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

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

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.