Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

Restocking: Linebackers

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It may seem like a lifetime ago, but Notre Dame’s defense faces a pretty extraordinary task: replacing one of college football’s most decorated defensive players ever. Four years after landing Manti Te’o, a rare player who surpasses the recruiting hype that comes along with a five-star tag, the Irish coaching staff found another elite talent at the position. And they didn’t have to fly to Hawaii to land him.

In Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame has one of the most impressive athletes in the country, and a potential elite linebacker to replace Te’o on the mantlepiece. A four-time state champion in high school, Smith’s No. 9 jersey was retired by Bishop Luers high school. It’s been given to Smith by All-American nose tackle Louis Nix, giving you an idea of just how respected a talent like Smith is, even before strapping on the pads.

Finding and landing talent at linebacker — both inside and out — was key in this recruiting cycle. Headlined by Smith, the Irish landing three productive players, yet also had a few near misses that give you an idea of how wide the net was spread. Alex Anzalone waited until enrollment day to make the decision to attend Florida, even though he was openly committed to the Irish just days earlier at the Under Armour All-American game. Danny Mattingly, a lanky outside linebacker, was committed to Notre Dame for most of the recruiting cycle until he found a better fit closer to home at Oregon. And Don Bosco Prep linebacker Al-Quadin Muhammad looked like an Irish lock until January, when he committed to Miami, with reports of academic deficiencies the only thing keeping Notre Dame and the outside linebacker apart.

Let’s take a look at the depth at linebacker, starting with a look back at the recruiting classes that built the position group.

2009
Carlo Calabrese — Likely returning for a fifth year.
Dan Fox — Likely returning for a fifth year.
Manti Te’o — Four year starter at inside linebacker. Consensus All-American.

2010
Derek Roback — Athlete who profiled as a linebacker. Transferred to Ohio to play QB. Now a TE.
Danny Spond — High school quarterback converted to linebacker. Started 2012 as Dog linebacker.
Justin Utupo — Projected by previous staff as DT. Now reserve linebacker and defensive end.
Kendall Moore — Reserve inside linebacker. Has fifth-year eligibility. Run-first defender.
Prince Shembo — Returning Cat linebacker. Started in 2011, 2012.

2011
Ben Councell — Prototype Dog linebacker. Lost starting job after Spond returned healthy.
Anthony Rabasa — High school DE, can play inside and outside for Irish linebackers.
Ishaq Williams — Elite recruit finding way as DE/OLB Cat linebacker. Key cog for 2013.
Jarrett Grace — Inside backer that’ll likely move to forefront with Te’o’s departure.

2012
Romeo Okwara — Young athlete that was too good to keep of the field as 17-yr-old freshman.

2013
Michael Deeb — Prototype inside linebacker. Physically mature, likely special teams contributor.
Doug Randolph — Has positional flexibility. Mature player, better athlete than most think.
Jaylon Smith — Needs to gain weight, but jack-of-all trades. Will see the field immediately.

Way too early spring projection

Even if the Irish signed 25 recruits, it was hard to imagine a world where Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese didn’t return for a fifth season. There just isn’t enough depth behind them to have inside linebackers learning on the fly. While Brian Kelly tagged the fifth-year duo and Jarrett Grace as the three guys battling for two jobs, expect to hear from Kendall Moore, who has the physicality to play, but needs to round out his game.

The strength of this position grouping is on the edge, and it’ll be an interesting spring to watch the outside linebacker rotation develop. The national championship game showed some of Danny Spond’s limitations, and Ben Councell has the size and strength necessary to compete. While Prince Shembo is entrenched, this is a huge offseason for Ishaq Williams, who needs to make the leap from just a guy with potential to a front-line player. And Romeo Okwara will likely serve notice that he demands some playing time as well.

Shaking up that position this summer with be Smith, who is too good of an athlete not to find the field early and often, if only as a big-play specialist. While it appears there might be too many bodies for everyone to find a spot, Bob Diaco’s defense relies on versatility, and developing a rotation can only help.

 

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)
Getty
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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

clark-lea
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

chip-long
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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.”