What to expect from Jaylon Smith

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With debilitating migraine headaches ending Danny Spond’s football career during fall camp, the door has opened for freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith to play a major role in the Irish defense. The top prep linebacker in the country arrived in South Bend with immense expectations, but with a crowded linebacking corps among the deepest positions on the Irish roster, finding a role for the freakishly athletic Fort Wayne native seemed to be one of Bob Diaco’s biggest challenges.

That’s all been erased with Spond’s retirement. While the coaching staff discussed a two-man platoon with junior Ben Councell, Smith brings a skill-set that nobody on the Irish roster can match. While the learning curve for young players in this system has always been fairly steep, Smith might very well be a horse of a different color.

Let’s take a deep dive into Jaylon Smith and his upcoming season.

PRECEDENCE

While most Irish fans have done their best to forget the game’s very existence, one very incredible number stands out when thinking about Notre Dame’s last second loss to Michigan in ’11 under the lights: Zero. That’s the number of snaps freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt took against Denard Robinson in company. While Tuitt’s season was pock-marked with goose eggs (one at Purdue after missing a class, and two late in the season while battling mono), Lynch ended up playing 55% of the team’s defensive snaps, with the Michigan game being the lone Saturday where the mercurial freshman failed to enter the game. (To put that decision into context, Hafis Williams took 13 snaps against the Wolverines.)

The point of all this isn’t to get Irish fans riled up about not-too-ancient history, but rather to illustrate a very important point. Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco won’t play a freshman, no matter the talent, if he doesn’t know how to do is job correctly.

Of course, necessity is the mother of invention.

Last season, that was never more clear than in the case of KeiVarae Russell. Entering training camp as a running back, Russell swapped numbers and positions and headed to defense, learning how to play cornerback on the fly. Schematically, Diaco was able to protect his young cornerback with vanilla coverage schemes and over-the-top safety help. But Russell found himself running with elite wide receivers all season, facing Biletnikoff winner Marqise Lee, and top-flight wide receivers against Miami,Oklahoma, BYU and of course Alabama.

Kelly isn’t against playing freshmen, and as he continues to recruit elite prep prospects, he’ll continue to give them opportunities to work their way into the rotation. No recruit better fits that classification than Smith, a highly versatile weapon that can fulfill multiple roles.

OPPONENTS’ SCHEMES & PERSONNEL GROUPINGS

As we saw over the past few seasons, one of the key factors in Bob Diaco’s defense is personnel groupings. The Irish defensive coordinator utilizes multiple fronts, splitting time nearly equally between three and four down linemen.

Those decisions are often predicated by opponent. And as Diaco was asked about playing time being split between Smith and Councell, he went with some garage logic to try and make sense of it all.

“One’s a flat-head screwdriver and one’s a Phillips head screwdriver,” Diaco explained. “So when you have a screw that you need to screw in that has a Phillips head, you better grab the Phillips head screwdriver.”

That might not do much for most of us, but decoding Diaco’s quote requires a bit of context, and we’ve been provided that over the past few seasons watching the Irish defense mix and match against opponents. Against bruising offenses like Michigan State or Stanford, Councell has the bulk to play inside the box. When opponents try and spread the Irish out, expect to see more of Smith, who at 230 pounds, can still run with any wide receiver.

During his media day comments, Kelly added some clarity to the platoon, helping to explain some of the intricacies that come with playing the ‘Dog’ (or Drop) linebacker and what both players bring to the position.

“When you look at that position, there’s so much going on to the wide field, formationally, adjustments, pressures,” Kelly said. “First of all, Ben has a lot of experience there. Jaylon has done remarkably well in such a short period of time, the picking up the defense, and certainly has the athleticism to cover space.

“You have two guys, one who’s already 250 plus pounds in Ben Councell, that can obviously play over a tight end. If you want to play real physical and have a fullback in the game, play that kind of game, Ben suits that very well, although he can play in space.

“If you want to go three wide, if you want to play an open set, Jaylon has incredible athleticism to be able to play in space. So we really think we’ve got two players there and the depth at that position that we’re very, very lucky, in losing a player like Danny Spond, to have those two guys. They’ve done very, very well.”

TALENT

Of course, one thing that probably outweighs everything is Smith’s talent. Smith brings a raw athleticism at the linebacker position that rarely exists in any program, not just Notre Dame. Last year’s Indiana Mr. Football led his high school program to its fourth straight 2A state championship with Smith carrying the load at running back and starring at linebacker. One look at his highlight reel from high school and you begin to understand the football player Kelly brought to South Bend (beating out Urban Meyer and Ohio State, where Smith’s brother is a running back).

Having a brother play at an elite level has certainly helped Smith with the intricacies of the game. So has playing at one of the more successful prep programs in Indiana. That knowledge base was on display this summer when Smith asked fifth-year linebacker Dan Fox to watch film.

“When he came in during the summer he was asking me if I wanted to watch some film,” Fox recalled. “So we get in the film room and he’s saying some things that took me a little while to pick up on and he knew it right away. So I was impressed by his knowledge of the game. Being so young as a freshman and he knows certain things about the game that really impressed me.”

Just as impressive as his knowledge base is his versatility. While Diaco compared Smith to a Phillips-head screwdriver, he may really be a Swiss Army knife. There’s no telling how dangerous Smith could be rushing the passer, but he’ll immediately impact the Irish’s pass defense. Outside of Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell, there’s no defender the Irish would rather put on an island with a wide receiver, and that’s certainly saying something considering Smith is a 230-pound linebacker.

With a front seven anchored by Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix, the recipe for beating the Irish will be to spread the Irish out and take aim at the defense in space. That’s where Smith will likely thrive early in his career, capable of running down receivers and running backs with his legitimate 4.5 speed. While Irish fans fretted about the late departure of Eddie Vanderdoes this spring, Smith has always been the anchor of this recruiting class, and never more so than after the loss of Spond.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

It’s foolish to try and guess a stat-line for a player whose impact might best be felt off the books. But there’s every reason to believe that Smith should make an impact behind the line of scrimmage, as a tackler in the open field, and as a guy that will be dynamic in coverage.

Ben Councell is a solid player who is probably the best fit for the Dog linebacker position Kelly and Diaco envision in their base defense. But Smith is a star in the making. The position will be a platoon for only as long as Smith needs it to be, with Councell the player who eventually turns into a situational run stopper.

Losing a top-shelf player like Danny Spond is never easy. But it’s opened a door for Smith, who we’ll likely see sprint through it, jump-starting a career with lofty aspirations sooner than many expected.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

Associated Press
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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

rivals.com
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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)

Monday’s Leftovers: Coney & Tillery once enrolled early at Notre Dame, now to the NFL or not?

Associated Press
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Today marks two occasions. It is the day before Notre Dame begins its spring semester. In other words, it is the day before this year’s seven early enrollees begin classes. It is also the deadline for early entrants to file for the NFL draft.

There are two common threads to the separate events. Junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery both enrolled early in 2015, and they have both delayed their stay-or-go decisions to today.

With the early signing period’s implementation, the former date holds less import. These players have already signed with the Irish. Gone are the days of putting down a drink and racing to a computer after finding a source to confirm a consensus five-star quarterback’s early arrival. With an early signing period, Gunner Kiel likely would have been bound to at least begin his career at LSU in the spring of 2012, rather than show up on Notre Dame’s campus at the 11th hour.

The tangible value of arriving early can still hold legitimacy, but that theoretical does not become much of a reality until spring practice commences, anyway.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) will need to decide today if he will head to the NFL Draft or return for his senior year. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

So an early enrollee summary can wait until tomorrow’s first day of classes. In the meantime, breathes remain baited waiting for the decisions from Coney and Tillery. Will they return for a year under first-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea, or follow the lead of running back Josh Adams and receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and head for the NFL?

As has been discussed and seems rather obvious, both Coney and Tillery would greatly boost the 2018 Irish defense. They would also both likely hear their names called in the NFL draft, so there is merit to whatever option each chooses.

— As it pertains to the early enrollees, the measureable benefit of the semester’s head start can be debated. In looking at the last three classes, it has appeared to have great effect with a few of the freshmen, but not for most.

2015: Tillery, Coney, defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, offensive lineman Tristen Hoge.
2016: Safety Devin Studstill, receiver Kevin Stepherson, defensive end Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safety Spencer Perry.
2017: Offensive lineman Robert Hainsey, tight end Brock Wright, running back C.J. Holmes, safety Isaiah Robertson, offensive lineman Aaron Banks.

Of those 14, Tillery, Studstill, Stepherson and Hainsey offered genuine contributions in their debut seasons.

Tillery started three games in 2015, appearing in all 12, making 12 tackles with one sack. More than the counting statistics, the depth Tillery provided at defensive tackle was an absolute necessity.

As injuries and suspensions purged the Irish secondary just before the 2016 season’s start, Studstill was forced into a starting role. He finished the year with 38 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. He was not yet ready to be a collegiate starting safety, but he was needed to be, and the time spent going through the paces in the spring provided Studstill enough of a base to be somewhat serviceable from the outset.

Stepherson broke out as a deep threat right away — a likelihood with or without an early enrollment simply due to his speed. In his only complete season with the Irish, Stepherson caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns.

Hainsey’s impact was far and away the most distinct. He went from the second most-heralded early-enrolled offensive lineman to a starter at right tackle. That surge puts Hainsey in pole position to start at left tackle in 2018. He may have ended up there, anyway, but the freshman first played a pivotal role on the best offensive line in the country.

— It would not be a site dedicated to football if it did not include some mention of the Minnesota Vikings’ victory Sunday evening. Some adjective should precede victory in the previous sentence, but no quick combination encapsulates just how absurd, dramatic and, per the quickly-adhered catchphrase, miraculous the conclusion was.

Stefon Diggs’ game-winning touchdown may not have been as excellent as Irish receiver Miles Boykin’s was in the Citrus Bowl if compared in a vacuum, but Diggs’ score came with no time remaining on the clock, while Boykin’s was merely an excellent play that if failed, other chances would have followed.

Of course, being the Vikings, the Notre Dame connection is thorough.

— A thought experiment sparked by that Minneapolis tangent … The Minnesota Timberwolves played their first game in franchise history Nov. 3, 1989, meaning it has endured a title drought the exact same length as the Irish have.

Which wins its respective championship first?