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.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Tarean Folston

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When Tarean Folston limped off the field after his third carry of the season, few knew what would happen next. The junior running back’s season was finished. But it spawned giant years for C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, turning Prosise into a third-round draft pick and Adams into the most prolific freshman runner in school history.

That big year could’ve been Folston’s. Behind an elite offensive line, the Florida native was primed to be the leading man in the Irish backfield, with a breakout season all but guaranteed.

But injuries happen. And after working his way back into shape during spring practice and returning to a depth chart that all of a sudden has some young competition, 2016 is a chance to make up for lost time.

 

TAREAN FOLSTON
5’9.5″, 214 lbs.
Senior, No. 25, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Notre Dame beat out Auburn on Signing Day, waiting a few uncomfortable extra hours for a fax from Folston after he went on a late-January visit. Folston was Florida’s 4A first-team All-State running back, a do-everything high school player.

The Under-Armour All-American had offers from Oregon, Florida, Florida State and a few dozen other programs before picking Notre Dame in early January.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Played in 12 games, starting two as a true freshman. Nearly set a single-game freshman rushing record when he ran for 140 yards against Navy, the most since 1999. Named Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

Sophomore Season (2014): Ran for 889 yards and caught 190 yards worth of passes as the team’s leading rusher. Averaged over 5.0 yards per carry for the second-straight season. Broke 100 yards in four out of five games, coming two yards shy against North Carolina of making it five out of six.

Junior Season (2015): His season was cut short after just three carries (for 19 yards) against Texas, lost for the year with a torn ACL. Earned a medical redshirt.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

There’s no doubt in my mind that Folston wouldn’t put up monster numbers last year if he stayed healthy.

I’m doubling down on Folston. I expect the biggest season from a running back in the Kelly era — and I’m pegging Folston for a 1,200 yard, double-digit touchdown 2015.

Part of this confidence comes from seeing what Mike Sanford did riding a running QB and top-shelf back at Boise State. The other part comes from seeing Notre Dame’s offensive line figure itself out this spring instead of mixing and matching into fall camp.

But mostly it comes from the natural talent I see with Folston, a back who’ll get better as he collects touches. There’s nobody to steal them from Folston to begin the season. And after he establishes himself, there’s nobody who should take them away from him, either.

So stay healthy and Notre Dame will have a running back to showcase.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

My biggest question for Folston has also been one of his biggest strengths—the space between his ears. For two seasons, Folston’s vision and Football IQ have been excellent. The natural ability he displayed—too often in flashes—made him the envy of a depth chart filled with talented runners.

But coming back from a knee injury is different. And Folston needs to be able to cut loose with absolute conviction and get up the field, because breakaway speed has never been the power of his game.

The depth chart Folston returns to is a different beast than the one he left. Adams has the heft to run between the tackles and the speed to hit a home run. Dexter Williams is greatly improved. Even Justin Brent is an envious No. 4 back.

But Folston is an NFL running back. His versatility, ability to catch the ball in space, and make defenders miss likely didn’t go anywhere.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

This is Notre Dame’s leading ball carrier in 2016. That may be a bold statement. Or it could turn out to be an obvious one after we see Folston ripping through Texas and Nevada.

Still, this is a leap of faith considering we only saw brief glimpses of Folston is spring football, donning a non-contact jersey in the Blue-Gold game. And because of the season Adams put together in 2015. But Brian Kelly believes too much in his veteran running back and knows his value to this offense. With a running game that’ll likely be the strength of the attack, putting the ball in Folston’s hands early and often can’t be a bad plan.

I’m still betting that Josh Adams ends up with a higher yard-per-carry average, but I think Folston’s senior season will be his best in South Bend.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott
Nicco Fertitta

 

Irish A-to-Z: Nicco Fertitta

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As Notre Dame searches for answers at safety, one under-discussed option is sophomore Nicco Fertitta. The Las Vegas native, best known through his recruitment as the high school teammate of Alizé Jones (and outside the football world for his father Lorenzo, the Chairman & CEO of the UFC), has been overlooked before. That comes with the territory when you’re built like a walk-on.

But Fertitta’s college career is on schedule—and maybe ahead of plans. A freshman season saw Fertitta make 11 appearances. A sophomore season will see more special teams duties, and if Fertitta can find a way, a battle to get into a very uncertain two-deep at both safety positions.

An overachiever who became a key piece of the foundation at one of the best high school football programs in the country, Fertitta faces long odds to do more than play special teams. But that’s business as usual for the pint-sized heavy-hitter, who’ll look to take a step forward in his second season in South Bend.

 

NICCO FERTITTA
5’8.5″, 185 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 28, S

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American, First-team All-State per the Las Vegas Review Journal. State champion, with Bishop Gorman also being named a national champion (no championship game was played).

A three-star prospect, Fertitta chose Notre Dame over offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Houston, UNLV (where his prep coach Tony Sanchez took over the program) and Utah.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Played in 11 games, all in special teams appearances. He made one tackle on the season and forced a fumble against UMass.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Got the special teams contributions right. Got a little bit ahead of myself thinking he’d have a chance to play in sub-packages.

I tend to think Fertitta is going to be one of the freshmen taking the field against Texas come September 5th. He’ll likely be covering kicks and chasing down punts, but Fertitta’s freshman season will hinge on his ability to make big plays in the game’s third phase, something Scott Booker is still looking to establish.

As a safety, Fertitta could also be very helpful in sub-packages. As Notre Dame takes on a heavy dose of run-heavy (and option) offenses in Georgia Tech, Navy, Pitt and Boston College, there’s a place for a run-stuffer with the ability to play in space, and just as Kelly and the Irish used Jamoris Slaughter, Fertitta could be an option at a position that doesn’t have a ton of flexibility.

But any road onto the field as a freshman should be considered a strong debut season for Fertitta.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Fertitta’s high school highlight reel showcased an undersized safety who hit like a freight train. That physicality likely helped get him on the field in 2015, but the aforementioned size feels like a larger barrier—especially when you see the disparity between Fertitta and a strong safety like Drue Tranquil.

Notre Dame knew the player they offered. They also knew he’d play large roles in the locker room as well as on special teams. Fertitta will likely take a step forward in special teams and then have a chance to compete for a backup role, especially before the reloaded secondary gives guys like Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry a chance to get comfortable.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I expect Fertitta to play in all 13 games, but only take snaps on defense in mop-up duty. Unless injuries hit, Tranquill should be in the starting lineup with Avery Sebastian supplementing him. At free safety, Redfield will be competing with Devin Studstill, with a very large hole behind those two players.

If Fertitta looked and played the game like a center-fielder, that’s where I’d have him penciled in. But he’s a mini-Tranquil, with physical limitations also hindering his ability to be a single-high safety, making him a better fit at strong safety.

As long as there’s a hole in the depth chart at safety, you’ve got to give Fertitta a chance to see the field. And as long as there are multiple sub-packages and schemes being deployed by Brian VanGorder, there’s always a chance that a sure tackler like Fertitta can find a role. But it just feels like there are other options available that’ll better suit what VanGorder and Todd Lyght want from their secondary, leaving coverage teams the likely home for Fertitta in 2016 and beyond.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg
Jalen Elliott

2018 twins Jayson and Justin Ademilola commit to Irish

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247 Sports
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Notre Dame’s 2018 recruiting class just doubled up, adding twin brothers Jayson and Justin Ademilola. The New Jersey natives—both potential impact players on the defensive line—pledged their commitment to the Irish on Sunday, adding two more building blocks to a distant recruiting class that’s all of a sudden got some serious juice.

Fresh off a visit to South Bend, the brothers committed to Notre Dame, picking the Irish over Michigan, Auburn, Georgia, Penn State and more than a dozen other offers. They hail from St. Peter’s Prep, the same high school that produced current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush.

Both Jayson and Justin took to Twitter to announce, simultaneously making the news official:

While rankings for the 2018 class (entering their junior season) aren’t formalized, 247 Sports views both brothers as 4-star prospects. Justin is more of an edge player—currently an outside linebacker or rush end—while Jayson profiles as a three-technique defensive tackle.

Steve Wiltfong, 247 Sports’ director of recruiting, caught up with Rich Hansen, the high school coach at St. Peter’s Prep. Hansen had this to say about the two brothers.

“They’re getting two guys, what they’re doing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” Hansen told 247 Sports said. “The potential, Justin is a really good athlete that can play a multiple of positions. It will be interesting how he develops and what role he fills for them and Jayson I think is going to be a monster inside for them.”

“They’re young, a lot of development is going to take place over the next two years and Notre Dame is going to get two potentially dominant football players at that level.”

The Ademilola brothers make four early commitments to the 2018 class, a sign that Notre Dame’s recruiting—and evaluation process—is humming under Mike Elston’s direction. They join blue-chip quarterback Phil Jurkovec and Indiana running back Markese Stepp.

***

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Jalen Elliott

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Don’t know Jalen Elliott yet? You will soon enough.

While the 3-star prospect didn’t land on any national lists of recruiting victories, Notre Dame’s coaching staff believes that they might have their next great strong safety on campus in the Virginia native.

While there are other prospects who are bigger, stronger and faster—and had better recruiting rankings and scholarship offers—Elliott stood out to the Irish staff when they got him on campus, turning Brian Kelly and company into major believers. Now it’s up to the young player to make his way up a depth chart that’s been restocked, finding a way into the mix with assumed starters Drue Tranquill and Max Redfield.

 

JALEN ELLIOTT
6′, 190 lbs.
Freshman, Safety

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A consensus 3-star prospect with offers from Auburn, Georgia, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Two-time captain and state champion. Two-way starter as quarterback, cornerback and safety.

A 2015 first-team All-State 5A player. On the 2015 Richmond Times-Dispatch All-Region first team, MVP of 2015 Virginia High School All-Star game.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Kelly may have tipped his hand when he glowed about Elliott in his Signing Day comments.

“Jalen Elliott competed like no player that I have seen since I’ve been coaching in a camp setting, and that’s over 25 years. His competitive spirit was unmatched,” Kelly said. “It was unparalleled in terms of I can’t remember a guy — maybe there was one guy that competed on the offensive line for me at Cincinnati in a camp that was similar, but this kid competed at every position at such a level that he was a can’t-miss guy for us in the recruiting process.”

There could be concerns about Elliott’s size—he doesn’t have prototype strong safety size or heft. But great safeties come in all shapes and sizes (Eric Weddle certainly doesn’t look like an All-Pro). That’s not to say that Elliott will have an All-American college career like Weddle did at Utah, but if he’s able to match his intellect with his competitive spirit, he’s playing the right position for a guy to make an immediate impact in South Bend.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I’m buying the hype on Elliott. I think he’s my leading snap-earner on the defensive side of the ball for the freshman class, out-pacing position-mate Devin Studstill, who had spring practice to work his way into first-team reps with Max Redfield.

Versatility is a big reason I’m so high on Elliott. He’s a guy who can stay at safety if the Irish need to move Tranquill around—a preference of Brian VanGorder’s. He’s a potential nickel or dime entry if the Irish want to put more defensive backs on the field. He’s also good enough to get a look as a cornerback. And he’ll certainly be someone who can be counted on as a special teamer.

Opportunity is the other obvious reason to target Elliott as true freshman contributor. Notre Dame’s safety play needs improvement, and new blood might be the best option.

I’m hesitant to match stats with snaps, especially knowing that sometimes productive safety play means you failed in the front seven. But I’ve got no hesitation grabbing the reins and kick-starting the Elliott bandwagon.

Giddy up.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner
Ian Book
Parker Boudreaux
Miles Boykin
Justin Brent
Devin Butler
Jimmy Byrne
Daniel Cage
Chase Claypool
Nick Coleman
Te’von Coney
Shaun Crawford
Scott Daly
Micah Dew-Treadway
Liam Eichenberg