Spring Solutions: Linebackers

If there’s a reason to be optimistic about a defense that imploded last season, it’s the change to a 3-4 system. The switch allowed a defense that had personnel under-sized and out-of-position in an attacking, downhill, 4-3 scheme, to shift the balance of power back to the linebacking corps, the best collection of skilled defensive players on the roster.

Making the transition even easier is the fact that many of the players on the Irish roster were recruited to play in the very system the Irish return to under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. They’ll also return three starters at linebacker as well as key reserves like Kerry Neal and Steve Filer, who was a force during the Blue-Gold game.

While the Irish need to find a starting Will linebacker to play alongside Manti Te’o in the middle, there seem to be two capable starters in Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny, with Carlo Calabrese and Steve Paskorz also fighting for time.

Here’s a look at the Irish depth chart as we head into the fall, broken down by eligibility:

        LINEBACKERS DEPTH CHART
        2010: Brian Smith, Kerry Neal
        2011: Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Steve Paskorz
        2012: David Posluszny, Anthony McDonald, Manti Te’o
        2013: Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox
        2014: Prince Shembo, Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, Danny Spond

The senior class of linebackers is led by Brian Smith, who moves back to his natural outside linebacker position for his final season in South Bend. It’s been clear from comments made by both Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly that Smith is a great fit at the drop position, meaning he’ll spend more time out in space or in coverage than rushing the quarterback. For as much grief as Smith took for his play on the inside, not all linebackers have the versatility to play both inside and outside. (Plus, even the best inside linebackers can look pretty bad if their defensive front doesn’t protect them.) A position change might also benefit Kerry Neal, who had been playing out of position at defensive end after he was recruited to play outside backer in a 3-4 scheme. Neal battled a calf injury throughout spring, but was credited for his resiliency by Kelly.

Junior linebackers Darius Fleming and Steve Filer headline the 2011 class, with both Chicago products primed to make a leap into the headlines for the Irish defense. For Fleming, he’ll likely do most of his damage coming off the edge, as his 12 tackles for loss are the third most by an Irish underclassmen since 1976. (Credit: Lou Somogyi) Fleming was nicked for most of the Spring, but he’ll likely excel in a defensive system that produced a lot of sacks and big plays behind the line of scrimmage, already Fleming’s specialty. Filer has long dazzled with his athleticism, but the Blue-Gold game might have been a breakout performance, his 12 tackles and physicality something that coaches and fans have waited to witness since his arrival under the Dome. Filer will been a key rotational player with Smith and Fleming, and his ability to stay on the field for all three downs will only make it harder to get him off the field. Steve Paskorz rejoins the linebacking corp after spending the past two seasons at fullback. Paskorz was recruited to play inside linebacker and has the size and bulk needed to play on the inside, but he’ll be learning on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paskorz get some playing time in goal-line or short yardage sets, where the battering ram can contribute.

All three linebackers with sophomore eligibility play on the inside. Manti Te’o will step on the field with the best chance to be an elite player of any defender on the Irish roster. Te’o’s football IQ is quickly growing to match his physical abilities and his rare blend of size and speed make him a weapon at Mike linebacker. David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald will battle to play the spot next to Te’o, with both taking snaps at the Will this spring. McDonald has impressed Kelly with his physical play, and looks to finally be healthy after two star-crossed seasons. Poz, the younger brother of former Penn State star Paul Posluszny, is still a bit undersized to play in the middle, but has great instincts and used this offseason to make his way up the depth chart. McDonald or Posluszny’s ability to excel inside will be a key to the Irish having a stout run defense.

While both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox sat out last season, they’ve both made great impressions on the new coaching staff. Calabrese impressed during drills and made a great interception in coverage during the Blue-Gold game. Fox was mentioned by Kelly and Diaco as one of the five true options the Irish have at outside backer, which is a testament to the Ohio native’s ability. Both might need another season in strength trainer Paul Longo’s weight program, but these two have four good years ahead of them in the program, and at the very least could make a big difference on special teams.

It’ll be hard for any incoming freshman to push their way into the two-deep, but if I had to place a bet on one, it’d be Justin Utupo. Utupo has the size, athleticism, and pedigree to fit the mold of a play-early freshman, and has the potential to play a number of different positions, inside or out. The same could be said for Kendall Moore, who might profile better as an inside backer, but looks like he could have the athleticism to play out in space as well. We won’t know anything about Shembo, who also spent time playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end in high school, until he arrives for summer camp. Keep your eye out for developmental project Danny Spond as well, who I’m profiling as a linebacker for now, but might end up on the offensive side of the ball.

 

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    Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Backs

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    Notre Dame’s secondary presents one position of such strength it is continually pondered if raiding that depth could salvage the near-vacuum in the other half of the Irish defensive backfield. That was true before the season, and it remains the case now.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
    A bounty of cornerbacks, led by sophomore Julian Love, provided some sense of comfort in the Irish defense’s back line. A finally-healthy junior Shaun Crawford could finally contribute as a nickelback, and senior Nick Watkins, largely thanks to his length, established himself as a starter during spring practice.

    That marked three bona fide starters before even acknowledging the depth provided by sophomores Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride.

    Then there were the safeties. Such confidence in the depth chart did not exist in the spring or at any point of the preseason. Junior Nick Coleman secured one safety spot in the spring, while sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill failed to separate from each other in the competition to line up alongside Coleman. To be clear, that was not a credit to both showing such great abilities.

    When the NCAA denied sophomore Alohi Gilman’s waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy, Elliott became the de facto starter.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
    On paper, Love’s season was essentially unparalleled. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns and nearly managed a third. Rare can a coaching staff genuinely and reasonably discuss moving a position’s best player, but Love very well may be the best Irish safety, as well. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has admitted as much as a distinct possibility.

    Junior cornerback Shaun Crawford did quite a bit of everything for Notre Dame in his first healthy season. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    For now, though, Love remains at cornerback. Crawford complemented him excellently in a playmaking sense, forcing his impact upon the game even more than could have been anticipated, though it is logical to think finally seeing a season’s worth of action tired his legs by the end.

    Watkins, meanwhile, put together a strong season until knee tendonitis limited him — and created an opportunity for Pride to prematurely insert himself into 2018’s conversations — in November. In the moment, Watkins seemed a weakness against Miami (OH) when RedHawks junior receiver James Gardner caught two touchdowns over Watkins. With time diminishing overreactions, Gardner’s success seems a credit to him (and his 6-foot-4 frame) more than a knock on Watkins.

    For that matter, it may not have been a knock on Watkins at all. Let’s pull from the respective “Things We Learned”As much as one may want to see Watkins break each of those passes up, it could also be wondered why there was not a safety helping on the occasion. That latter position remains the biggest Irish concern, offensive or defensive.

    That concern remains pressing. Coleman played alright, but did not necessarily excel. Any continuing debate between Elliott and Studstill persists yet out of lack of a strong impression. The rest of the Irish defense’s surge limited the dramatic effect of the positional need, but it cannot be denied, nonetheless.

    STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
    Opponents passed more often against Notre Dame this season than they did a year ago. It makes sense; the Irish led more often and for much of the year, led by large margins. Thus, the averages offer a better comparison between the autumns as a rough estimate of passing efficiency.

    2016: 2,357 yards allowed on 193-of-313 passing; 61.66 percent completion rate; 7.53 yards per attempt; 12.21 yards per completion.
    2017: 2,562 yards allowed on 233-of-412 passing; 56.55 percent completion rate; 6.22 yards per attempt; 11.00 yards per completion.

    So. Julian Love — 62 tackles; three interceptions; 17 pass breakups.
    Jr. Nick Coleman — 42 tackles; three pass breakups.
    So. Jalen Elliott — 38 tackles; one pass breakup.
    Jr. Shaun Crawford — 32 tackles; two interceptions, five pass breakups; two fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
    Sr. Nick Watkins — 27 tackles; one interception; eight pass breakups.
    So. Troy Pride — 22 tackles; one interception; two pass breakups.
    So. Devin Studstill — 16 tackles.
    Fr. Isaiah Robertson — Eight tackles.
    So. Donte Vaughn — Six tackles.

    COMING QUESTIONS
    Earning a nod as defensive scout team player of the year should speak to Gilman’s potential impact in 2018. By all indications, he was the best safety on the roster in 2017 with the arguable exception of Love. Will Gilman live up to this billing?

    As it pertains to Love, the coaching staff should move him to safety only if the gap between him and the otherwise starter there is greater than the gap between Love and the next man up at cornerback, presumably Pride. (In this respect, compare it to senior Alex Bars lining up at right guard this season rather than right tackle, his previous position. He was the best option at right tackle, but the drop from Bars to sophomore Tommy Kraemer and freshman Robert Hainsey was minimal. The talent discrepancy between Bars and any other right guard option would have been much more drastic.) Is it in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s best interests to keep Love at cornerback or move the excellent defender to safety?

    If it is not Love who provides a minimum of depth at safety, it could be a recruit. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith comes to mind not only due to his commitment this week, but also because he fits right into Notre Dame’s needs.

    A similar thought applies to current freshman Isaiah Robertson. He saw special teams action this season. A full year readying in a college system could have him poised to contribute, be it in support of Coleman or in place of him.

    OUTSIDE READING
    ND Insider’s Eric Hansen put together a worthwhile read on Gilman following last week’s program awards: Full speed ahead? There’s no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman

    INSIDE THE IRISH READING
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

    Notre Dame beats Michigan for three-star TE Tommy Tremble

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    One of Notre Dame’s deepest positions got even stronger with the Thursday morning commitment of rivals.com three-star tight end Tommy Tremble (Wesleyan High School; Norcross, Ga.). The No. 18 tight end in the class, per rivals.com, Tremble’s decision essentially came down to the Irish or Michigan.

    A Wednesday night visit from Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and running backs coach Autry Denson may have played a part in tipping the scales, though Tremble told Blue & Gold Illustrated he had been leaning toward the Irish since his official visit in October.

    “There’s not many tight ends in the country that can do the kind of things that I can do,” Tremble said, then referencing Long’s view of the position in his system. “[Long] said with that in this type of offensive scheme it could be explosive.

    “I’m going to be the hardest working at the entire college at anything. At everything too, not just football. I’m just going to make it work.”

    In his first season at Notre Dame, Long showed his predilection for using multiple tight ends at a time, often pairing fifth-year senior Durham Smythe with junior Alizé Mack. Smythe would act as an additional offensive lineman who could slip out for a route while Mack’s duties were more akin to a receiver’s as often as not. Smythe finished his best collegiate season with 13 catches for 234 yards and a touchdown while Mack added 19 catches for 166 yards and a score. Current senior and returning fifth-year Nic Weishar chipped in seven catches for 39 yards and two touchdowns.

    With two tight ends in this class now — Tremble joins consensus four-star George Takacs (Gulf Coast H.S.; Naples, Fla.) — Long should be able to continue with such as often as he wants. In 2017 he showed no caution in deploying freshmen Brock Wright and Cole Kmet occasionally. Presumably, Tremble and Takacs could see similar workloads from the outset.

    The No. 52 overall player in Georgia, Tremble also held offers from Georgia, Auburn and UCLA, among others. He is the 20th commitment in the class with the early signing period commencing Wednesday.

    Last week, Weishar declared his intention to return for a fifth year.

    Notre Dame lands four-star former FSU commit, Houston Griffith, at safety

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    If its defensive backfield was a concern this recruiting cycle, Notre Dame is putting together a strong finish to the class of 2018 to eradicate those worries. Consensus four-star Houston Griffith (IMG Academy; Bradenton, Fla.) became the second defensive back to commit to the Irish this week with his Tuesday evening declaration and the fifth of Notre Dame’s 19 (and counting) expected signees.

    Griffith immediately becomes the most highly-rated commit in the Irish class. Rivals.com considers him the No. 3 safety in the class, the No. 9 player in Florida and the No. 35 overall prospect in the country. He had long been a Notre Dame target but initially committed to Florida State, partly due to the Irish struggles a year ago.

    After Notre Dame showed much improvement this season — more specifically, its defensive shift — Griffith reopened his recruitment in late November.

    “The changes that [Irish coach Brian Kelly] made really helped,” Griffith told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “The guys I know up there tell me it’s a different program, it’s a different team up there. Last season was a learning year and this year shows that they are starting to get all the pieces.”

    Griffith has certainly bought in on the direction trending from 2016 to 2017.

    “I feel like the next few years all the pieces are there to compete for a national championship.”

    In addition to the Seminoles, Griffith held scholarship offers from the vast majority of college football’s powers, including Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and USC.

    He presents as a safety and seems to have been targeted as one, but he could also see early time at cornerback. In theory, a freshman may have a better chance of grasping that latter position. Then again, Notre Dame has a few established playmakers at cornerback; it very much does not have that luxury at safety.

    At either position, Griffith and his fellow defensive back commits should shore up a position grouping that the Irish essentially whiffed on in 2017, when only two safeties were signed (Isaiah Robertson and Jordan Genmark-Heath) with no cornerbacks in the mix. Griffith is the third safety in the class of 2018, joining consensus four-star Derrik Allen (Lassiter H.S.; Marietta, Ga.) and consensus three-star Paul Moala (Penn; Mishawaka, Ind.).

    All three, as well as the two cornerback commits and the other 14 prospects, are intended to sign with Notre Dame during this year’s early signing period, Dec. 20-22.

    Where Notre Dame was & is: Running Backs

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    Notre Dame’s running game stood little chance of exceeding expectations this season, considering how ambitious they were to start. This space’s preseason predictions, intended as a conservative and realistic harbinger of the months then-ahead, projected junior running back Josh Adams to gain 1,174 to 1,274 rushing yards this season. That upper limit would have placed Adams fourth in Irish program history, just ahead of his position coach’s 1,268 yards gained in 1997.

    With a game to go, Adams stands only 51 yards of breaking Vagas Ferguson’s single-season record of 1,437 rushing yards, set back in 1979.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
    In addition to the anticipation regarding Adams’ third season as a contributor, the Notre Dame backfield had depth entering the season. Junior Dexter Williams could provide a speed threat while sophomore Tony Jones built on springtime buzz as a do-everything option, often described as the best receiver of the group.

    Early-enrolled freshman C.J. Holmes’ shoulder injury in spring practice seemingly sidelined him for the season, opening the door for sophomore Deon McIntosh to move from receiver to the backfield as a rest-granting fourth-stringer.

    WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
    As good as the season was for the Irish on the ground, it will be marked by “What if” thoughts as much as anything else. What if Adams had not worn down as the season progressed? What if Williams had been healthy for more than a week or two in the season’s first two months?

    Even with his figurative crawl to the season’s conclusion, Adams surpassed all preseason projections and expectations. It still must be noted he gained only 195 yards on 54 carries in the final three regular season games, a 3.61 average.

    Williams, meanwhile, was limited throughout the year. At the beginning, specifically against Georgia, that appeared to be by coaching decisions, but for most of the season, ankle and quad ailments robbed the speedster of his primary quality.

    Absolutely no one expected sophomore Deon McIntosh to be the second-leading rusher among Notre Dame’s running backs in 2017. Credit to McIntosh, though, for making the most of an opportunity granted by others’ injuries.(Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    Jones, when healthy, provided a schematic shift as much as any statistical production. Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chip Long clearly preferred Jones to be half of any two-back formation, due to Jones’ overall aptness.

    McIntosh capitalized on every chance granted him, providing fourth-quarter rest to those limping from sprained ankles whenever the Irish had a worthwhile lead.

    STATISTICALLY SPEAKING
    Some of a statistical influx in rushing production should be credited to junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, but the ground game as a whole was more successful in 2017 than it was a year ago no matter how the numbers are dissected.

    2016: 2,123 yards on 410 carries (sacks adjusted); 176.9 yards per game and 5.18 yards per rush.
    2017: 3,462 yards on 501 carries (sacks adjusted); 288.5 yards per game and 6.91 yards per rush.

    — Jr. Josh Adams: 1,386 yards on 191 carries; nine touchdowns; 7.3 yards per rush; 10 catches for 82 yards.
    — So. Deon McIntosh: 368 yards on 65 carries; five touchdowns; 5.7 yards per rush; three catches for eight yards.
    — Jr. Dexter Williams: 324 yards on 37 carries; four touchdowns; 8.8 yards per rush; two catches for 13 yards.
    — So. Tony Jones: 232 yards on 43 carries; three touchdowns; 5.4 yards per rush; four catches for 13 yards.
    — Fr. C.J. Holmes: 32 yards on eight carries; 4.0 yards per rush.

    COMING QUESTIONS
    Will Adams stay for his senior year and further his assault on the Notre Dame record books or will he head to the NFL Draft with a year of collegiate eligibility remaining? He very much should take the latter option. Running backs’ careers are not long due to the very nature of the position. For the second year in a row, that wear and tear proved itself on Adams. There is little chance he could put together an even better season in 2018.

    Thus, this is his chance to go in the Draft’s first couple rounds. By every reasoning, Adams should take this opportunity.

    When utilized, junior running back Dexter Williams has proven to be a viable threat for Notre Dame. He has not always been incorporated into the game plan, though, partly due to classmate Josh Adams’ rampant success. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

    At that point, will Long be able to incorporate Williams into the two-back set? Those multiple running back formations were some of the most productive looks for the Irish offense, and they almost entirely came with Jones joining Adams. Between pass-catching and pass-blocking, Williams lagged behind those two significantly. For the threats presented in a two-back alignment to be real, though, he will need to broaden his skillset appropriately.

    If Williams doesn’t, could a healthy Holmes plug into the system? As much praise as McIntosh received, and earned, this season, he will never be the answer in the Notre Dame backfield. Holmes may be.

    With Wimbush again the presumed starter in 2018, the ground game will be featured for another fall. The offensive line is (almost certainly) losing two first-round Draft picks, but it has enough experience to hold its own moving forward. Which back emerges as the workhorse if Adams turns pro could be the biggest offensive question all spring and summer. Williams may present the most big-play potential, but Jones has already shown greater consistency overall.

    Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Linebackers
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Special Teams
    Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight Ends