Oklahoma v Notre Dame

Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves

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Heading into fall camp, surprises were expected on the defensive side of the ball. But while everybody is talking about Brian Kelly naming Everett Golson his starting quarterback, the Irish head coach’s comments about his evolving defense were probably the most illuminating we’ve heard from Kelly in years.

As the depth chart on Brian VanGorder’s defense begins to shake out, it’s becoming clear that the Irish will rely heavily on a group of talented youngsters who have played very little football. Let’s break down what we learned about the Irish defense yesterday.

 

Get ready for Andrew Trumbetti. 

More than a few fans were disappointed when Kelly didn’t mention Trumbetti among the group of freshmen that he expected to contribute as pass rushers. That’s because Kelly doesn’t view the early-enrollee as a freshman anymore.

“Sometimes I don’t talk about him enough because I sometimes forget he’s a freshman because he’s almost separated himself from this freshman class,” Kelly acknowledged. “He’s a starter for us right now. He’s the other starting defensive end for us. He’ll start as a true freshman for us. He’s just that kind of player. We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes, like I said, I don’t talk about him enough. But a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do.”

Trumbetti has already passed junior Romeo Okwara for a battle to get on the field, giving you an idea of the impressive summer that the New Jersey native put together. He’ll be the first true freshman defensive lineman to start an opener since Anthony Weaver did it in 1998.

 

 

It looks like the move to flip James Onwualu to the defensive side of the ball is working. 

After swimming in the deep-end during spring practice, converted wide receiver James Onwualu appears to be figuring out his role in the Irish defense. After starting spring as a safety, Onwualu slid down into the Sam linebacker spot and has ascended into a starting role, in front of junior John Turner and senior Ben Councell.

After making solid moves switching Bennett Jackson, Troy Niklas, Matthias Farley  and Austin Collinsworth, it appears that Kelly has struck gold again moving Onwualu over to defense, even after the sophomore started four games at wideout last season.

Kelly talked about the role Onwualu is capable of filling in the Irish defense, while also identifying the multiple nature of the Sam spot in the Irish defense.

“Tough and smart. Tough first and smart,” Kelly said. “He’s a very, very good athlete. Now if we’re lining up against Stanford and you want to pound it and you’ve got three tackles on the field then we’re gonna get bigger. Ben Councell’s gonna be on the field. We’ll match personnel. But he’s smart and he’s tough.”

 

Jon Bonner’s days as a linebacker are over. 

Listed as a 6-foot-3, 269-pound linebacker, Jon Bonner’s going to have his hand on the ground when he takes the field. The explosive young athlete has moved his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle, adding some much-needed depth at a position that was going to rely on little-used veterans Justin Utupo and Chase Hounshell.

Bonner will be playing behind Sheldon Day at the three-technique, a versatile spot on the Irish defensive line and a position that’s capable of racking up some stats. Kelly has seen enough from Bonner, especially after reciting some impressive training numbers before camp started, to expect big things from the youngster.

“Explosive. Explosive off the ball. He’s got toughness,” Kelly said of Bonner. “Plays physical. Plays like a big boy. Doesn’t play like a freshman.”

 

Have we underestimated Isaac Rochell?

On a defensive line searching for answers, maybe we all skipped by one of the most logical ones. Sophomore Isaac Rochell played in 11 games last season as a true freshman, chipping in 10 tackles from the defensive end position. But at 6-foot-3.5 and 287 pounds, Rochell sounds like a player that’s going to play a big role for the Irish in 2014.

“Isaac Rochell is a beast,” Kelly said, singling out the sophomore.

 

Are the freshmen going to play like freshmen?

It might take a media guide to watch Notre Dame play defense these first couple weeks. Players like Jhonny Williams, Kolin Hill, Daniel Cage and Nyles Morgan are going to get their opportunities to play. And it’s absolutely a 180 from the attitude that Bob Diaco took with young players.

(Remember when both Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt were healthy scratches against Michigan, when they couldn’t be counted on to play “assignment correct football” against Denard Robinson?)

But Kelly is ready to let these guys learn, with each young player given a role in the defense. After knowing how risky it is to depend on freshmen, Kelly sounded truthful when he said this might be different.

“I think in years past I probably would be but then my eyes tell me something different when I watch them,” Kelly said. “They’ve got an edge to them. Nyles Morgan, Jonathan Bonner, Jhonny Williams, Trumbetti, Kolin Hill. I just watch these guys play… These guys are physical football players and they’ve got an edge to them. [Daniel] Cage is a load. Just all of these guys.

“I’m watching them every day. I’m going against them every day. I’m liking it. I know when you have holes. I’ve been around long enough. I know when you look at them and go, ‘That’s not very good.’ Now they’re young. We might cut a gap loose. We may be in the wrong gap. But it’s not because we’re not ripping and roaring up the field. It’ll be fun but they’re gonna cause a few moments of coach VanGorder throwing his hat on the ground. I’m sure of that. But the thing is, it’s a physical group. It’s a physical group.”

 

 

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

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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.