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.

Mid-week reading: On Wimbush; NCAA $$$; A look back at Te’o

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A litany of links typically makes for good Friday fodder. A week’s worth of the internet can help any reader through an unproductive end of the week. Unfortunately, spring practice’s rhythms are inconsistent, unlike summer’s constant nothingness and fall’s non-stop charge.

Hey, who said you can’t take a long lunch on a Wednesday, anyways?

MORE WIMBUSH AND WHITFIELD
Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples joined Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush out in San Diego two weeks ago during spring break, watching as Wimbush listened to private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield’s instructions. Staples, per usual, tells a good story, slipping some nuggets of information within it where you may not even notice.

Many around this space have asked who foots the bill when a college quarterback seeks out Whitfield’s tutelage. Per Staples, Wimbush’s mother paid for the week.

Throughout the story, Wimbush emphasizes the importance of a Notre Dame degree, going so far as to point to former Irish quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire acquiring their diplomas before departing Notre Dame. None of us know Wimbush’s academic progress—now approaching his second summer school session, Wimbush is likely ahead of the usual second-semester sophomore’s credit pace—but this tidbit may prove pertinent in nine months time. Considering what its pertinence would say about a bigger picture, Irish fans should certainly hope it is of note.

To this memory, the classic image relayed from Golson’s time with Whitfield was Golson throwing over brooms held by staffers, mimicking the long limbs of charging defensive linemen. Those fictional pass rushers have become a bit more realistic in nature, now apparently represented with outstretched tennis rackets.

NCAA GIVING NOTRE DAME NEARLY $1 MILLION
In what has been described as a “one-time supplemental distribution,” the NCAA is dispersing $200 million among its members. The amount each school receives is determined by the total number of full scholarships it gives to student-athletes, with each partial scholarship contributing its appropriate fraction toward that total figure.

Notre Dame will receive $984,724 thanks to giving out 299.20 scholarships in 2013-14. Some context behind that latter number: The football team takes up 85 scholarships. The men’s basketball team is allowed 13, and the women’s basketball team gets 15. The remaining 186.20 are split among the other 20 varsity sports (counting men’s and women’s teams separately in rowing, swimming and diving, and track and field).

Other notable schools:
Ohio State receives the most, more than $1.3 million, thanks to its 403.98 scholarships.
USC’s 279.06 scholarships equates to $918,440.
Michigan’s 353.18 scholarships will yield close to $1.2 million.

All these dollars must be spent it ways aiding the student-athletes. Schools cannot put the funds toward items like stadium construction or coaches’ salaries. Rather, the NCAA indicated the money is for “the direct benefit of the student-athlete and their academic success, life skills, career success, health and safety and student-athlete focused diversity and inclusion initiatives.”

All expenditures must be approved by the NCAA. The money comes from an endowment that had reportedly come to exceed $360 million.

REMEMBER THE TE’O DRAFT HOOPLA?
The below video does not necessarily reveal anything we do not already know about former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, despite its ponderous title. It does, however, make a good point.

Aside from a sporadic comment deep in the morass of these pages, not much is said about the Lennay Kekua situation anymore. At the time, it was the most talked about item anywhere, let alone in Notre Dame corners. Personally, a former co-worker at the Los Angeles Times called late one night that week four-plus years ago. He and I had not spoken in close to two years, and we haven’t spoken since. But the Te’o/Kekua story prompted him to seek an understanding of what in the world was going on.

In some irish.nbcsports.com history, the day after that story broke—it broke on Jan. 16, 2013, so I am referring to Jan. 17—still holds the record for most views to this particular site.

Good for Te’o to have successfully moved past that saga. These days, every comment former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer makes is scrutinized. He is even criticized for not having excellent timing with Jonas Gray, of all people. Looking back on Te’o, it should be remembered the most dramatic stories, one seemingly crafted perfectly for the internet, fade into the cobwebs of time.

[Here, a link in case the intended embed below fails.]

PHIL STEELE’S PROJECTED AP TOP 10
Enough with the past. Let’s project the future.

Phil Steele, of the revered Phil Steele’s College Football Preview, projected August’s Associated Press Top 10. Steele has accounted for voters’ tendencies rather accurately in years past, so it is not an entirely fruitless exercise. Then again, he is projecting the results of the first of many polls with no actual consequence.

Of Steele’s projected top-10, Notre Dame will face only No. 4 USC.

KENPOM’S TOO EARLY PRESEASON TOP 10
If you think Steele’s top 10 is too early, then skip this.

College basketball analytics master Ken Pomeroy put together his top 10 for next season, though any unexpected draft departures or transfers can certainly alter his calculations. After all, the season is not actually over yet.

Of certain Irish interest: No. 9 North Carolina, No. 8 Louisville and No. 6 Virginia. The last of those has already suffered a transfer which Pomeroy tweeted will “abruptly” end the Cavaliers’ time in his preseason top 10.

SPEAKING OF BASKETBALL, WELL DONE DENNIS, WHOEVER YOU ARE
Math is hard, so take this with a grain of salt, but I believe Dennis’ bracket of “Brey Brey’s Kids” will win the Inside the Irish March Madness pool. Dennis, your $984,724 is in the mail.

Don’t think that means there is no reason to watch the Final Four, though. Your host might be able to rise into the top half of the field, which would be good for his pride, and therefore the quality of writing in these parts.

It shouldn’t be too surprising my bracket flopped. This is a football page. Besides, by my eye, no one I actually know firsthand will finish higher than fourth. That is more of a relief than it should be.

Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

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This space has mentioned a few times the dearth of returning sacks among Notre Dame’s defensive line. It is a pertinent fact—no returning Irish defensive lineman recorded a sack in the 2016 season—but it fails to mention the flipside of that.

Most of Notre Dame’s defensive linemen had few, if any, opportunities to rush the passer in 2016. Perhaps at the top of the list of those who should bring down the opposing passer a few times this fall, sophomore Daelin Hayes has laid claim to a starting rush spot through five spring practices.

“The athleticism is what obviously stands out,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s extremely athletic, he’s fit physically, 250 pounds and very strong.”

These facts are, after all, the reasons Hayes was a highly sought-after five-star recruit according to rivals.com.

“It’s the football knowledge, learning the techniques at the position in which he plays is really the piece,” Kelly continued. “It’s just learning right now for him. This is the time to do it, in spring ball.

“Squeezing down on a tight end when the back is away. Wrong-arming the puller. These are all football terms and schemes that are a bit new to him. We have to be patient with him. He’s an explosive athlete. There’s going to be some mistakes along the way, and I’m okay with that as long as he’s learning.”

Without much depth pushing for playing time behind him, Hayes will have the opportunity to make, and subsequently understand, those mistakes. Seniors Jay Hayes (no relation) and Andrew Trumbetti are mired in competition for the other end spot, while sophomores Julian Okwara, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Khalid Kareem may have even more development ahead of them than Daelin Hayes does.

Incoming freshmen Kofi Wardlow and Jonathon MacCollister will join the fray in the summer, but for now, the younger Hayes has his chance to impress with his natural gifts while absorbing the intricacies of new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s defense.

Hayes is not a complete unknown. While Okwara made four tackles last season in 11 games and Kareem appeared in four games, Hayes saw action in every contest, finishing the season with 11 tackles, one pass breakup and one forced fumble.

“He’s an athlete,” defensive line coach Mike Elston said last week. “He’s on the edge in a two-point stance. He’s not a trained, put-your-hand-on-the-ground defensive end. He played running back in high school. He can see things better in a two-point and can diagnose quicker. He’s able to be more productive.”

It may be accurate to mention no returning Notre Dame defensive linemen tackled a quarterback for a loss last season, but it is more precise to also include the Irish have possibilities of changing that trend.

SPEAKING OF THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Notre Dame is nearly as thin at defensive tackle as it is at end. Junior Jerry Tillery leads the way with senior end-converted-to-tackle Jonathan Bonner lining up next to him thus far. Their reserves: Oft-concussed senior Daniel Cage, senior Pete Mokwuah and junior Micah Dew-Treadway with junior Elijah Taylor out for the spring with a foot injury.

Theoretically, junior Brandon Tiassum is also in the mix, and three freshmen (Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailo-Amosa and four-star Darnell Ewell) will join the group in the summer.

And maybe, just maybe, perhaps, possibly … Clemson graduate student transfer Scott Pagano could walk onto campus alongside those freshmen. Pagano visited Notre Dame the first week of March, and was due to look at Oklahoma and Arkansas the next two weekends, respectively. Instead, Pagano reportedly cancelled both of those visits Monday.

Pagano does still have a visit to Oregon scheduled for April 21. Until indicated otherwise, it may be prudent to presume Pagano hopes to land as close to his Hawaiian home as possible.

RELATED READING: 1 Day Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive line

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”