utupo, junior Antony Rabasa and freshman Jacob Matuska.
The gold standard for Notre Dame defensive lines is 2012's Tuitt-Nix-Kapron Lewis-Moore trio, which in retrospect was about as elite as it gets up front (Lewis-Moore didn't get the credit he deserved for Notre Dame's defensive success that year, for what it's worth). On paper, Notre Dame's current group of defensive linemen don't have the ability to equal those guys, but with an improved secondary and an infusion of talent at linebacker all this unit may need to be is good enough.