Prince Shembo

How we got here: Linebackers

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Everybody knew the loss of Manti Te’o would hurt. But after six months of treating the most decorated defensive player in modern college football history as a punching bag, even the staunchest of Irish fans might have forgotten just how much Te’o did for the Notre Dame defense.

The Irish were set to return every linebacker in their two-deep minus Te’o, with the expectation that the trio of Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, and Jarrett Grace would capably man the inside while Prince Shembo and Danny Spond would be excellent on the outside. Young talent like Ishaq WilliamsBen Councell and Jaylon Smith would push the group and allow the Irish linebacking unit to be the heart of a stout defense.

That plan was derailed early when Spond was forced to walk away from football because of debilitating migraine headaches. And the growing pains the inside linebackers felt learning about life without Te’o will be all the more painful now that Grace is lost for the season with a broken leg. Behind Fox and Calabrese there’s little to no experience, with former walk-on Joe Schmidt taking snaps against ASU and Kendall Moore now back in the mix as well.

Let’s walk through the three keys for the Irish linebackers, a group that’s now playing with little margin for error.

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING

Carlo Calabrese: 40 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 BU, 1 PD, 1 FR
Jarrett Grace: 40 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 BU, 1 PD
Dan Fox: 36 tackles, 3 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 PD, 1 FR, 1 TD
Jaylon Smith: 27 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 BU, 2 PD, 1 FF
Prince Shembo: 20 tackles, 3 TFLs, 3 sacks, 8 QBH,
Ishaq Williams: 11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack
Joe Schmidt: 8 tackles
Ben Councell: 6 tackles
Kendall Moore: 2 tackles
Romeo Okwara: 2 tackles

THREE KEYS

Do your job. If there’s a coaching point that the Irish staff engrains in its players, it’s as simple as this. Every player needs to do their job, and be excellent at being 1/11th of the defense. Throughout the early part of the season, it was clear that this was problematic for the linebacking unit, with Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace learning on the job.

There’s no question that the inside linebacker jobs are now Calabrese and Fox’s to hold onto, with any substituting likely for rest as opposed to scheme. Fox played his best game of the season against Arizona State. Calabrese has played with the urgency of a fifth year senior. Prince Shembo was let loose and Smith led the team in tackles. After an ugly start, this group is coming together. But they can’t do that if they’re freelancing.

Hold up against the pass. If there’s been one deficiency early in the linebacker play its been the struggles in pass drops and zone coverage. Seven interceptions by a middle linebacker tends to elevate your passing defense stats, and Te’o basically played a shallow centerfield for the Irish last season.

Dan Fox has the athleticism to play against the pass and Calabrese has improved. There’s no better athlete than Jaylon Smith and Prince Shembo can shut down a dropback pass game by terrorizing quarterbacks. But if you aren’t dropping into coverage in the right place it doesn’t do much good.

Stay Healthy. There’s not much margin for error for the Irish. Behind Fox and Calabrese there’s little experience, even though Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt have played a lot on special teams. Does Bob Diaco experiment with sliding Ishaq Williams both inside and out? There’s six games left, including two against service academies that necessitate assignment correct football, and it’s going to be all hands on deck.

On paper, Grace and Spond were two of the most important building blocks of the defense. But it’s next man in for the Irish, and opportunities are coming for some guys that might not have thought that possible heading into the season.

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For more talk during the Irish bye week, you can check out the Irish Illustrated podcast both here or on iTunes. 

October 10: Trend spotting

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.