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.

 

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”