Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

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.

Five things we learned: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35

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The tombstone for Brian Kelly’s seventh football team in South Bend might read:

Here lies Notre Dame. They found ways to lose.

That might lean dramatic, but the Irish are 1-3, a 38-35 defeat at the hands of Duke the latest boondoggle for a team that’s waking up all the wrong echoes. And Kelly’s program—led by a historically bad defense— is plummeting, a free-fall from what seemed like solid ground entering the season.

But that’s what a perfect storm will do. A horrific defense, a schizophrenic offense, poor leadership and a young roster stepping into every trap laid, every banana peel dropped, especially when the chips are on the table.

A week after getting out-classed by Michigan State, Notre Dame faces a much different monster in the mirror.

“I told our guys we’re going in the wrong direction. We’re not going to continue to go in this direction,” Kelly said postgame. “We’ll have to reevaluate what we’re doing, who we are doing it with and how we’re doing it. All of those things.

Let’s find out what we learned.

 

Notre Dame’s defense has infected the entire football team. 

A last-second kneel down was all that kept Duke from crossing 500 yards of offense. But it isn’t enough that the Irish defense is getting decimated by every competent football team that lines up across from them. Their mediocre play has infected the entire team.

That’s what happens when you put pressure on your offense to score every series. That’s what happens when you coach to protect one vulnerability, only to unleash another.

Because it isn’t enough that this defense misses tackles, blows assignments and plays with an alarmingly low IQ. They’ve found a way to infect the offense and the entire coaching philosophy, too.

There’s no need to spend words indicting Brian VanGorder (or Kelly for hiring him) or the position coaches for failing to get the defense in the right position. Kelly made it abundantly clear that any move he makes will likely be postseason, not as some sort of mid-season shuffle.

Because even a back-to-the-basics week did nothing to salvage things. We saw no uptick from working on tackling midweek in mid-September, for preaching the fundamentals; “speed to power” in one ear and out the other, like a Duke player weaving through defenders to daylight.

This defense is toxic and has found a way to derail all three segments of the team, hoisting enough pressure onto DeShone Kizer that it was as much the guys in blue making his afternoon tough as it was David Cutcliffe’s team.

 

Blame coaching all you want, but Brian Kelly is making it clear that he’s holding his players accountable, too. 

Brian Kelly said all the right things about coaching accountability, spitting out the perfunctory cliches—”I’m a 1-3 football coach. We’re all 1-3 football coaches”—through gritted teeth.

But it didn’t take long for Kelly to make his true feelings clear, taking dead aim at the effort and attitude that his team showed Saturday afternoon, making it clear he’ll be looking for a different type of football player to take the field next week.

“Guys that have fire and grit. We had one guy in the entire football team that had emotion and fire. And that was Dexter Williams. He’s the only one. He’s the only one that I saw,” Kelly said after some prodding.

“So if you want to play for me moving forward. I don’t care what your resume said, if you’re a five star, if you had 100 tackles or 80 receptions or 30 touchdown passes, you better have some damn fire and energy in you. We lack it. We lack it severely.”

After another week where veterans were just as responsible for futility as any rookies, Kelly made it clear that he’s set to make sweeping changes to the team that’ll take the field next weekend in East Rutherford against Syracuse.

“Every position. All 22 of them, will be evaluated. Each and every position,” Kelly said. “There is no position that is untouchable on this football team. That’s the quarterback all the way down.”

 

Notre Dame needs to find an offensive identity, too. Because DeShone Kizer wasn’t close to good enough to bail them out. 

There’s no applauding the 534 yards of offense the Irish put up. Because when push came to shove, the Irish offense failed to score when they had two final chances to win the football game—a troubling trend that’s beginning to emerge.

The ground game struggled. Behind an offensive line that’s still making too many mistakes, Josh Adams, Tarean Folston and Dexter Williams were all held below five yards a carry. Only Kizer found an explosive play on the ground, his 23-yarder the only running gain the Irish had over 20 yards.

Kizer put up some empty statistics as well. He was clearly pressing for much of the second half, even after the momentary boost the offense got from the defense after halftime. Kizer’s fourth quarter was one to forget, just 3 of 7 passing for 45 yards, taking a sack, throwing a mindless interception on 3rd-and-20, and short-circuiting any comeback chance with a poor final drive.

Combine that with some head-scratching reads, a handful of missed touch passes and an inexcusable fumble, and it was a difficult afternoon for the Irish’s star quarterback.

“Below standard,” Kelly said of his quarterback’s play.

 

Once again turnovers, special teams and self-inflicted wounds killed the Irish. 

Want to learn how to throw away momentum? Give up a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

With Chase Claypool, Julian Okwara and Nick Coleman all blowing tackles, even a serious injury to return man extraordinaire Devon Edwards didn’t stop backup Shaun Wilson from taking one to the house, flipping the game completely on its head when it looked like the Irish could bury Duke early.

Add in Kizer’s fumble, his fourth-quarter interception (and another one he gift-wrapped that was dropped) and Equanimeous St. Brown getting stripped after a big gain, and it’s a formula the Irish know all too well.

“There’s not a lot of things to point out other than the obvious. Three turnovers, all of them impact the game. Sloppy turnovers. A kickoff return for a touchdown,” Kelly said to open his postgame comments. “And the inability to mount anything consistently throughout the game. Once you feel like you have something going pretty good and then we tend to make a mistake and let teams back in the game.”

That’s certainly what happened Saturday afternoon, with the Irish capable of delivering a knockout punch and instead carrying the Blue Devils off the ropes and right back into the game.

Toss in some of the worst tackling—both attempts and angles—you’ll ever see and you’ve got a recipe for defeat.

 

You need to live and die with the kids. Because this might not be rock bottom. 

Bad news: This could get worse.

Because as Kelly mentioned last week, there are no trades, no waiver wire and no cuts in college football. Sure, you can run Brian VanGorder out of town if you really think that’ll help, but it’s only going to add more instability to a season that’s not close to rock bottom—not with offenses like Syracuse, Stanford, Miami, Virginia Tech, Army, Navy and USC on the schedule.

(No disrespect meant to NC State, I’m sure they’ll find a way to get theirs, too.)

The roster that Kelly himself assembled deserves examination. But that’s the group that needs to get this team out of trouble. And it’s tough to say any amount of hard coaching will allow that to happen.

So live and die with the kids.

Donte Vaughn, welcome to the starting lineup. Julian Love, see you there, too.

Khalid Kareem, Jamir Jones and Julian Okwara can’t be any worse at getting off blocks than Andrew Trumbetti—who plays like a two-gap defensive tackle instead of a guy attempting to rush the passer.

Offensively, pass the baton to Equanimeous St. Brown already—he’s clearly the team’s No. 1 receiver. Give Chase Claypool and Kevin Stepherson reps at the X if Torii Hunter can’t scare teams downfield. And if Tarean Folston can’t find that next gear, Dexter Williams certainly seems willing to show you his.

Notre Dame’s football program is in a dangerous place, and all are responsible.

Because lost somewhere between the fancy new facilities, the social media partnership with Bleacher Report, and the sports-science and nutrition commitments that treat this program better than most NFL outfits, a simple fundamental got lost in the process–and this football team got soft.

We could’ve seen this coming. Kelly hinted at worries during the spring and summer, especially as he openly had questions about this team’s veteran leadership. Those problems were exposed in August, when one senior leader thought it wise to drag four underclassmen with him on a Cheech and Chong adventure, all while exercising his Second Amendment rights, too.

So match a lack of leadership with mediocre effort and a young roster looking for veteran examples and you can bet that Kelly’s postgame comments for the media were a subdued echo of what he said behind closed doors.

“It looks like it’s hard to play, like we’re pulling teeth. We’re playing football for Notre Dame! It looks like it’s work,” Kelly said, almost exacerbated. “Last I checked they were getting a scholarship to play this game. There’s no fun, there’s no enjoyment, there’s no energy.

“We’ve gotta look for the guys that want to have fun and play this game with passion and energy and that’s the way we have to go.”

 

 

Where to watch: Notre Dame vs. Duke

Josh Adams Nevada
AP
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It’s another Saturday of football at Notre Dame. And if you’re unable to tune in on NBC at 3:30 p.m., or you want more than our afternoon broadcast with Mike Tirico, Doug Flutie and Kathryn Tappen, we’ve got you covered.

 

For the PREGAME SHOW AT 3:00PM ON NBCSN, CLICK HERE.

For the BROADCAST FEED OF NOTRE DAME VS. DUKE, CLICK HERE.

For the BANDS AT HALFTIME, CLICK HERE.

And your POSTGAME COACHES PRESS CONFERENCES, CLICK HERE.

Here’s to a great Saturday, the first one of autumn.

 

Pregame Six Pack: Back to the grind

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 17: Members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish sing the alma mater following a loss to the Michigan State Spartans at Notre Dame Stadium on September 17, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Michigan State defeated Notre Dame 36-28. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Enough has been made about the fate of Brian Kelly’s football team. Now it’s time to play. Because for the young team that takes the field each week, Saturday is an opportunity to improve, a chance to win a football game, and one of 12 Saturdays that serve as a reward for the hard work that goes in all year round.

At 1-2, nothing is served by looking at the big picture. Conversely, it’s Kelly’s job to drill down, making sure his players and coaches understand that the details are what will be critical on this third-straight home weekend.

With the team focusing on the little things, let’s do the same in the Pregame Six Pack. With the Irish and the Blue Devils meeting for the first time since 2007 on Saturday afternoon, let’s focus on six key position groups that will ensure the Irish leave the game at a level 2-2.

 

The defensive backs. Players young and old need to take a step forward. That means Cole Luke needs to rebound from his worst week wearing an Irish uniform and Devin Studstill needs to keep improving. That means the Irish need to hold up not just in pass coverage, but in run fits as well—the focus as much on youngsters as it is on Drue Tranquill and Avery Sebastian.

Without Max Redfield, Shaun Crawford, Devin Butler and Nick Watkins, this group has no reinforcements other than the youth on the roster. And Kelly sounded fairly clear that with the Irish out of the picture for a big postseason spot, he may be inclined to save Watkins’ year of eligibility and let him forearm heal with time.

“We’re at a point right now where we have to make a decision whether we want to get him in,” Kelly said.  “I would say standing here in front of you right now, based upon my conversation with Dr. Ratigan, he thinks it’s still two more weeks, and if that’s the case, I would lean toward not playing him this year. Not to use up a half-year on him.”

That means Nick Coleman’s going to keep playing. Donte Vaughn will get his chances, too. And it’s up to everybody to step their games up—because this is the group that needs to get the job done.

 

The Offensive Line. The Irish front didn’t have a strong Saturday last weekend. And so you can guess that Harry Hiestand let his unit know this week that those results wouldn’t be good enough.

Expect to see a new attitude this week. That means a commitment to sustaining blocks. It means a diligence in spotting pressures. And it means getting the ground game—and the line of scrimmage—moving.

“It comes down to what we do and that’s the way football is, especially on the offensive side of the ball, it’s executing what you need to do and what your job is,” Mike McGlinchey said this week. “Doing that against a look that is in front of you, that’s the great thing about playing offense, especially offensive line, is a lot of it is in your control. You just have to be able to see what’s happening in front of you and trust the guys next to you to get the job done and that’s what’s going to happen.”

Expects Duke’s defense to challenge Notre Dame’s front with varied looks and a multitude of different pressures. But after struggling against the Spartans, expect a very motivated Irish offensive line to set the tone on Saturday.

 

 

The Pass Rush. Brian Kelly called Duke quarterback Daniel Jones “as good as anyone in the country as far as running their offense.” That’s high praise for a young player just getting started, but it’s likely a credit to a smart quarterback and a very good offensive coaching staff. So as the Irish defense tries to find its footing, expect the Blue Devils staff to see some opportunities after watching three games of tape from Notre Dame’s defense.

But a developing set of receivers and a struggling offensive line should give Notre Dame’s woeful pass rush some opportunities to establish themselves. It should also help protect a secondary that found itself in position to make plays last week, but just didn’t get the job done.

The Blue Devils short passing game has had success. But if Duke tries to extend those throws down the field, the Irish defense better be ready. You can only do so much in the secondary. Against a Duke offensive line that hasn’t been at its best, the Irish front should be able to pin its ears back and get after the quarterback, with veterans like Isaac Rochell or a rookie like Daelin Hayes. The door is open to get a sack or two from a position group that’s been missing in action through the season’s first quarter.

 

Special Teams. Scott Booker’s unit has to want to get that bad taste from their mouth. Jalen Elliott’s penalty took a score off the board. Miles Boykin’s mistake gave the football to the Spartans. And Nicco Fertitta took a stupid penalty, getting himself noticed for all the wrong reasons.

CJ Sanders is due for a bounce back. And Duke’s specialists have been struggling, too. If the Irish want to win this game convincingly, they can dominate the third phase of the football game, helping the defense with field position and setting up the offense with a short field or two.

 

Wide Receivers. I noticed Chase Claypool attacking the football. Notre Dame’s coaching staff did, too. Now it’s time to add the talented freshman to the mix, another downfield weapon who can exploit mismatches and bring a physicality to a unit that already features Equanimeous St. Brown.

Duke’s defense isn’t bad. But they’ll be asked to do a lot, committing bodies to stop the running game and hold up the Blue Devils if the offense can’t get rolling. But for as good as DeShone Kizer has been this season, he’s due a few big plays from the guys catching passes. A season after Will Fuller served as a home run hitter, it’s time for an Irish pass catcher to take a long ball to the house.

 

The Head Coach. Yes, I know this is cheating. The head coach isn’t a position group.

But this is Brian Kelly’s team. That means that he’s ultimately in charge of Brian VanGorder’s besieged defense, the special teams that struggled last week and the offense that went missing for two quarters.

Kelly’s been under the bright lights before. And after seven seasons, a little external heat isn’t anything that’s going to come as a surprise—no matter how successful he’s been turning this program around.

 

“It comes with the territory. I know what the expectations are for the football program at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “When you build expectations you’re going to be criticized. I have no problem with that. I get that. As I said, I’m a 1-2 football coach. If you’re not criticizing a 1-2 football coach, your fan base is pretty soft.”

So it’s up to Kelly to have his team avoid the noise. It’s up to the coaches and players inside the Gug to find the motivation. And it’s up to the team to play with an internal motivation that doesn’t take into account the team’s postseason destination.

The message has been sent, at least if you listen to one of the team’s captains.

“It’s got to be self and team pride,” McGlinchey said this week. “It’s the constant battle to become the best person and player you can be each and every day. And along with that, become the best team we can be every day. That’s the motivation, just become better and do better and continue to work for that, and everything that we do is about.”

The message is clear. Now delivering on it is essential.

Behind the Irish: Gameday traditions

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With Notre Dame ready to welcome Duke to South Bend for a third-straight home weekend, our Behind the Irish feature takes a look at some of the unique home traditions of football Saturdays at Notre Dame.

Brian Kelly and players Nyles Morgan, Josh Adams, Torii Hunter, DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and Mike McGlinchey give us a look at their favorite gameday traditions.