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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    Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

    Rivals.com
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    Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
    2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
    Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
    Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

    CAREER TO DATE
    McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

    QUOTE(S)
    Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

    “He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

    “He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

    Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

    “It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

    McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

    WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
    I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

    “If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

    “Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

    2017 OUTLOOK
    Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

    This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

    Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

    DOWN THE ROAD
    Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

    That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


    2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
    Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
    No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
    No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
    No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
    No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
    No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
    No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
    No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
    No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
    No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
    No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
    No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end

    Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end

    Rivals.com
    4 Comments

    Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 252 pounds
    2017-18 year, eligibility: Early enrolled freshman with four seasons of eligibility remaining
    Depth chart: Wright joined the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster at his first opportunity, and by doing so he inserted himself into the mix for playing time behind fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack. Wright will have a legitimate chance to pass seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, if he hasn’t already, for pass-catching opportunities this season. Classmate Cole Kmet will fill out the positional group this summer, but that simple delay will likely keep him on the sidelines in 2017.
    Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wright was the top-ranked tight end in the country per rivals.com.

    QUOTE(S)
    Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense often calls for two tight ends, and his track record includes a predilection to include multiple tight ends in the passing game, not just the rushing game. With that in mind, Irish coach Brian Kelly forecast a possibility of Wright seeing playing time this season along with some of the upperclassmen.

    “We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said this spring. “We think there’s great versatility. You know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive. I think Alizé and Nic Weishar and Brock Wright and all of those guys can all be on the field and you can detach them. You can’t say I’m not going to cover them when they have to the ability to impact what we’re doing.”

    For his part, Long keeps in mind Wright’s youth but still sees the vast potential not far from realization.

    “[He’s] figuring things out right now. He probably had his best practice the other day,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers. …

    “His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, great worker, been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks. His head was spinning the first part of spring ball, but I think he’s kind of settling in, going out there playing with more confidence. You can see it in the last couple practices.”

    WHAT KEITH ARNOLD SAID UPON WRIGHT’S EARLY ENROLLMENT
    Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé [Mack], who missed last season after academic issues.”

    2017 OUTLOOK
    Wright’s early enrollment sets him on a fast track to playing time in 2017, even if behind both Smythe and Mack. It does not seem to be putting the cart before the horse to think Wright has already passed by Luatua and Weishar in the general offensive plan. Perhaps those two seniors could be utilized more in run-specific situations, but Wright should fit well into Long’s scheme.

    This is where remembering Long’s history using tight ends is quite pertinent. Most notably, last season Memphis’ top two tight ends caught a combined 36 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns with Long as offensive coordinator. For context, Irish tight ends last season totaled 12 catches for 159 yards and four scores.

    Notre Dame’s grouping has much more talent than those statistics belie. When it comes to potency as a receiving threat, Wright may be second only to Mack. Smythe will remain ahead of the freshman due to his experience, and rightfully so, but Wright’s abilities should force him onto the field as the season progresses. Will he get into the end zone? That will be as much up to chance as anything else, but recording a few catches, perhaps even some first downs, would be a worthwhile contribution from the highly-touted tight end.

    DOWN THE ROAD
    If able to notch a few catches this season, Wright would give Long an idea of what he will have to work with in 2018. Smythe and Luatua will be gone next season, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. At that point, Wright and Mack will be the top targets for Long’s two tight end system, and that is if Mack does not head to the NFL after this season.

    In many respects, Wright’s nearly-assured primary role in 2018 is reason enough to expect imminent opportunities in 2017.


    2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
    Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
    No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
    No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
    No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
    No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
    No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
    No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
    No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
    No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
    No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
    No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end

    Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 (theoretically) Cole Kmet, tight end

    Rivals.com
    6 Comments

    Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds
    2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
    Depth chart: Tight end might be the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster, and, as a result, Kmet might be further down the Irish depth chart than any other player. Fifth-year Durham Smythe leads the group, with junior Alizé Mack right behind him, if behind at all. Then come seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, both of whom may be soon passed by early enrollee freshman Brock Wright. Then, finally, slots in Kmet, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that he has yet to hit the college weight room or learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
    Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

    QUOTE(S)
    It was difficult for Irish coach Brian Kelly to discuss Kmet without including his classmate Wright during Kelly’s National Signing Day comments. Bringing in two tight ends of their potential in one class certainly stood out as an unlikely occurrence.

    “Brock Wright [is] arguably one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion.

    “We think there can’t be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alizé [Mack], Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua. We have great depth at that tight end position, and these two guys only add to it.

    “I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.”

    WHAT WE SAID WHEN KMET’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
    Kmet completes a duo of tight ends in this class along with early enrollee Brock Wright. Fittingly, Kmet will only burnish Notre Dame’s ‘Tight End U’ reputation. He has the length and athleticism to be a threat in the aerial attack while also contributing in blocking along the edge.”

    2017 OUTLOOK
    A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

    Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is that the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.

    DOWN THE ROAD
    Kmet’s future shines bright. Smythe and Luatua will be gone following 2017, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. Mack will assuredly be the top target at the position in 2018, but Long has a track record of featuring tight ends. More than one will be needed.

    That could mean only Mack and Wright are consistent contributors in 2018, but a third viable option could provide the ability to keep two fresh tight ends on the field whenever wanted.

    Beyond that, Mack will have 2019 eligibility, but it seems unlikely he takes it. If he plays up to his palpable potential, it is more likely Mack heads to the NFL Draft as soon as possible—and that does not rule out after this season—than it is he stays around college for five years.

    Kmet will get his chance. He comes in too highly-rated not to. It will just be a matter of time and patience.


    Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

    How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

    Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


    2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
    Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
    No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
    No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
    No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
    No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
    No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
    No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
    No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
    No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
    No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

    Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

    Rivals.com
    4 Comments

    Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, ½, 251 pounds
    2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
    Depth chart: Adetokunbo Ogundeji is one of three sophomores vying for playing time on the weakside edge. Daelin Hayes leads the group, and Julian Okwara would appear to be ahead of Ogundeji both due to Okwara seeing playing time last season and having a more prominent role this spring.
    Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Ogundeji originally committed to Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck before his profile picked up more attention.

    CAREER TO DATE
    Ogundeji preserved a year of eligibility in 2017. With his slight frame, that decision made sense. When Ogundeji signed with Notre Dame, he was listed as 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds. A year later, that listing presents a perhaps more-accurate height and, more importantly, 35 added pounds.

    The year on the sidelines also allowed Ogundeji’s knee plenty of healing time after he partially tore his MCL during his final season in high school. The injury did not necessitate surgery, simply time and rehab.

    QUOTE(S)
    Quotes on Ogundeji are few and far between. Irish coach Brian Kelly spent National Signing Day 2016 discussing bigger picture items than going through each individual recruit. This spring, his only mention of Ogundeji was in a brief summary of injuries and recoveries.

    Looking back to when Ogundeji committed to Notre Dame, he offered a realistic view of his future to the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James.

    “I understand that I’m a raw person, but I think I just need to work on my upside—getting stronger and bigger,” Ogundeji said. “That’s what I’ve been working on in the offseason. I know I’m a long person, and most of the time I’m just going into the offensive line and not knowing that I can use my hands to keep them off me. I need to use my hands much better.

    “One thing I know I am is a coachable person. I know my coaches will make me better.”

    WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
    This feels like a redshirt situation. With Jay Hates and Andrew Trumbetti likely sharing the snaps at weakside (and don’t forget Daelin Hayes), Ogundeji seems a long way from being ready to contribute. So while there could be a terror off the edge developing, it’ll take a few years.

    “Looking back at developmental recruits at defensive end, the Irish haven’t had the best of luck. But Ogundeji has a few things going for him other than his physical traits—mainly a academic profile that lends itself to Notre Dame.

    “A good gamble to take, but he’s a wait-and-see freshman. Let’s put a pin in this until spring time.”

    2017 OUTLOOK
    Falling behind two classmates at his own position makes it hard to expect much from Ogundeji this season aside from perhaps some special teams success. Both Hayes and Okwara excelled in spring practices, making Ogundeji’s path forward even cloudier.

    While he will see the field this season, Ogundeji’s 2017 may hold more resemblance to his freshman season on the sidelines than he likes.

    DOWN THE ROAD

    That does not need to be a waste, though. If Ogundeji continues forward with the mature mindset represented in the above quotes upon his commitment, further development will only bode well for his future. Simply due to the nature of college football (injuries, transfers, suspensions, etc.), there is no such thing as having too many worthwhile pass rush threats. Should Ogundeji demonstrate that ability to the Notre Dame coaches, they will find him playing time in future seasons.

    Some might speculate Ogundeji’s length could make him a candidate to move to linebacker, but that seems unlikely for now. His value is as a rusher, be it in specific situations in 2017 or in a larger role in 2018-2020.

    2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
    Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
    No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
    No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
    No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
    No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
    No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
    No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
    No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
    No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle