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August 20, 2012
Mike Elston will make the comparison, even if he doesn't see much of one.
When Notre Dame's defensive line coach surveys his position at training camp's conclusion, he sees a group with better depth and better trust. Even without Aaron Lynch, who quit the program last spring, Elston likes what he has.
"We're way better. It's not even close to last year," Elston said. "We have more experience. Chase (Hounshell) has more experience than the other guys had a year ago and he's had a spring with us. Sheldon (Day) is not like a normal freshman. He's been taught a lot of great things in high school and it's carried over. You don't think of Sheldon Day as a freshman.
"We've got as good of depth as we've had since we've been here."
Hounshell and Day are slotted as Notre Dame backup defensive ends behind starters Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt. Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke continue to rotate at nose guard. Jarron Jones and Tony Springmann round out the position as reserves with Tyler Stockton a likely scout team contributor.
In addition to Lynch, Notre Dame lost Ethan Johnson to graduation. While comparing this line to last year's group is difficult from the outside, there's no question the position is improved from Elston's first season. Back then Notre Dame had one senior (Ian Williams), one sophomore (Stockton) and no real freshman contributor.
Today, Elston enters the season trusting all six contributors in his rotation, even if Hounshell is coming off spring shoulder surgery, Lewis-Moore returns from a season-ending knee injury and Day has yet to take a college snap.
Elston believes the relationship between coach and player has improved too. The position had its share of drama in the past 12 months with Lynch's departure, Nix struggling through spring ball and severe injuries to Lewis-Moore and Johnson. Injuries might pop up again, but Elston believes he's better tuned to his players and vice versa.
"They trust me. They know that I've got their best interest in mind," he said. "If they've got something ailing, they know I can protect them in the course of a drill. I'm not going to comprise them. That's come a long way."
The same goes for the nose guard position where Nix appears to have his mind right and Schwenke continues to make physical gains, even with a broken bone in his right hand that required a protective cast.
"It's not even close. It's probably one of our most improved positions," Elston said.
That starts with an improvement in attitude from Nix. As much as head coach Brian Kelly said the rut the junior hit last spring was overblown, it was impossible to miss the fact Notre Dame's leading tackler on the defensive line had been demoted.
The blowup Nix had at the end of the Champs Sports Bowl seemed to carry over in the spring. It appears it won't linger into this season, with Nix again running with the first team.
"It's been a challenge for everybody involved with him," Elston said. "To see him grow through that is great. You don't get a lot of guys like a Sheldon Day that went through a very good high school program and was very well taught with good techniques. You get guys that need to develop in a lot of different areas. It's been fun watching Louis develop."
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