Prince Shembo, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams

Spring solutions: Linebackers

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There was always going to be a very large hole in the middle of the Irish defense. That’s what the departure of any four-year starter does for you, let alone one of the most highly decorated defenders in college football history.

While most of the recent talk of Manti Te’o is focused on his draft stock, his forty time, or a well-trodden punchline, it’s almost been forgotten that he put together one of the more statistically impressive seasons we’ve ever seen. Te’o’s seven interceptions were among the best in college football. His 100+ tackles led the Irish. He was the truest of three-down linebackers for the Irish, playing exemplary football in the pass game in his final season.

The linebackers meeting room will look remarkably similar to last season, though the missing face will be a big one. Yet Bob Diaco’s prized unit should still be impressive, as the talent returning should all be willing and able to pick up the slack.

Let’s take a look at the depth chart at linebacker and run through some of the remaining objectives for spring.

LINEBACKER DEPTH CHART

Dan Fox, 5th Yr.
Carlo Calabrese, 5th Yr.
Kendall Moore, Sr.
Jarrett Grace, Jr.

Prince Shembo, Sr.
Danny Spond, Sr.
Ishaq Williams, Jr.
Ben Councell, Jr.
Anthony Rabasa, Jr.
Romeo Okwara, Soph.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Dan Fox: The main objective for Fox is to get healthy after shoulder surgery. Yet on the field, the Irish are still trying to get a handle on how to use the versatile fifth-year defender, who should take a big leap forward in his final season of eligibility.

Fox’s work at the Will linebacker position should let Jarrett Grace hold down the Mike spot. While Brian Kelly feels very confident about Grace’s ability to step seamlessly into Manti Te’o’s shoes, he’s got some comfort coming from a guy like Fox, who is athletic enough to play either spot.

Carlo Calabrese: Some wondered if the fifth-year senior would be back this season, though Kelly put that to rest rather quickly. In Calabrese, the Irish know what they have — a heavy hitting run stopper that’s going to struggle occasionally in the passing game. For Calabrese, a final season on the field should yield some better results in the mental aspects of his job. He’s played a lot of football. Now it’s time to translate that experience into knowledge, which should help limit any deficiencies in his game.

After listening to Kelly last week, it appears that the head coach is comfortable with another platoon this season, with Fox and Calabrese sharing snaps.

Kendall Moore: There’s still reason to believe that Kendall Moore has some good football in front of him. But this spring he’s going to have to show that his mental game matches up with the considerable physical tools that he possesses. Last week, Kelly probably gave the most truthful assessment of the rising senior (he’s got a fifth year of eligibility available) and his game.

“Kendall has really high-end athletic ability,” Kelly said. “High end. Runs. He hits. We’ve just got to get him to run and hit the right people on a consistent basis. He’s got great energy, great enthusiasm.”

That quote is pretty similar to something Kelly said about center Braxston Cave earlier in his career, so there’s ample reason not to give up on Moore just yet. He looks slated to back-up Grace at the Mike, and could find himself in the starting lineup next season when Fox and Calabrese depart.

Jarrett Grace: We’ve always known that this coaching staff held Grace in high regard, and nothing that Grace has done this spring has changed Kelly or Diaco’s opinion of the talented inside linebacker that has waited his turn behind Te’o.

“Jarrett Grace has obviously done an incredibly job,” Kelly said. “He’s a really, really good football player. He’s going to be all over the field.”

Grace has everything this staff looks for in an inside linebacker, possessing size and speed that even Te’o doesn’t have. There’s a presence that Grace carries as well that shows you a leader that’ll be quick to step up and take charge. Speaking with him for five minutes in Miami, there’s no shortage of quiet confidence in Grace, who had the feeling that his time was coming.

Quite a bit is being thrown on the Cincinnati native’s shoulders. And from the looks of it, he’ll wear it well.

Prince Shembo: Last year was the breakout season Shembo needed. He became the pass rusher many hoped to see, and found a home at the Cat linebacker position, where he excelled both standing up and with a hand on the ground.

Shembo can’t do anything about his height — at 6-2, he’s below profile in Bob Diaco’s system. But he can do a better job working on his leverage, which wasn’t at its best against Alabama, where Shembo gave up the edge too often.

Still, this is an All-American caliber football player. Shembo’s 7.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs will likely be surpassed in his final season, as Shembo understands just how dangerous he can be in this system.

Danny Spond: After a courageous season like Spond had last season, there’s little that could shake the senior linebacker in 2013. Entering his final season, Spond can spend this spring becoming a tactician, focusing on the ins and outs of playing the Dog linebacker, no longer concerning himself with playing cornerback in a nickel formation.

Just like Shembo, Spond doesn’t have ideal size. Yet he’s a true athlete, and someone Brian Kelly has singled out from his first day on campus, for an unusual skillset that lets him make plays at linebacker. Spond will lead a position that’s headed for some interesting battles, with Ben Councell gaining and Jaylon Smith set to join this summer.

Ishaq Williams: While many are still waiting to see the elite player the Irish recruited, Williams saw his productivity and playing time increase throughout last season. With Chase Hounshell’s unfortunate injury this spring, Williams will now spend more time with his hand on the ground, a development that might be beneficial for him.

At 6-foot-6, 261-pounds, Williams has all the size and strength needed to succeed at either defensive end or outside linebacker. And with Prince Shembo still a key cog of this defense, Williams was going to need to show some versatility. Hounshell’s injury might actually work to Williams’ benefit, though it’ll be up to Ishaq to determine just how good he can be.

Ben Councell: The starting Dog linebacker last year almost by default, Councell spent a year learning behind Danny Spond, and entered spring a bigger, stronger and more confident player. In an ideal world, Councell is the prototype OLB for this system, and has all the skills needed to succeed. After learning on the fly last season, another season in the program will give him the confidence to seize any opportunity that comes his way.

Anthony Rabasa: In years past, Rabasa was the type of outside linebacker that Irish defenses would kill for. But the 6-foot-3, 245-pounder is a bit of a tweener in this system. He’ll cross-train this spring between inside and outside linebacker, with the depth in the middle the shortest line to the field. With a shoulder injury behind him, Rabasa has a fifth-year of eligibility available to him, though he’ll need to find his role in this defense soon, as reinforcements will continue to fill the depth chart.

Romeo Okwara: With the depth chart thin, there was no chance to protect a year of eligibility for Okwara, who played last season as a 17-year-old freshman. And after a year in the program and another 12 months of weight training, the challenge will be keeping Okwara off the field, as he looks like a potential monster in this defense.

Still not 18 years old, Okwara weighed in a shade under 260 pounds, giving you reason to believe that a 280-pound defensive end isn’t all that far away. If that’s the case, the Irish have some positional flexibility with the North Carolina native, though they might be forced by the youngster to find a place on the field sooner than later.

 

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.”