Daniel Cage played admirably in his "next man in" role in 2014. He hopes to do so again in 2015.

Preseason Practice Update - August 17

Aug. 17, 2015

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Next man in.

Those words came from the mouth of Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder too often over the second half of 2014 through a rash of defensive injuries. In hindsight, however, two positives emerged which will bolster the 2015 defense.

Notre Dame saw an extraordinary number of players gain invaluable playing experience in 2014 as 20 different players started a game. Also, for better or worse, Irish backups know how to prepare themselves for when that “next man in” call comes.

Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery received that call on Friday afternoon when starting defensive tackle Jarron Jones was lost for the season during practice.

Now a sophomore, Cage is among the Irish defenders who gained experience last fall after injuries to Jones and Sheldon Day led to an increase in his playing time at tackle. He knows that, while his heart may ache for his trench teammate Jones, his heart also races with the opportunity to play a greater role in helping the Irish achieve success on the field.

“I’m more confident because I know what’s coming, what to expect and what to look for,” Cage said. “I know the plays very well. Last year, I was trying to survive. Now, it’s time to get this one for the team.

“As soon as (Jones) got injured, that’s when the light went on. He’s hurt and I have to step up and be the next man in. I can’t come in and do worse and hurt the team. I need to step up and help the team win.”

The hulking Tillery came to Notre Dame in January as an early enrollee and those extra six months are paying dividends in his knowledge of VanGorder’s complex NFL-style defensive scheme.

“I can see if I hadn’t been here in the spring the volume would start to hit,” Tillery said. “There’s a lot of plays we’re running — a lot of stuff we have to know. I’ve been here since January and I know the defense better.”

Along with his playbook, weight room regimen, academic offerings and dormitory life, Tillery has also been immersed in Kelly’s program long enough to know what must happen starting on the snap after Jones suffered his injury.

“They told us, that’s the culture here,” Tillery said of the “next man in” mentality. “We’ve all been working consistently through summer and camp to get better. That’s what we’re here for. When we get our chance, we’ve got to make the most of it. That’s been my mentality since I’ve been here. I get my chance. Now I have to go do what I can do and help the team.”

The defensive line is fortunate to have veteran leadership from Sheldon Day, Isaac Rochell, Romeo Okwara and others. Some of that is rubbing off on Cage. Although just a sophomore himself, he sees that his role, forged from the second half of the 2014 season, is to help bring the freshman Tillery along to be of help to the greater good of Notre Dame.

“I’m showing Jerry what we’re going to go through during the season,” Cage said knowing that both he and Tillery will see an increase in their snaps without Jones. “He’s watching me so I have to step up and show him how to do things as an older guy. Freshmen watch me so I have to have my A-game. (There’s) no slack and I make sure I’m pushing every play so they can follow as well.”

While the Irish would love to have Jones back, the team has travelled down this road enough in recent memory to know how to continue travelling down the road to a national championship.

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After practice this morning, the Irish went to the South Bend Country Club for the fourth annual BK Open. As usual, good times and hilarity ensued. Jordan Spieth’s place atop the world golf rankings is same…for now.

And, one non-golfing tweet…

— written and compiled by Leigh Torbin, athletic communications assistant director, and Michael Bertsch, director of football media relations