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.”