Spring Solutions: Linebackers

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A position group that started last spring as one of the biggest question marks on the defense enters spring practice with the chance to be the most talented unit on the field.

With Mike Elston now coaching linebackers, the veteran coach inherits a group that returns every starter, including depth like freshmen All-American Nyles Morgan and hopefully healthy 2013 starter Jarrett Grace.

Jaylon Smith is everybody’s All-American candidate. Joe Schmidt was the team MVP. James Onwualu returns, almost an afterthought after pushing into the starting lineup after a transition from wide receiver.

As Schmidt works back from the broken ankle suffered against Navy last season, this group needs to spend spring proving that it can succeed without the former walk-on in the middle of the action.

The defense fell off a cliff last year, as even the athleticism Morgan possessed couldn’t make up for the brain drain. So with spring football just around the corner, let’s take a closer look at a position group that is fast becoming stocked with athletes.

 

LINEBACKERS DEPTH CHART

Jaylon Smith, Jr. 
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
James Onwualu, Jr.
Nyles Morgan, Soph.
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student
Greer Martini, Soph. 
Kolin Hill, Soph.
Ben Councell, Grad Student
John Turner, Jr.*
Michael Deeb, Jr.*
Doug Randolph, Jr.*
Tevon Coney, Fr.

It’s unlikely that this group all stays at linebacker this spring. Reports have surfaced that both Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph will be transitioning to defensive end this spring. Kolin Hill essentially served as a speed rusher last season as well.

Councell’s future is up in the air as well, a return to the depth chart as a physical presence not assured, especially with scholarship numbers being tight.

Let’s dive in as we look at some spring objectives.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Jaylon Smith: Smith successfully transitioned to the Will linebacker spot, moving inside after playing outside as a freshman. While Smith’s numbers and eye-popping athleticism contributed to some All-American honors, the young linebacker is still a work in progress.

Where Smith plays now that the depth chart doesn’t demand Smith on the inside remains to be seen. He could be unleashed as an edge player if Jarrett Grace is healthy enough to play inside. (Or Nyles Morgan forces his way onto the field.)

I don’t think the staff is inclined to move Smith outside after working so hard with Smith to play the Will. But if the Irish are looking to get their three best linebackers on the field, Smith’s ability to play in space will allow him to be flexible.

We’ve all just assumed Smith was the type of player to be a potential first-rounder after his junior season. Well, we’re already here. Let’s see if Smith’s development is on track.

Joe Schmidt: We’ve already seen Schmidt prove he can play at a very high level. Now he needs to spend this spring getting healthy, with his rehab from surgery forcing him off the field.

The worries of Schmidt’s size and some difficult matchups never materialized. Now Schmidt’s role as a leader on this team will hopefully hold his position group to a higher standard, with hopes of getting the rest of the position’s Football IQ up to Schmidt’s level.

Get healthy, Joe. Until then, he’ll keep leading this position group by example.

James Onwualu: It’s almost fashionable to count Onwualu out. With Morgan ascending and Onwualu playing a complementary role in the Irish defense in 2014, some assume he’ll be bumped from the starting lineup.

But that kind of thinking has fueled Onwualu his entire career. It helped him earn scholarship offers, helped him get onto the field as a freshman wide receiver and helped him jump the line into the starting lineup in his first extended time playing defense since moonlighting there in his high school career.

Big, strong and physical linebackers who were athletic enough to play wide receiver always have a spot on a defense like this. So this spring, expect to hear about the great strides Onwualu has made in the training program… and watch as his mental game steps forward as well.

Nyles Morgan: As a freshman, Morgan proved that his reputation as a tackling machine was warranted. This spring, he needs to continue his evolution as a linebacker, mastering the Xs and Os that are needed to be a top competitor.

The ability to be a great one is clearly there. Now he’ll compete with two veterans—Jarrett Grace and Schmidt—as he forces his way into the lineup, trying to prove he’s one of the team’s best three linebackers, with No. 1 and 2 (assuming Schmidt’s healthy) already well established.

Jarrett Grace: No player on this roster deserves a happy ending more than Grace. After a catastrophic injury suffered against Arizona State in 2013, Grace’s recovery from multiple broken bones in his leg took longer than anyone wanted.

Brian Kelly has kept us up to speed on Grace’s rehab, sometimes more optimistic about his progress than anybody should be. But there’s a reason to show hope after hearing about Grace beating Jaylon Smith in quickness drills, and anything the Irish get out of Grace in 2015 will be gravy.

That makes spring essential for getting the rust off, and also proving to the coaches and Grace himself that his football career—which once looked all but over—is back on track.

Greer Martini: Considered one of the least heralded recruits to enter the program last year, Martini quickly proved himself to be a more than capable football player, contributing on special teams and working his way into the mix at linebacker almost immediately.

Martini jump-started his development as injuries hit the depth chart. Now as a sophomore, he’ll need to take this spring to prove that those advancements weren’t solely based on attrition.

The reported moves of Randolph and Deeb make it seem like Martini is here to stay and a trusted piece of the future plans. We’ll find out if that’s the case in a few weeks.

Kolin Hill: After making his mark early in the season as a pass rusher, Hill got lost in the shuffle late in the season, losing his spot as a situational pass rusher to veteran Anthony Rabasa.

Hill may only be listed as a linebacker, though his not-quite adequate length (he’s 6-foot-1.5) could necessitate Hill staying in a two-point stance instead of working exclusively as a defensive end.

Continuing his work with Mike Elston, Hill is in for an important spring, especially with his ability to chase the quarterback still very much in demand.

Ben Councell: An original prototype for the 3-4 outside linebacker job, Councell’s spot in this program is still up in the air. A knee injury slowed down Councell’s development. So did falling behind players like Danny Spond and Jaylon Smith.

Councell is a big-bodied athlete, and someone who looks the part of a key defender. After hearing Kelly talk about the important role Councell would play in the defense, we really didn’t see too much of it in 2014.

But as a 260-pounder, Councell has value. But we’ll find out what the Irish staff thinks it is, with his return still up in the air and his role still undetermined.

John Turner: Last year’s spring star, Turner lost the starting outside linebacker job to James Onwualu. This spring, he’ll face more competition, though he could also see some reps at the strong safety position as well with Drue Tranquill returning from injury and the depth chart mighty thin.

One of the big questions about Turner was his ability to run. After being buried as a safety, his size and speed combo played well as a linebacker in space. But if Turner is going to prove his worth to the defense, he’ll need to continue to compete this spring, or else he’ll serve as a depth player and special teams contributor moving forward.

Michael Deeb: It looks as if Deeb will be transitioning to defensive end this spring, a chance to get an impressive looking athlete onto the field. When it took a rash of injuries to get Deeb even on the field against USC (before a play was run, Deeb was subbed out), making the move now to try and find a spot for Deeb makes sense.

Expect to see an even bigger and stronger Deeb come the updated spring roster. A workout warrior, if he can develop as an edge player with a hand on the ground, there’s another intriguing piece that VanGorder can try and utilize.

Doug Randolph: Like Deeb, is sounds like Randolph will be heading over to Keith Gilmore as well. After sitting out as a freshman after shoulder surgery, Randolph was also banged up in 2014, with minor maladies making it difficult for him to get on the field.

The battle at defensive end isn’t as tough as finding playing time as a linebacker, so Randolph will likely garner some kind words from the defensive coaching staff. And he’s a plenty impressive looking player, with his high school tape showing some edge abilities.

So spring will be spent transitioning to a new job. Consider Randolph a candidate for a spring breakout.

Tevon Coney: Welcome to college, kid. Now find your way onto the field with this depth chart. In reality, Coney is playing behind two fifth-year middle linebackers, an All-American and a freshman All-American.

Where Coney starts his career will be interesting. He could be a natural at the will, though he’s marked as a mike linebacker entering. But as a shorter player who relies on speed and instincts, getting some space in front of him could be key.

Fifteen practices is a nice jumpstart to a career. Learning about life in South Bend and getting on the field will be key towards beginning his pursuit of playing time.

Until we see him in something other than a high school YouTube highlight package, let’s reserve judgment.

Kevin Stepherson, three others no longer on Notre Dame roster

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Irish head coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame parted ways with four underclassmen Tuesday, in a move only partially-expected. Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior defensive tackle Brandon Tiassum are no longer part of the team, a University spokesperson confirmed.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated first reported the dismissals. The spring semester began Tuesday.

Stepherson’s departure, at least, was widely-expected after a December weekend of bad decisions brought his count of mishaps to four during his brief Irish career and induced an indefinite suspension. The lesser of those transgressions came with Holmes at his side, as the duo was charged with shoplifting from a nearby mall. Stepherson was also charged with possession of marijuana, speeding and driving without a valid license. Back in August of 2016, he was one of five players charged with marijuana possession, though no suspension came from that issue.

Following the shoplifting incident but before the additional Stepherson charges had come to light, Kelly expressed distinct disappointment in the choice made on a Friday night.

“You can’t steal, and they did,” he said. “I can tolerate a lot of things, but I can’t tolerate stealing. That’s why they’re suspended indefinitely and they put themselves in jeopardy.”

Kelly said he did hope to keep the players, specifically Stepherson, eligible so if they were removed from the team a transfer may be in their futures.

“If I wasn’t to have him back in the football program we want him to maintain his eligibility here so he can transfer to another program,” Kelly said.

Sophomore Deon McIntosh provided crucial depth for Notre Dame as ankle sprains limited juniors Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore Tony Jones. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

McIntosh was sent home from Orlando during Citrus Bowl preparations due to a violation of team rules. Tiassum’s exit will be a question for the time being, with no public knowledge of any issues.

While long-presumed, the loss of Stepherson still bears the most notice. When engaged, he was Notre Dame’s most explosive receiver, finishing 2017 with 359 yards and five touchdowns on 19 catches in only eight games, with genuine offensive involvement in only six. He caught 25 passes for 462 yards and five scores in his freshman season.

Cutting ties with both McIntosh and Holmes comes as a bit more of a surprise and will cut deep into the Irish running back depth. As ankle injuries limited the running game mainstays, McIntosh provided a reserve option, finishing the year with 368 yards and five touchdowns on 65 carries, a 5.7 yards per rush average. Holmes was activated to further counteract the injury concerns. If McIntosh were banged up, Notre Dame theoretically had one more option. He finished with eight carries for 32 yards.

Without the two backups, the Irish have only three running backs currently on the roster in junior Dexter Williams, sophomore Tony Jones and early-enrolled Jahmir Smith. Williams and Jones were likely to remain the top two on the depth chart, mitigating McIntosh and Holmes again, but the depth is always crucial at running back, as 2017 certainly proved.

Tiassum was unlikely to see much playing time in the future thanks to the returns of junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner announced Monday and Tuesday, respectively. Tiassum made two tackles in 2017.

Bonner’s decision to return brought the Irish roster up to 87 players with three spots open in the current recruiting cycle. Obviously, this development drops that number to 83. The NCAA maximum allowed come fall is 85.

Notre Dame returns entire defensive line with DT Bonner’s fifth-year decision

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Notre Dame’s defensive line will return intact in 2018. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner has changed his mind and will return for a fifth season Tuesday.

ND Insider’s Eric Hansen first reported Bonner’s shift.

In November, Bonner told Notre Dame’s independent student newspaper, The Observer, he did not intend to take a fifth year. Bonner later announced his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, lending some context to his decision to cut short his football career.

Apparently some combination of the decisions to return from junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, the 2018 defense’s potential and whatever other factors led Bonner to make a last-minute return to school. First-time defensive coordinator Clark Lea is certainly grateful.

Bonner provided consistent production in the defensive interior in 2017, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 3.5 for loss with two sacks. In his first three years with the Irish, Bonner hardly broke into the rotation. Suddenly, he was a force at the point of attack and held his own no matter the opponent.

Building upon that moving forward seems likely considering Bonner will not need to shoulder as much of the load. Freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa will have a greater role with another year under his belt, not to mention freshmen Kurt Hinish and Darnell Ewell. An increased rotation will benefit all involved.

At this point, the only contributing defensive lineman lost from 2017 will be end Andrew Trumbetti, out of eligibility. He split time with classmate Jay Hayes, so it can be argued the entire starting defensive line returns. A year ago, that unit was seen as a weakness, but it established itself as a strength as the season went on.

Bonner’s addition brings the running count on Notre Dame’s roster to 87 players, not counting three more possible commits in the incoming freshman class. The NCAA maximum is 85.

Seven early enrollees set a new Notre Dame high, but will they make an impact?

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Notre Dame does not lean on high school seniors to enroll a semester early, yet seven did so this year, a program high. By no means does the head-start guarantee an immediate impact. As discussed in Monday’s Leftovers, only four of the 14 early enrollees in the last three years made notable contributions their freshmen seasons.

Such a return indicates at least one of these seven will make an impact in 2018, and quite possibly two of them. In an attempt to predict that, the seven are listed below in order of likelihood of altering a game this year, dictated by positional need creating opportunities more than anything else.

As will be the case all offseason, when speaking of depth chart holes, one position stands out as the most needing rapid improvement, safety.

Consensus four-star defensive back Houston Griffith
Griffith may end up a cornerback, but the Irish are well-stocked there at the moment. His first chance to contribute will come at safety, something Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not rule out when Griffith (and the rest of these) signed in December.

For that matter, coverage duties can lead to a freshman missing a step. Playing the catch-all role of boundary safety may better suit an athlete like Griffith.

And, again, the Irish need safeties.

Consensus four-star linebacker Jack Lamb
Notre Dame also needs linebacker depth, even with junior Te’von Coney opting to return for his senior year. The reserves on the roster in 2017 did not inspire much faith moving forward. That could change, but Lamb seems just as likely to jump into the second-string of the depth chart.

Lamb may not yet be ready for much in the way of coverage duties, but he already has the physique to hold up in a physical matchup, and the early arrival will only further that cause. With a deep recruiting class at the position — including three early enrollees — defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea will have options to test out. Lamb simply seems the most likely to emerge as the leader of the inexperienced majority at linebacker.

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star linebacker Matthew “Bo” Bauer
If it is not Lamb who earns playing time spelling Coney, it could be Bauer. Like Lamb, Bauer fits best against the run.

This early emphasis on linebackers is a reflection of the distinct need for depth. Current sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) have not claimed a primary role for themselves, and the recruiting emphasis at the position this cycle points to a general letdown with freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Someone in the mix will need to step forward. By enrolling early, Lamb and Bauer have given themselves a bit more time to make that impression.

 

Micah Jones (rivals.com)

Rivals.com four-star receiver Micah Jones
The need at receiver is much less; though unproven, there are options. Nonetheless, that uncertainty creates an opportunity for Jones’ big frame. Offensive coordinator Chip Long has already shown a preference for big bodies at receiver, so that alone should play in the 6-foot-5 Jones’ favor.

This past spring, Long toyed with the idea of Equanimeous St. Brown, Chase Claypool and Miles Boykin as his starting receivers. Those latter two are still around. Even if Jones does not create another towering trio, he could backup either Claypool or, more likely, Boykin without creating much of a change for a quarterback’s reads.

This spring will give Jones time to learn the playbook and develop the needed consistency for that possibility. In a receiving corps proven to be inconsistent this past season, any version of reliability may be enough for Jones to break through.

Consensus three-star running back Jahmir Smith
Irish recruiting director and special teams coordinator Brian Polian raved about Smith in December. Every word Polian said may have been warranted, but it will still be difficult to crack the presumed trio of sophomore Tony Jones, junior Dexter Williams and freshman C.J. Holmes. They will take up the carries, no matter how aggressively Long splits the duties.

Kelly did note he would not hold back a running back simply because he is a freshman. If the back is ready, cut him loose. It is unlikely a productive back would stay for a fifth year, anyway. (See: Adams, Josh.) However, Jones preserved a year of eligibility in 2016 despite generous praise consistently offered his direction, so Kelly’s sentiment may deserve some healthy skepticism.

Consensus three-star linebacker Ovie Oghoufo
Oghoufo does not arrive as heralded as either Lamb or Bauer, or summer enrollee consensus four-star Shayne Simon, but he will have his chance this spring all the same. That is what happens when a spot needs a playmaker. One freshman will almost assuredly be needed for depth.

More likely, Oghoufo will use the added time to get some heft onto his frame. Albeit speedy, his slightness stands out when compared to the other linebacker recruits.

Rivals.com four-star tight end George Takacs
Notre Dame simply does not have a pressing need for a tight end. Recruiting Takacs was a forward-looking decision. He will be the fourth tight end this spring, with freshman Brock Wright presumably limited as he recovers from a shoulder injury. None of the three ahead, or Wright, are anything akin to slouches.

Unless injuries and/or suspensions run rampant, Takacs is a prime candidate for a season spent preserving eligibility.

RELATED READING: Kelly on the offensive signees
Kelly on the defensive signees

Notre Dame’s 2018 defense bolstered with Coney & Tillery returns

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Notre Dame’s defense found some stability last week with the promotion of linebackers coach Clark Lea to defensive coordinator and defensive line coach Mike Elston to associate head coach following Mike Elko’s abrupt departure, but only some stability.

That foundation is much more solid now after the Irish announced the returns of both junior linebacker Te’von Coney and junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery on Monday.

Both Coney and Tillery enjoyed noticeable developmental progress in one year under Elko.  Coney totaled a whopping 116 tackles to lead Notre Dame, far and away his best season. Among those takedowns, he managed 13 for loss, including three sacks. Tillery, meanwhile, led the Irish with 4.5 sacks this season, adding another 4.5 tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

Notre Dame’s defensive tackle situation may have bordered on dire if not for the return of junior Jerry Tillery. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

With Lea and Elston sticking around, Coney and Tillery are well-positioned for even further growth. If nothing else, they will step into starring roles in a rather complete front seven.

Notre Dame loses senior linebackers Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini, as well as senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner and senior defensive end Andrew Trumbetti. If Coney and Tillery had joined that group, the front seven would have been rife with unproven commodities and little depth. Instead, Coney will fill in at linebacker, meaning only one youngster will need to step forward, and Tillery will headline a defensive line surging under Elston.

After amassing 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory over LSU, Coney insisted he had not yet put much consideration into his future.

“I’m just right now still focused on the win,” he said. “We just got this 10th win. I’m just trying to soak up the moment. This is a great moment. … Focusing on that and the win and enjoying it with my brothers.”

Those words combined with Elko’s sudden departure for Texas A&M made Coney’s return seem unlikely. His breakout season at least placed him into NFL draft conversations and capitalizing on that chance would have made a good amount of logical sense.

With Lea in his ear for another season, Coney will have a chance to become more than a physical player excelling in run defense and develop his coverage skills. Coney and senior Drue Tranquill will lead an otherwise lacking linebacker corps.

Sophomores Jonathan and Jamir Jones (no relation) made 10 and four tackles, respectively, this year. Jonathan saw more playing time on defense, occasionally spelling senior Nyles Morgan, but has not yet looked the part of an every-down contributor. Irish coach Brian Kelly has previously admitted to considering a move to defensive line for Jamir, but that unit’s progression made that position shift less of a necessity.

If any of the incoming four linebackers or the two current freshmen, David Adams or Drew White, were to emerge, however, such a move may become an available luxury. Only Tillery’s return makes it a genuine luxury, though.

Tillery’s 56 tackles this year showed a level of consistency not seen in his first two seasons. His length alone makes Tillery an intriguing draft prospect. Logically speaking, a second season of such production, if not even increased output, should further his professional hopes. By returning along with Elston, the player/coach combination will provide experience to a position group otherwise devoid of it. With Bonner having said he will not return, Tillery and current freshmen Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Kurt Hinish are the only returning defensive tackles of contributory note.

Freshman Darnell Ewell will also certainly enter the rotation after spending 2017 preserving a year of eligibility. Juniors Micah Dew-Treadway and Brandon Tiassum will be in the mix, as well. Incoming freshmen consensus four-star defensive tackle Jayson Ademiloloa (St. Peter’s Prep; Jersey City, N.J.) and consensus three-star defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin (North Caroline High School; Ridgely, Md.) will complete the fray.

Reports on Monday indicate junior Elijah Taylor will leave Notre Dame after missing 2017 with a LisFranc fracture suffered in spring practice. He appeared in four games in 2016, making four tackles including one for loss. More than anything else, his departure is a step toward reaching the NCAA maximum of 85 rostered players. With Coney and Tillery returning but Taylor departing, the Irish roster currently stands at 86 players, though a few more recruits may be added. (This does not count sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson, indefinitely suspended and presumed not likely to play for Notre Dame in 2018.)