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Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves

Aug 14, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT

Oklahoma v Notre Dame Getty Images

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.”



  1. lightskin350 - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:09 AM

    If Kelly can get anything out of this defense we will win 10 games. I love our O Line and backs. We can play physical football on offense but I am not sold on this defense yet. We did not have a good pass rush last year and I see the same problem this season. The good thing is next year this defense could be elite and deep.

    • simmel65 - Aug 15, 2014 at 10:01 AM

      I totally agree. If these freshman can perform and be encouraged this season, we should really be solid on defense next year. I am bullish for this year, but I really think our time is next season!

      Go Irish!

      • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 15, 2014 at 10:50 AM

        Next Season Next Season NExt Season. Come on man this is getting old. Saban had Alabama Back in 3 years Strong is gonna have Texas back in 3 years. Sark is gonna have USC back in 2 years. This is year 5 and all we have is one great year to hang out hat on. BrianK and gang need to win and win big this year. If the defense is immature and they are middle of the road the finger points back to the Recruiting. I have been bitching about recruiting over and over yet some of you continue to tell me ” STARS DON’T MATTER ” 4 and 5 star players is whats wins the big games and keeps in them all year long. Our Depth is filled with 3 star players. We have two impact players on defense and the rest are unproven including Ishaq.

  2. yaketyyacc - Aug 15, 2014 at 6:06 AM

    shuffling players from her to there indicates that there is a lot of talent, and this has to be very good for the Irish. “we” should have an exciting year. and the “we” is for this 61 ND grad. Go Irish!

  3. irishwilliamsport - Aug 15, 2014 at 10:05 AM

    I think it was time for Diaco to move on anyway, like it was for Charlie Molnar. The rigidness in which he recruited for specific body type had us miss out on a lot of players. And he was not a great recruiter. BVG has pro experience and worked under Rex Ryan who is a great defensive mind and the Jets had a very good D last year. I can’t wait to see the scheme vs. Navy as opposed to the last 4 years. I still can’t get the pasting Navy put on us out of my head and the ensuing Diaco comments that he couldn’t come up with an answer. Ugh.

  4. irishdodger - Aug 15, 2014 at 11:22 AM

    Rumors of academic dismissals coming down today.

    • baldyscotsman - Aug 15, 2014 at 11:40 AM

      and it is sounding like it will be starters ND was counting on…..CRAP!

  5. irishwilliamsport - Aug 15, 2014 at 12:26 PM

    Are you sure ? Kelly said everyone made of thru academically at one of his press conferences

    • sjb198 - Aug 15, 2014 at 12:29 PM

      If it’s true, and if it’s breaking news, Kelly may have been unaware at the time. The rumor also stated that there would be some sort of announcement at 3 pm. Hopefully it’s all BS.

  6. nudeman - Aug 15, 2014 at 12:41 PM

    Wow, just look at Irish Illustrated blog and it is literally on fire.
    I’ve seen names but probably not fair to post them here. If this is true … what a disappointment

    I don’t know how ND competes any longer for an NC when they’re 1 of about 4 schools who takes academics seriously. I read the other day that Mariota (Oregon) is taking Yoga and Golf this semester. Can you imagine any school in the SEC suspending kids for academic impropriety?


    • baldyscotsman - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:23 PM

      From the other blogs and interwebs it looks like it was a rouge academic adviser that was writing papers for up to 3 defensive starters and he/she came clean this week. Real hard crash for the program, team and fans. ND is near and dear to my heart but it looks like this will bring all of the ND egos crashing down.

      • nudeman - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:53 PM

        First, it’s “rogue”. Or was she wearing rouge?
        Secondly, wtf do you mean it will “bring all ND egos crashing down”?
        That is sort of a dumb thing to write. No one will be crashing down except those 4.

        ND survives and frankly, other than Russell, I don’t see this having much impact.

  7. irishdodger - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:39 PM

    Three starters & one backup rumored to be gone.

    • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:48 PM

      LOL All I can say is ND is a complete Joke. Not only that but this has got to get old for Brian K. You start to get so close and then this happens. Oh Well I guess I will have to follow Stanford this year.

  8. deadman3020 - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:46 PM

    I’m hearing I. Williams, Russel, Daniels, K Moore……

  9. mayo1010 - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:51 PM

    Unfortunately, Pat Forde is now reporting an alleged fraud (I consider him some what reliable). Seems to be the same 4 names being tossed around. I don’t want to write the names but you can surely find them on your own. Inside Irish insider Dan Murphy is also reporting that these players were not a practice today. Very Very disappointing!

  10. getsome99 - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    We’ll find out soon enough but if any of this true, let’s just hope it’s limited to just a couple of players who went “rogue” and that K Russell isn’t one of those players. Hate to say it, but the other 3 who are rumored can be replaced with minimal loss and probably even upgraded.

  11. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:53 PM


    • dbldmr - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:59 PM

      Yeah, that will solve everything.

  12. dbldmr - Aug 15, 2014 at 1:58 PM

    No sympathy here. If the Everett Golson situation wasn’t enough of a wake up call, then these guys deserve whatever happens. The bad news is that their behavior (if true) will have impact on their teammates. On the other hand, you aren’t much of a teammate if you can’t be trusted.

  13. johngaltisspeaking - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:00 PM

    Like I said Homers ND is no different than Alabama. Same stuff different day…..

    • irishdog80 - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:07 PM

      Please post the number of SEC players that have been suspended for academics. Thanks.

  14. deadman3020 - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:07 PM

    Difference is Alabama would only suspend,if that, where we give them the boot.

    • johngaltisspeaking - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:09 PM

      Rumors are its gone from Expelled to Suspended. We are from the same mold.

  15. irishwilliamsport - Aug 15, 2014 at 2:10 PM

    We’re not on a level playing field, this would be a slap on the wrist at an sec school. This goes on everywhere and don’t think for a minute it doesn’t.

    Moore and Daniels are easily replaceable. Russell too probably. Luke, Watkins and a few others are worthy replacements and Russell had some really bad games last year. The hard one is to replace a gigantic human like Ishaq, although he’s really done nothing here in 4 years. Most disappointed in Daniels if all of this is true.

    I feel bad for the boys and wish them well, I can’t say I never crossed the line in my academic career but I just didn’t get caught.

    • 1notredamefan - Aug 16, 2014 at 10:49 PM

      Russell Is the biggest loss imo! Ishaq was a shot in the dark and DD has always been unpredictable on and off the field! All will be missed tho.

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