Notre Dame Defense Resting Better With Daniel Cage's Progress
After grading out the film last week against Nevada, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly declared that junior nose guard Daniel Cage had just played the best game of his career — which he had also done the week prior in the double-overtime loss at Texas in the opener.
“Back-to-back weeks is usually the first level of finding that kind of player that is elevating,” Kelly said. “He was really focused, had a great week of practice, he's been injury-free. He ran into a bit of an issue last year with sleep apnea, and we've got that corrected. He's getting proper rest. He's getting the kind of rest that he needs to be the kind of player that we thought he could be … he was outstanding.”
Sleep apnea is a condition where breathing — or the lack thereof — disrupts sleeping patterns. In tests last spring, it was discovered that Cage stopped breathing for 30 seconds per half hour and averaged only four hours of sleep per night. The transition from deep sleep, of which there is very little, to light sleep, made Cage much more fatigued and lethargic during the day.
“I’ve had it for a while, in high school too,” said Cage, who starred at Winton Woods High in Cincinnati. “In high school it didn’t really affect me because of the schedule I was on. In college … sleep [is] very important.”
To pass the time when he couldn’t sleep, the 6-1, 315-pound Cage would engage in his favorite pastime of writing — “I’m working on a novel right now” — including poetry. During this spring, the Notre Dame medical staff had him begin using a CPAP machine in which distilled water is used and air is pumped through his nasal passages via a mask he wears.
“The test was very uncomfortable because they make you sleep on your back, and I never sleep on my back,” Cage said. “But now I am a whole lot comfortable with it. I can’t sleep without it and it helps me sleep 100 percent better. I really have no problems now.
“I had difficulty adjusting to it — not used to having something on my face when sleeping — but then after a week it was a lot better.”
That was only part one of the equation for his surge this year. Part two was a better and more dedicated approach to nutrition.
“Last year I was really overweight, 330 [pounds],” admitted Cage, who said he is more in the 310-pound range now. “I couldn’t play like that, I couldn’t be as effective for the team at that weight, so I had to go down. I was [put] on a high protein diet.”
With Jarron Jones sidelined last year because of a knee injury, Cage and then freshman Jerry Tillery tag-teamed at nose guard. Cage started seven times and Tillery only three, but Tillery finished with more snaps (351) than Cage (262) because of the conditioning aspects. Cage was more productive statistically (18 tackles, four for loss) than Tillery (12 tackles, two for loss), but he couldn’t stay on the field as long.
This year, with Jones back and Tillery moved to Sheldon Day’s vacated defensive tackle slot, the projection from Kelly was that that Cage and Jones would split about “25 to 35 snaps” per contest at the demanding nose guard slot.
Unofficially, Cage had 44 snaps against Nevada while Jones had 17, although Jones’ second-quarter interception inside the Wolf Pack 10 received much more notice. A week earlier, Cage took 32 snaps at Texas to Jones’ 25.
This weekend at Notre Dame Stadium, Cage very easily could have been in Michigan State green. That was the school he was headed to, and he had developed a close relationship with Spartans assistant head coach/co-defensive coordinator Harlon Barnett, a fellow Cincinnati native. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco (2010-13) was not interested in Cage because he did not fit an overall physical profile he wanted at nose guard. When Brian VanGorder was hired in the winter of 2014, and with the Irish in need of more interior linemen, they turned their attention toward Cage and it paid off.
“I was going to head [to Michigan State], but after coming here for my official visit it changed my whole opinion on what I wanted to do,” said Cage, who took his official to Notre Dame on Jan. 29, the week before signing day. “Just seeing the culture, tradition, and the education was top of the tops.”
He also understands the extremely physical culture of Michigan State, where his style would have been a good fit as well.
“I love games like this just to show how tough I really am — and the team as a whole,” Cage said. "It really sets the standard of how we should go about games like this … They’re a running team. Their offensive line is known for their physicality. Our front, we have to make sure we have to get off the ball, be just as physical back. It starts up front.
“Beating Michigan State is going to get us back on track on where we need to be and where we want to go.”
And hopefully no longer sleep on the Irish, or Cage, this year.
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