Stepping up… The linebackers

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If it feels like beating a dead horse to say that the Irish defense played below expectations last year, I apologize. But trying to put the linebacker play into context is difficult, because each position grouping in a defense depends on the other. Without a great pass rush, the secondary looks bad. Without tight coverage, the defensive line won’t get that much needed pressure on the quarterback. Blitzing linebackers help cover up deficiencies in the pass rush, but also exploit weaknesses in coverage. The problems with the Irish defense were numerous, and without knowing the schematic choices, its tough to say what exactly went wrong. 

Regardless of where the defense gave way, the linebacking unit didn’t have a great season. Too often, the middle of the defense struggled to stop the run, was a step late getting to the quarterback on a blitz, or failed to make tackles in space. While freshman Manti Te’o dazzled many with his potential, he was still a freshman learning on the job. The linebacking crew was high on Smiths — Brian, Harrison, Toryan, and Scott —  but low on production.

This offseason, the Irish will install a new defensive system which puts another linebacker on the field. Brian Kelly already mentioned that one Smith, Harrison, is moving back to the secondary, and two Smiths, Toryan and Scott, and graduating. Let’s take a look at who’s going, who’s staying, and who needs to step up.

KEY LOSSES:

According to BGS, the Irish return 88-percent of the minutes at linebacker, so the losses aren’t plentiful. Still, if there was ever a system suited for Toryan Smith, it was in the inside of a 3-4 defense. The Irish also lose special teams captain Scott Smith, a good role player who also made a lot of appearances on special teams.

RETURNING STARTERS:

While most people don’t generally worry about a sophomore linebacker returning, Manti Te’o’s decision to delay his church mission was a huge victory for Brian Kelly’s defense. Te’o’s role is still to be determined under coordinator Bob Diaco, but he’ll likely be a focal point, and I expect him to make the leap from great freshman to elite linebacker this season. Brian Smith also returns for his senior campaign. Smith bounced inside and out at linebacker to make way for Te’o, but seemed outside his comfort zone playing on the interior. Harrison Smith technically returns as a starter, but likely won’t see the field as a linebacker.

STEPPING UP:

Projecting what linebackers make the leap this season is a crap shoot. The Irish roster isn’t shy on highly-projected linebacker recruits. Now it’s time for a group of them to step up and take the extra playing time available and the extra place in the defensive alignment. From a depth chart perspective, the Irish are as deep as they’ve been at linebacker in recent memory. Unfortunately, a lot of that depth is unproven. Here are three picks to make a run at some serious playing time.

Steve Filer: Filer is one of the few athletes on the Irish roster that physically fit the profile of an outside backer in the new 3-4 system. The Chicago native played in all 12 games for the Irish, but spent most of his time on special teams. There’s no doubting his athleticism, and for the Irish to get some production out of an outside linebacker, Filer is the obvious candidate to make a difference.

Anthony McDonald: Kelly and Diaco likely will spend this Spring deciding who plays in the middle of the Irish defense. McDonald, who redshirted during his freshman season, seems a likely candidate to get a chance at earning one of the two spots. McDonald is a big kid that runs well, but we’ve got no real idea how he’ll react to getting thrown into the inside linebacker competition. He spent a lot of time on the field last season on special teams and made 10 tackles.

Carlo Calabrese: Calabrese is another guy that could find himself in the middle of the Irish defense. Calabrese had offers from plenty of the big boys, including Urban Meyer, and the New Jersey native just looks like the kind of guy that’d fit in the middle of a defense. It’ll be the first experience he has on the field collegiately, but Calabrese’s ability to step up and seize a job would be great for the Irish defense.

Dark Horses: Just about any of the young linebackers have a shot to make a mark on the field this year. Calabrese and McDonald’s names could’ve been Dan Fox or David Posluszny. I also don’t count out guys like true freshman Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, and Prince Shembo, all good sized guys that can possibly play on the edge. While Darius Fleming is technically being called a defensive end, it’ll be interesting if Diaco and Kelly have him playing without a hand on the ground, taking advantage of his ability to rush the passer and also play in space.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.

Clark Lea formally named Linebackers Coach

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UND.com
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Notre Dame formally introduced new linebackers coach Clark Lea on Thursday. The press release for the 35-year-old  included the following quote from the new assistant who has worked at Bowling Green, UCLA and Wake Forest, and rejoins Mike Elko in South Bend.

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said in a statement. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”

That work has already begun, with Lea on the prowl as the recruiting dead period ended and the rebuilt Irish staff hit the road. Yesterday, Lea was with defensive coordinator Mike Elko visiting commit David Adams, a key piece of the Irish puzzle on the defensive side of the ball. That starts a mad rush that’ll keep Lea’s belongs in boxes until after the first Wednesday in February, as Elko and his reshuffled defensive staff open their recruiting board, finding replacements for a handful of de-commitments and pieces that’ll fit Elko’s scheme.

If there’s any reason for optimism after a tough few weeks in recruiting, it’s the young staff that Kelly has assembled. The youth movement includes not just Lea, but the 39-year-old Elko. New offensive coordinator Chip Long is just 33, moving to Notre Dame after one season at Memphis. Running backs coach Autry Denson just turned 40 while special teams coordinator Brian Polian is practically long in the tooth at 42. (All that comes before the expected announcement of 25-year-old Tommy Rees.)

Lea’s pedigree is rock solid, earning kudos in 2012 for his work as Linebackers coach at Bowling Green, Football Scoop’s Linebackers Coach of the Year.

“Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” Kelly said in the release. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system — having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

 

 

 

Reports: Lea, Alexander added to Irish coaching staff

delvaughn
ASU Sports Information
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Brian Kelly is adding to his rebuilt coaching staff, reportedly finalizing deals with Wake Forest linebackers coach Clark Lea and Arizona State assistant DelVaughn Alexander. Lea will reunite with Mike Elko and coach linebackers and Alexander will coach wide receivers. While both hires are still going through formal university vetting, the Lea hire has long been rumored before being reported by SI’s Pete Thamel. FootballScoop.com broke the news on Alexander, before multiple outlets confirmed the report.

In Lea, Elko brings a piece of his coaching staff with him to South Bend. The 35-year-old spent last season working in Winston-Salem and spent three seasons at Syracuse before that. He worked with Elko and Demon Deacons head coach Dave Clawson at Bowling Green and has spent time as an assistant at UCLA as well. He earned three letters at Vanderbilt, a 2004 graduate.

Alexander is a veteran presence to help replace Mike Denbrock and fill his void coaching receivers. He’s also a coach with first-hand knowledge of new coordinator Chip Long, having worked alongside him in Tempe under Mike Norvell. The move also comes in time for the reopen of the recruiting season’s home stretch, bringing a capable West Coast recruiter to the staff at a time when Notre Dame’s 2017 class is leaking a bit of oil.

Alexander played wide receiver at USC, playing for Larry Smith and John Robinson, before breaking into the coaching ranks there as a graduate assistant. He’s also had stops at UNLV, coached for Jim Harbaugh at San Diego, and spent significant time at Wisconsin and Arizona State where he coached multiple positions, taking over tight ends after Long left for Memphis.

Chip Long in as Offensive Coordinator… and play-caller

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Notre Dame’s formal press release introducing Chip Long as the new offensive coordinator did more than confirm news that we’ve known for a few weeks. It let us in on Brian Kelly’s initial plans for his offense heading into a pivotal offseason.

After some struggles in 2016 with DeShone Kizer and an inexperienced wide receiving corps, most expected Kelly to rip back control of the offense after Mike Denbrock called the plays and Mike Sanford coordinated the offense. But Kelly is going to let Long call the plays next season, adding some intrigue to a press release that usually is vanilla.

“Chip will be given the full responsibility to call plays in 2017,” Kelly said in the release. “His offense at Memphis displayed a unique blend of physicality, athleticism, versatility and explosiveness. Chip’s play-calling created mismatches all over the field and did it in a number of different ways. He likes to use players who can fill numerous roles in an array of formations, whether that be two and three tight ends or multiple running backs.

“Chip has experience coaching at almost every position on the offensive side of the ball. He’s worked for and learned from some of the most respected offensive minds in college football — Bobby Petrino, Mike Norvell and Jeff Brohm — to name a few.”

That Kelly is handing over play-calling to Long, who called plays last year for Mike Norvell at Memphis, is a surprise on the surface. But if you listen to Kelly over the past few seasons, he’s always downplayed that responsibility. Most thought he was simply playing coy, though Kelly seems to value game plan and installation as something at least as important as calling the plays.

But after splitting the baby between Denbrock and Sanford these past two seasons (the three-man collaboration worked much better in 2015 than 2016–possibly explained by the personnel) perhaps Kelly sees a singular voice as a key to improving an Irish offense that’ll have to replace Kizer, but should welcome back the majority of offensive playmakers, as well as Alizé Jones. Giving that assignment to Long will also let Kelly dig in as a head coach, working with first-year starter Brandon Wimbush and staying connected to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko and his installation.

Long’s work on campus will likely take flight as soon as the recruiting dead period is over. Known for his tenacity on the trail, Notre Dame is in desperate need of getting back into living rooms, trying to get back some momentum as a few defections have spoiled the 2017 class, and a handful of spots are available in this upcoming signing class.

Long will also likely work with tight ends, a position he played as a D-II All-American and that he coached at Memphis last season. Scott Booker coached tight ends since 2012.

“It’s an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to serve as the offensive coordinator at the University of Notre Dame,” Long said in the statement. “The challenge to lead at a University with such high standards is incredibly motivating. I’m very grateful to Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for extending this opportunity.

“It’s Notre Dame: the values, the culture, and the leadership. My wife, Kari, and I are excited to move to South Bend and to join the Notre Dame family.”