Offseason Cheatsheet: Linebackers

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Looking for some catch-up as Purdue looms just around the corner? Check out the Offseason Cheatsheets, your Du Lac approved crib-sheets that’ll get you ready for the 2010 season. For more, check out the quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, and defensive backs.

POSITION OVERVIEW:

As a group, there might not have been a position that underachieved like the linebackers. To a man, the roster was stacked with impressive recruits, yet the production didn’t come anywhere near the potential of the collective unit. While Manti Te’o found the field as a freshman, touted recruits like Steve Filer, Kerry Neal, and Darius Fleming disappeared for long stretches, stuck in neutral from either relegation to undersized defensive end or a back-up role in Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 system. Brian Smith took a step backwards, struggling with the transition to middle linebacker.  In retrospect, the underwhelming performance was understandable, nearly all the players on the roster were playing out of position, recruited for a 3-4 scheme long abandoned. But with Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco reimplementing the system each returning player was hand-picked for, there’s reason to believe one of the defensive’s biggest liabilities can become one of it’s biggest strengths.

ROSTER READING:

Short a program? Here’s every linebacker listed on the roster:

     No.   Name                    Yr.    Ht./Wt.      Hometown/High School
      5      Manti Te’o             So.   6-2/245     Laie, HI (Punahou)
      8      Kendall Moore       Fr.   6-1/239     Cary, NC (Southeast Region)
     13     Danny Spond        Fr.   6-2/225      Littleton, CO (Columbine)
     30     Steve Paskorz      Sr.    6-1/246     Allison Park, PA (Hampton)
     36     David Posluszny   Jr.    6-0/235     Aliquippa, PA (Hopewell)
     44     Carlo Calabrese   So.   6-1/240     Verona, NJ (Verona)
     45     Darius Fleming     Jr.    6-2/247     Chicago, IL (St. Rita)
     46     Steve Filer            Jr.    6-3/235     Chicago, IL (Mount Carmel)
     48     Dan Fox                So.  6-3/230     Rocky River, OH (St. Ignatius)
     49     Derek Roback       Fr.   6-3/233     Waverly, OH (Waverly)
     50     Sean Oxley           Jr.    6-2/227     Avon Lake, OH (Avon Lake)
     53    Justin Utupo           Fr.   6-3/251     Lakewood, CA (Lakewood)
     54    Anthony McDonald Jr.   6-2/238     Burbank, CA (Notre Dame High School)
     55    Prince Shembo       Fr.  6-2/243     Charlotte, NC (Ardrey Kell)
     56    Kerry Neal               Sr.  6-2/246     Bunn, NC (Bunn)
     58    Brian Smith             Sr.  6-3/234     Overland Park, KS (St. Thomas Aquinas)
     63    Steve Bosford         Sr.  6-2/220     Arlington Heights, IL (St. Viator)

KELLY ON LINEBACKERS:

On Te’o: “There are guys that people gravitate towards. There are guys that set a
standard for the way they play. And right now it’s Te’o on
defense.”

On McDonald and Calabrese: “We’d like Mac to play more physical, we’d like Calabrese to play with more finesse… Carlo, he’s a strong, physical kid. He wants to knock that guard out
every time. The problem is the tight end runs down the middle of the
field, he’s got to be covered by you once in a while. Mac on the other hand can cover that tight end down the middle of the
field all day long. Once in a while, that guard knocks him back five
yards. So, you know, it’s a combination of both of those.

On Neal: “He plays very physical. Very enthusiastic. Can run extremely well. Plays with an energy level, a high energy, at that position.”

On Smith: “I like to see Brian Smith out on the edge, he does a nice job of re-routing, he’s a natural out there.”

On Fleming:  I think just by describing what that person has to do tells you that
person has to be a unique athlete… Darius has that
athletic ability to do those two things. There are not a lot of those
guys out there.”

On Filer: “Steve was more interested in what kind of skateboard he had when I got
here,” Kelly said after practice. “He’s not that interested in skateboards anymore. He’s interested
in playing football, and that athletic ability is starting to show
itself on the football field.”

On Spond: “Danny Spond has been really, really dynamic. I don’t know that we have many guys
that play with their hands and can really shock you. He’s going to be
on all of our special teams as well.”

On Shembo: “We have run a lot of reps at him and we need to continue to rep him because he’s a good football player. Where do we like him? We like him on the field. He’s got some flexibility to play.”

CRYSTAL BALL:

With a philosophy switch, the Irish have gone from looking for linebackers that can play effectively to trying to find a way to get all their playmakers onto the field. With Darius Fleming entrenched at the “Cat” linebacker, the battle for the other outside position — the Dog — is a three-way battle between Brian Smith, Steve Filer, and Kerry Neal. I look for all three to get on the field in different ways, with Smith working mostly on passing downs .The battle for the inside spot next to Manti Te’o has been muddled with injuries to Anthony McDonald and Steve Paskorz, but I expect McDonald to end up seeing most of the playing time, with Carlo Calabrese pushing him every step of the way. Looking for a prediction? How about double-digit sacks for Darius Fleming, someone that’ll likely thrive as a hybrid pass-rusher like others have under Diaco. The Irish coaching staff is really high on freshmen Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, and I wouldn’t doubt if Spond’s athleticism helps him find a way into the “Dog-fight” as well. 

POSITION STRENGTH:

B. With Manti Te’o ready to take his game to the next level and Darius Fleming ready to dominate, the linebacking corp has taken a huge step in the right direction. If someone can stake claim to the Will inside ‘backer spot, the Irish will have their best linebacking unit in recent memory.  

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)

Four-star WR Micah Jones chooses Irish; Rees may need to wait; Other late-week reading

jones
rivals.com
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A day may come when Notre Dame suffers a recruiting disappointment in the 2018 cycle, when a high school star spurns the Irish coaching staff for a foe, but it is not this day.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township High School; Gurnee, Ill.) committed to Notre Dame on Friday, joining a class of now 10 recruits, including four who committed just this week.

Jones chose the Irish over offers from the likes of Iowa, Michigan State and Ole Miss, among others.

He is the first receiver among the 10 commitments and the seventh considered a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-5, 196 pounds, Jones should present a large target for whomever the Notre Dame quarterback is in the fall of 2018, most likely then-senior Brandon Wimbush.

Tom, Tommy or Thomas; Assistant Coach or Graduate Assistant?
Thomas Rees may need to wait a season before officially being a coach at Notre Dame. The legislation to approve a 10th assistant coach was expected to be voted on, passed and effective in April. A newly-added amendment may push the effective date to following the 2017 season. The amendment will be voted on immediately before the legislation itself is.

The delay makes sense. Most coaching hirings and firings occur in December and January. In theory, creating a one-timing hiring frenzy following spring football could leave many programs in the lurch. In practice, however, this is not anticipated.

“The majority of the FBS guys that I’ve talked with currently believe that 10th coach is going to come from within their own organization,” Todd Berry told the Associated Press. Berry is the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association and former coach at Army and Louisiana-Monroe. “Quality control, graduate assistants, analysts, or they’re planning on hiring somebody that’s out of work.”

A majority is not a unanimity, though, and that carousel will innately work to the disadvantage of the Group of 5 schools.

As for Rees, a graduate assistant can still work extensively with players. The most-pertinent difference between a graduate assistant and an assistant coach is the former cannot recruit. Given Notre Dame’s recent success on the recruiting trail—and the early commitment of class of 2018 consensus four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec (Pine-Richland H.S.; Gibsonia, Pa.)—Rees may not be an absolute necessity in that regard this cycle.

A Kizer Appraisal
Former NFL scout Greg Gabriel took a look at former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer this week, largely paying the draft prospect compliments.

In calling Kizer “the most talented quarterback in this draft class,” Gabriel set a high ceiling for Kizer’s spring. Part of Gabriel’s positive assessment comes from acknowledging Kizer’s responsibilities as the Irish signal-caller.

“The spread offense that Kizer played in at Notre Dame is more sophisticated than many of the spread offenses we see elsewhere at the collegiate level. The Notre Dame offense is a whole-field read scheme in which the quarterback has to go through a progression that encompasses both sides of the field. He also can change the play and/or protections at the line of scrimmage. Given all that, Kizer was asked to do more than many spread quarterbacks are asked to do.”

Gabriel also reflected on the dynamic differences for Kizer in 2015 and 2016 and what may have elicited some of his seeming stagnation.

“There was the unnecessary quarterback controversy at Notre Dame, and the offensive line wasn’t as experienced or as talented and the receivers were mostly first-year starters.”

As much as Gabriel raves about Kizer, he would be the first to tell you anything beyond individual player evaluation is a waste of air this early in the draft process. Mock drafts may be fun, but they are not much beyond that.

Take the fates of Tony Romo and Jimmy Garoppolo, for example. Few, if any, in the NFL expect them to dress for the Cowboys and Patriots, respectively, again. Where they end up could directly impact Kizer’s draft placement.

Jaylon Smith May Be Back to Form
Former Notre Dame and current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith posted yet another encouraging video to Twitter. This one shows Smith really might be game-ready right now and, if not, almost certainly will be by the fall. Should there be any difficulty with the embedded video below, here is a link straight to it.

OL Mabry makes third commitment this week; WR Jones may follow Friday

mabry
rivals.com
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Two weeks ago, Irish coach Brian Kelly gave a non-answer of an answer to a question about a likely early signing period this coming December. Avoiding specifics, he indicated he thinks the effects of such a change will be seen on a case-by-case basis entirely dependent on the recruits.

“Some will, some won’t,” Kelly said. “…Each kid is going to have to react to it based upon also how their school is going to be dealing with it. Some will come off the board at the time.

“We’re expecting some to sign early, but I think our mindset is we’re going into it business as usual. We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

After this week, Notre Dame is going to have more year-long fights than anticipated. Consensus three-star offensive lineman recruit Cole Mabry (Brentwood High School; Brentwood, Tenn.) became the third prospect to offer a verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff in less than 36 hours with his Wednesday decision. Mabry received the offer over the weekend, but waited a few days before making his decision public, lest emotions be dictating his thought process.

At 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, Mabry will have time to add muscle to his frame, with four or five offensive tackles greeting him on the Notre Dame roster in the summer of 2018. That ability to mold his style and growth may have played a part in the Irish interest.

“They love my height and athleticism and how I play,” Mabry told rivals.com. “We got to break down film and go through things that they do that pair up with how I play now. They think I’ll be a great fit in their offense.”

Mabry is the ninth Notre Dame commitment in the class of 2018, though the first offensive lineman.

Judging by new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis’s agenda for the Irish roster’s Valentine’s Day morning, Mabry will have much to look forward to in terms of strength and conditioning.

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones (Warren Township H.S.; Gurnee, Ill.) is scheduled to announce his verbal commitment this Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Along with Notre Dame, Jones is considering Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ole Miss, Illinois and Northwestern. He would be the first receiver in Notre Dame’s 2018 class. Naturally, whomever Jones commits to, the recruiting fight will last until at least December, and perhaps all the way to February.