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.

Notre Dame’s successful early signing period now begets early visit questions

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Notre Dame used the first early signing period to its advantage, but in many respects, succeeding in that initial foray was by default. The Irish already had strong relationships with the recruiting class of 2018 when the NCAA finally agreed upon setting a 72-hour window for December. No other recruiting changes went into effect in the cycle, so the only shift was getting the paperwork ready and the grades verified six weeks earlier than usual.

“When you are presented with a new rule that gives you — go ahead, sign them early — and you’ve done all that work, that’s kind of a lay-up,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said on National Signing Day, Feb. 7. “The real work now begins with the early visits.”

A bit before finally nailing down the December early signing period, the NCAA also approved official visits for high school juniors in April, May and June. Previously, a recruit could not take an official visit until September of his senior year in high school.

For a program with a national reach in recruiting — pulling in multiple prospects from both coasts in the cycle of 2018, for example — it can be difficult to get a player to visit for a home game amidst his own football season. When it is possible, it is often a rushed trip. The recruit plays a high school game Friday night, flies to South Bend, possibly via Chicago, early Saturday morning and then departs mid-day Sunday to get back home in time for the school week.

Notre Dame can now instead slate that official visit for the summer, perhaps around a camp environment or the Blue-Gold Game (April 21).

In years to come, this expedited timing could have a greater effect on recruiting than the early signing period does.

“How we handle the back end of it, the back end being when are those visits going to start, when do you start them, when do you end them,” Kelly said, “That’s really what we’re trying to figure out at this point relative to tweaking and how that’s going to work.”

Theoretically, earlier visits could lead to earlier commitments, increasing the likelihood of more signings in December than in February, further de-emphasizing the traditional National Signing Day.

Amid all those changes, though, recruits are still allowed only five official visits and only one to each school. Of course, a recruit can make multiple unofficial visits, paying for those out of his and his family’s own pocket, but Notre Dame can pay for only one. As much as getting a recruit on campus earlier in the process should bode well for any program, it becomes a double-edged sword: Is it better to get a player on campus early and make that impression before other schools have the opportunity, or is it better to showcase a primetime game against a rival?

Irish recruiting coordinator Brian Polian suggested allowing two official visits per school, although remaining at only five total, on National Signing Day.

“Why not let a young man make two official visits to one institution? Because if somebody says to us, from far distance, I want to come make a visit to your place in the spring, well, ideally you want them to see a game atmosphere, as well,” Polian said. “There’s nothing like Notre Dame Stadium and this campus on a game weekend.

“Now we’re going to have to get into some strategic decisions about when do we want young men to take visits.”

Perhaps in time the NCAA will consider that adjustment, but it will not be for the cycle of 2019.

While when a player visits may impact the recruitment, Polian does not much care about when they commit, as long as they do. Notre Dame signed five prospects on National Signing Day who had not previously committed publicly, making it appear to be a strong finish to the class. Then again, the Irish also signed 21 players in the early signing period and received a 22nd commitment less than a week afterward.

“If you’ve got a really good class and they’ve been committed for a while, who cares when they said yes?” Polian said. “It’s as though the answers that you get at the end dictate your class.”

‘Accelerated’ start creates bright outlook for Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting cycle

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Thanks to signing 21 prospects during December’s early signing period, Notre Dame’s coaching staff began looking ahead to the 2019 recruiting cycle sooner than it usually would. The Irish needed to focus on only a handful of remaining 2018 possibilities, thus taking the time usually spent checking in on verbal commits and devoting it toward the needs of the future.

“[The early signing period] really allows us to accelerate and reach out into ’19, ’20 and beyond,” head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “You always feel in recruiting that you’re a click behind. You’re always trying to get ahead of it. This is the first time you truly feel like you’re about to get ahead of it.”

When Kelly or another coach says something to the effect of being ahead of schedule, they mean in terms of evaluating, communicating and beginning the year-long wooing more than they mean securing verbal commitments. Nonetheless, Notre Dame already has three pledges in the class of 2019.

Consensus four-star quarterback Cade McNamara (Demonte Ranch High School; Reno, Nev.) made it the second-consecutive cycle in which a highly-touted quarterback was the first Irish commitment, following Phil Jurkovec’s lead. Consensus four-star defensive tackle Jacob Lacey (South Warren H.S.; Bowling Green, Ky.), pictured above, committed shortly after McNamara, both in July, and rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta) made it a trio in late January.

Moving forward, the class’s success or failure may largely be determined by the defensive line commitments joining Lacey, or lack thereof. It is already the driving emphasis, part of that head start provided by the early signing period, and the preliminary responses have Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston optimistic.

“I’ve been at Notre Dame now going on for nine years, and I haven’t had a stronger group of underclassmen that I’m recruiting than I have this year in 2019,” Elston said on Feb. 7. “This could be the best defensive line haul we’ve ever had here.

“A lot of it is because I’ve been able to put ’18 to bed and get moving on the ’19s, go visit in their schools all throughout January.”

The Irish hosted about 20 juniors for a day in late January, and among them were five of the reasons Elston is so bullish on the defensive line possibilities, including the committed Lacey.

Twitter: @JacobLacey6

Pictured, from left to right: Consensus four-star defensive end/outside linebacker Nana Osafo-Mensah (Nolan Catholic; Forth Worth, Texas); consensus four-star defensive end Joseph Anderson (Siegel; Murfreesboro, Tenn.); Elston; consensus four-star defensive tackle Mazi Smith (East Kentwood; Kentwood, Mich.); Lacey; and consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse; Texas).

Obviously, it is early in the cycle, any relative success or failure in the 2018 season could prove to be influential, and the number of other variables is innumerable, but getting such a group on campus a full year before they need to put pen to figurative paper is a big step for any recruiting process.

Notre Dame will also need to focus on finding more running back talent. Pulling in two this class only replaces what was lost in the dismissals of current sophomore Deon McIntosh and current freshman C.J. Holmes. It does not create depth for the future, and with rising senior Dexter Williams entering his final season of eligibility, the Irish will need to find that depth immediately following 2018.

Similarly, one of the 2019 recruits will almost certainly be a punter, with Tyler Newsome entering his fifth and final year with Notre Dame.

Williams will be one of six rising seniors entering their final years of eligibility. Add them to Newsome and the eight other fifth-years on the roster, and that makes for an immediate 15 spots to fill in the class of 2019.

Obviously, 15 recruits would be a small class. The subsequent question is usually, “How many players will Notre Dame be able to sign in 2019?” That is not the question to ask. The question to ask is, “How many players will leave Notre Dame before August of 2019?”

The Irish roster, as it stands now, would have 89 players this fall, four more than the NCAA maximum. Presume the four who depart before this coming August are not rising seniors. (Any such player would be better served to wait a year, get his degree and transfer as a graduate with immediate eligibility.)

After the 2018 season, eight then-seniors would have one more year of eligibility available, but it is unlikely more than three or four are asked to return for a fifth year. In rough order of likelihood: quarterback Brandon Wimbush, cornerback Shaun Crawford, receiver Miles Boykin, offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland, tight end Alizé Mack, linebacker Asmar Bilal, receiver Chris Finke, defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway. If only three of those are asked to return, now 20 spots have theoretically opened up for the recruiting class of 2019.

If rising junior Julian Love puts together a third stellar season, he will have an NFL decision to make. His departure would immediately raise the operating figure to 21.

That becomes the floor for the size of the next recruiting class. Next offseason’s natural, and perhaps presumed, attrition can raise that total. Another year of 27 recruits is unlikely, but 24 or 25 would create what could be by then a familiar numbers crunch.

Notre Dame is right: The NCAA’s terrible precedent matters, but vacating wins does not

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No matter what the NCAA might say now, the Notre Dame defense held its own in the rain and slop against Stanford on Oct. 13, 2012. Whether und.com already notes the wins as vacated or not (it does), the Irish held Michigan State, Michigan and Miami without touchdowns in the three weeks leading up to that goal line stand. Notre Dame arrived in Miami with 12 wins and no losses that January, an undefeated top-ranked underdog in the national championship.

Vacating those 12 wins, and the nine in the following season, does not matter in any regard.

However, the NCAA established a new precedent Tuesday when it denied Notre Dame’s appeal to retain those wins in its records. That new standard could change how schools across the country handle controversy, allegations and educational fraud. That does matter.

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins made his feelings clear after the NCAA denied the University’s appeal of vacated wins due to academic transgressions by a handful of players in 2012 and 2013. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)

In his response to the ruling, Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins distinguished between his University and the NCAA.

“The NCAA is not, of course, an academic association with general responsibility for academic integrity at America’s colleges and universities,” he wrote.

Of course.

As an academic institution with general responsibility for academic integrity within its own buildings, when Notre Dame came across the academic transgressions involving nine student-athletes, it immediately suspended four of those players remaining on the 2014 roster, soon adding a fifth. It launched an internal investigation to gauge the scope of the situation, and handed the NCAA a completed understanding of what transpired largely at the hands of a student-trainer.

Some may argue that was the right thing to do, both on principle and in practice. After all, history showed cooperating institutions were granted some benefit of the doubt from the NCAA, only partly because that cooperation lessened the workload of an overworked, understaffed and fangless NCAA investigation department.

Hindsight does not argue Jenkins’ 2014 public deferral to the NCAA was the right maneuver.

“The University has decided that if the investigation determines that student-athletes would have been ineligible for past competitions, Notre Dame will voluntarily vacate any victories in which they participated,” he said then.

That was an unnecessary offering, and from a public relations viewpoint, it is now the greatest mistake made by the University in this process. That comment floats amid the internet’s cobwebs to be thrown back in Jenkins’ and Notre Dame’s face four years later. Doing so misses the more pertinent and meaningful pieces of the NCAA’s decision.

The NCAA opted to punish an institution when there was never any indication of involvement from anyone higher up than an undergraduate student. Per Tuesday’s announcement, “The appeals committee confirmed that at the time of the violations, the athletic training student was considered a university employee under NCAA rules.”

This is neither the space nor the time to launch into a debate regarding amateurism, but it is hard to understand the student-trainer being an employee but the student-athletes — the same ones she aided both illicitly in the classroom and medically in the football facilities — are not employees.

That questionable logic was joined by the NCAA pointing out, “In this case, the university acknowledged the academic misconduct impacted the eligibility of student-athletes and resulted in student-athletes competing while ineligible.”

Yes, Notre Dame did acknowledge that. The University went so far as to correct the past grades, deeming certain players retroactively ineligible. Notre Dame chose to do that. It could have followed the lead of other institutions, most dramatically North Carolina, and never granted the premise of falsehoods or academic missteps. North Carolina never declared any grades or classes fraudulent, and as a result, the NCAA Committee on Infractions deemed such judgements beyond its jurisdiction.

As a result, North Carolina emerged from a six-year investigation essentially unscathed, wins intact along with scholarships, staffers and players. If Notre Dame had not reevaluated ill-gotten grades, then the NCAA would not have, either, and those 21 wins would be safe.

With that in mind, why should any school, be it Notre Dame or North Carolina, Harvard or USC, West Point or Mount Union, “acknowledge” any academic fault in relation to its athletics?

That concerning piece of Tuesday’s appeal ruling did not escape Jenkins’ wrath.

“We are deeply disappointed that the NCAA failed to recognize these critical points,” he wrote. “Yet we are committed to work with partner institutions to introduce NCAA legislation that will lead to more reasonable decisions — decisions that will support rather than discourage institutions that do their best to uncover and respond to academic dishonesty in accord with their respective honor codes.”

The NCAA wants to allow academic institutions autonomy. It is, in fact, inherent to the NCAA’s structure. Apparently the NCAA wants that autonomy to extend so far it grants the governing body willful and blissful ignorance.

That is a dangerous precedent, and if Notre Dame needs to vacate 21 wins, must add an asterisk of a talking point for Irish critics and supposedly diminish the luster of that 2012 undefeated regular season, so be it. That is a worthwhile cost to produce a conversation for consistency and accountability moving forward.

That should be the sought result, too. Unless Notre Dame wants to turn the full complement of its sports into glorified barnstorming exhibitions, it will not be departing the NCAA. It does, though, still have the influence to effect change. That change will not come through a prolonged court case. There is no forward-looking damage to the University to protect against.

The greatest actual damage done to the here-and-now is to a meaningless stat. Notre Dame is now two or three seasons, at least, away from challenging Michigan (or Boise State) for the lead in all-time winning percentage, rather than one game away. That is the most tangible and lasting effect — remember, this investigation resulted in no bowl ban or reduced scholarship allotment — of this fiasco felt by Notre Dame, and it deserves little more than someone reminding me of the sequence of punctuation needed to create that shrug response.

But now we know, next time Notre Dame or Stanford or Michigan or Boise State or University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has an academic issue the NCAA is concerned with, it should filibuster, deny the premise and change the topic. That warrants more than a shrug. It warrants every bit of worry from anyone still wanting to believe college athletics involve just some academics, as Jenkins and Notre Dame do.

NCAA denies Notre Dame’s appeal, vacating 21 wins, including 12-0 in 2012

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The NCAA denied Notre Dame’s appeal to maintain its 21 wins from 2012 and 2013, the NCAA announced Tuesday. The ruling stems from the academic violations of nine players during those seasons, eight of them with the assistance of a former student-athletic trainer.

Notre Dame’s argument hinged on there being no university involvement or knowledge of the academic misconduct. The NCAA does not dispute that wholesale, but since the student-trainer was considered a university employee under NCAA rules, that lumps the violations into a category usually resulting in vacated wins.

“We are deeply disappointed by and strongly disagree with the denial of the University’s appeal …,” Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins said in a statement. “Our concerns go beyond the particulars of our case and the record of two football seasons to the academic autonomy of our institutions, the integrity of college athletics, and the ability of the NCAA to achieve its fundamental purpose.”

As the academic violations came to light and were self-reported by Notre Dame in 2014, the Irish suspended five then-current players: DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams and KeiVarae Russell. The University also set to recalculating the appropriate grades from years past. In doing so, it rendered certain players retroactively ineligible.

“In the curious logic of the NCAA, however, it is precisely the application of our Honor Code that is the source of the vacation of wins penalty, for the recalculation of grades in 2014 led to three student-athletes being deemed ineligible retroactively,” Jenkins said. “To impose a severe penalty for this retroactive ineligibility establishes a dangerous precedent and turns the seminal concept of academic autonomy on its head.

“At its best, the NCAA’s decision in this case creates a randomness of outcome based solely on how an institution chooses to define its honor code; at worst, it creates an incentive for colleges and universities to change their honor codes to avoid sanctions like that imposed here.”

Jenkins claims the ruling by the NCAA is unprecedented since there was no broader institutional involvement or lack of control.

“There is no precedent in previous NCAA cases for the decision to add a discretionary penalty of vacation of team records in a case of student-student cheating involving a part-time student worker who had no role in academic advising,” Jenkins wrote. “… The Committee simply failed to provide any rationale why it viewed the student-worker as an institutional representative in our case.”

Such a view was actually amended out of the academic misconduct rules in 2016, meaning student-trainers would not be considered institutional representatives.

Vacating the 12 wins from 2012 and the nine from 2013 drops Notre Dame’s all-time win total to 885 from 906 and its all-time winning percentage to .724 from .729. The Irish still stand at No. 2 in winning percentage, behind only Michigan, but that top spot will no longer be at stake in the 2018 season opener against the Wolverines on Sept. 1.

Jenkins’ full statement can be read here.

The NCAA’s announcement denying the appeal can be read here.