The big man is gone.
After three seasons of watching Louis Nix III dominate the line of scrimmage, Notre Dame will need to find Nix's replacement at the point of attack. After earning his degree, Nix decided to leave a fifth year in South Bend behind, ready to take his Irish Chocolate act to Sundays.
Finding a replacement for the best defensive lineman in the country, according to Stanford's David Shaw, won't be easy. But as the Irish head into spring practice, expect to see the beginning stages of Life Without Lou, with multiple players tasked with filling Nix's very big shoes.
If Irish fans are looking for a silver lining in Nix's departure, it's that it comes at a perfect time. With new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder taking over, the Irish will begin implementing tweaks to their base 3-4 system.
Those changes would've been necessary regardless, with nobody ready to take on "two-gap" responsibilities. But VanGorder's defensive identity, combined with personnel limitations, push the burden of filling Nix's shoes onto more than one player.
That being said, we got a sneak peak at Nix's replacement down the stretch last season, and Jarron Jones showed himself to be up to the task. Showing flashes of strong play in the final three games, Jones made 13 tackles after Nix's season was pronounced over.
At 6'5.5" and 305 pounds, Jones is hardly small, and the converted defensive end found comfort lining up right over the ball. A defensive tackle by accident, Jones ended up the next man in after injuries to Tony Springmann and Kona Schwenke forced him to sink or swim in a must-win game against BYU.
After a difficult transition from high school football to Notre Dame, the light bulb has finally flashed on for the Rochester, N.Y. native. Jones thrived in the moment, relishing the opportunity and staking his claim to the nose guard job in 2014.
“I would love to be that guy,” Jones told me after making seven tackles against BYU. “Obviously, playing nose guard today, that was a lot of fun. This game was a lot of fun.”
There's optimism inside the Irish program that Jones can be more than capable filling in at nose guard. But Notre Dame has also transitioned its recruiting mold at defensive tackle, willing to look at a wider variety of player profiles as it recruits defensive linemen.
Brian Kelly talked about that on signing day, when he acknowledged that the Irish cast a wider net after Bob Diaco departed for UConn, targeting and bringing in versatile defensive tackles Pete Mokwuah and Daniel Cage after Diaco didn't offer either scholarships.
"I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly acknowledged. "We were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."
That adjustment will likely be seen on the field next season with players already on the roster. If healthy, Tony Springmann can provide that type of versatility. After suffering a serious knee injury and then battling infection, Springmann is finally back on track to return.
As the Irish spend more time playing with four down linemen, defensive end Sheldon Day might be utilized on the interior as well. Plagued by injuries for most of last season, Day isn't a prototype nose guard, but he's the type of player that can get upfield and make plays, with the heft to play inside and wreak havoc as a one-gap player.
You never truly replace a player like Louis Nix III. But with a tweak in philosophy both on the field and off, and some key rising players already on the depth chart, Notre Dame will forge ahead without him.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
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