Keith Arnold

TEMPE, AZ - NOVEMBER 08:  Quarterback Taylor Kelly #10 of the Arizona State Sun Devils throws a pass under pressure from linebacker Nyles Morgan #5 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the fourth quarter of the college football game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 8, 2014 in Tempe, Arizona. The Sun Devils defeated the Fighting Irish 55-31.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

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Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.

A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.

No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.

 

DEPARTURES
Jaylon Smith
, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs)
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs)
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Barajas*
Asmar Bilal*
Te’von Coney
Daelin Hayes
Jonathan Jones
Jamir Jones

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

Greer Martini
Josh Barajas
Asmar Bilal
Daelin Hayes

 

ANALYSIS
Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.

It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.

On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.

The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.

But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.

Heisman winner Johnny Lattner’s legacy appreciated

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 30:  Former Heisman Trophy winner John Lattner (C) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish stands next to quarterback Brady Quinn #10 during the captain's meeting against the Purdue Boilermakers September 30, 2006 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won 35-21. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Lattner passed away last week at the age of 83. The best player in the country in 1953, Lattner was one of Notre Dame’s record seven Heisman Trophy winners, and is the third of that group to have deceased, joining Angelo Bertelli and Leon Hart.

Lattner once quipped he spent the majority of his playing career in head coach Frank Leahy’s doghouse. But it’s hard to understand how that was possible, considering Lattner was one of the last football players to spent 60 minutes a game on the football field, a “one-platoon” player in an era where specialization took hold.

ESPN’s Ivan Maisel wrote about Lattner’s impact on the college game—something today’s numbers-driven era might have struggled to notice.

You can’t measure Lattner’s statistics against today’s game. In three seasons for Notre Dame, Lattner rushed for a total of 1,724 yards and 20 touchdowns. He caught 39 passes. But here’s where Lattner’s talent can begin to be understood — he also returned kicks and punts and, as a defensive back, intercepted 13 passes.

For nearly a quarter century, from the start of World War II into the early 1960s, the keepers of the NCAA football rulebook argued over whether the game should be played by the same 11 men whether a team had the ball or not. Loosening the limits on substitutions began during the war, and a good segment of coaches wanted to keep them loose after the troops came home and returned to college.

By 1952, nearly every coach had shifted to two-platoon football. Yet Leahy still played Lattner both ways. That’s how good he was, or at least could be.

UND.com had some wonderful features on Lattner after his passing. Check them out here.  If you’re in need of a history lesson (I know I was), take some time and give them a read.

Lattner’s life will be celebrated at a visitation this Friday at Fenwick High School, where he starred as a Chicagoland prep player. The funeral is Saturday at St. Vincent Ferrer Church in River Forest, Illinois.

Re-Stocking the roster: Secondary

Michigan v Notre Dame
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For those asking big questions about Notre Dame’s struggle in the secondary, the Irish coaching staff provided their answer on Signing Day. That’s when Notre Dame added seven new DBs, bringing in a large group to continue the overhaul of a unit that underperformed in 2015.

There are reasons for those struggles. The Irish staff was candid about them, talking about the lack of personnel—some due to injury circumstances, other due to scheme changes. And while cross-training a receiver like Torii Hunter Jr. was a short-term option, investing in the position group was the more prudent choice.

We’ll see that investment first hand, when almost 15 percent of the scholarship roster is dedicated to first- and second-year defensive backs. They come in all shapes and sizes, from pint-sized corner Shaun Crawford to jumbo safeties D.J. Morgan and Spencer Perry.

The defense welcomes back key building blocks Cole Luke and Max Redfield, with Luke capable of being a front-line college cornerback and Redfield possessing a similar skill set. As Drue Tranquill and Devin Butler return from injuries and Nick Watkins builds on a strong bowl season, there’s reason to believe this doesn’t need to be a complete gut-job renovation.

So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions as we lead into spring practice.

 

DEPARTURES
KeiVarae Russell, CB
Elijah Shumate, SS
Matthias Farley, DB
John Turner, S*
Nicky Baratti, S*

*Unclear on return for fifth year. 

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Nick Coleman, CB
Shaun Crawford*, CB
Nicco Ferita, S
Ashton White*, DB
Mykelti Williams*, S
Jalen Elliott, S
Julian Love, DB
D.J. Morgan, S
Spencer Perry, S
Troy Pride, CB
Devin Studstill, S
Donte Vaughn, CB

*Have fifth-year of eligibility

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Watkins, CB
Max Redfield, S
Avery Sebastian, S

Nick Coleman, CB
Shaun Crawford, CB
Drue Tranquill, S
Mykelti Williams, S
Ashton White, DB
Spencer Perry, S
Devin Studstill, S
John Turner, S
Nicky Baratti, S

*Turner & Baratti’s fifth-year status is unclear. 

 

ANALYSIS
Gone is the zone scheme that Bob Diaco deployed. Here is Brian VanGorder’s cover and pressure-based system that requires the ability to play man-to-man and hold your own in space.

The early returns on the 2015 group are mostly incomplete. Shaun Crawford, who was penciled into the lineup from Day One, tore his ACL in August and missed the season. While Nicco Fertitta took some special teams reps, the only other DB from the group to see the field was Nick Coleman, who the staff believes will contribute, but just needs some seasoning (he mostly played running back in high school).

This year’s group brought some length and physicality to the roster. Jumbo-sized DBs like D.J. Morgan, Spencer Perry and Donte Vaughn all look and play differently than the guys on the current roster.  Jalen Elliott could be a contributor from the day he steps onto campus. Somebody needs to be ready to lineup next to Max Redfield, perhaps redshirt Mykelti Williams is ready after a season watching and learning. Or Drue Tranquill’s knees finally allow him to become a key contributor.

Talent isn’t necessarily the issue. Comprehension might be—thousands of words have been spent evaluating whether or not VanGorder’s scheme is too complex for athletes to read and react instinctively. That same analysis is going on in The Gug as well.

Ultimately, Notre Dame’s biggest handicap last season wasn’t the talent on the field, it was the inability to put more of it out there. You can’t win in college football without a large pool of defenders, and the Irish just lacked the ability to mix and match in the back end, a flaw that proved fatal in the regular season’s final 30 seconds.

Spring will be a big first step for Todd Lyght and his secondary, before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Jobs Available: Top candidates to fill holes on Irish OL

Notre Dame offensive line
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Steve Elmer’s decision to hang up the cleats opens a third job on Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. A group that was a finalist for the Joe Moore Award now needs to replace the majority of its starters, with only first-year contributors Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson returning starters.

The Irish already had to replace the 76 starts that Nick Martin and Ronnie Stanley had. Add in Elmer’s 30 and it’s over 100 starts departed—a unique predictor for success in the college football ranks.

With the recruiting that Hiestand and Brian Kelly have done up front, nobody expects the Irish offensive line to fall off a cliff, even with three new starters and only 25 starts returning. So with a month until spring ball kicks off, let’s take a look at the candidates to fill the three vacancies.

 

LEFT TACKLE

Candidates: Alex Bars, Hunter BivinTommy Kraemer, and Mike McGlinchey 

Bivin filled the role of backup to Stanley in 2015 while Bars earned playing time as the understudy to Nelson at guard until he broke his ankle in his first start. Both seem like viable options. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that the last time Notre Dame needed to find a left tackle, they simply flipped their starter from the right side across the line, putting Ronnie Stanley into Zack Martin’s job.

That seems less likely with McGlinchey, especially with his prototype size for the right side and some capable replacements. While the staff has praised the 6-foot-8 tackle for his athleticism, asking him to move to the left side could neutralize some of the elite run-blocking skills he displayed in his first season as starter.

The wildcard in all of this is Kraemer, who won’t be on campus until June, but is the type of high-ceiling, national recruit who could conceivably step into the starting lineup from day one. That’s far from ideal, even if Kraemer is as good as people think he could be.

My Hunch: Ultimately, I think this is Bars’ job—provided he’s healthy after breaking his ankle. Bivin looks like the type of “swing” player Kelly mentioned on Signing Day as the Irish try and fortify (and reload) their recruiting efforts going forward.

 

CENTER

Candidates: Sam Mustipher, Mark Harrell, or Tristen Hoge

Mustipher emerged last season as the key backup for Nick Martin, a job that seemed to be one of the hardest to fit on the offensive line. That likely was a big reason why the Irish were so keen to land a prospect like Hoge, a true center on an offensive line that had recruited interior players and converted them to the position. During a freshman season spent redshirting, Hoge earned a few mentions from his head coach, who claimed he was capable of being activated if the need arose.

It’s hard to question the results Notre Dame has had at the position. Matt Hegarty and Martin both were successful transitions to position. Now spring will give us a better look to see if it’s a veteran transplant like Mustipher (or Harrell) who gets the first shot at starting or if Hoge is ready to step in and take over a position he’ll likely handle for four seasons.

My Hunch: I think Mustipher gets the first shot at the job, with his work last season giving him that opportunity. But I won’t be surprised if Hoge makes a move throughout spring, with this battle going all the way to fall camp.

Ultimately, what’s going on during offseason workouts might play a part in this battle as well. The staff wasn’t taking a redshirt off of Hoge unless they really needed to do it. With his eligibility clock ticking this year regardless, there’s nothing tipping the scales one way or the other.

 

RIGHT GUARD

Candidates: Colin McGovernJohn MontelusJimmy ByrneTrevor RuhlandMark HarrellSam MustipherTommy Kraemer

No job seems more wide open than the one that literally opened up Tuesday morning. While the news didn’t hit Notre Dame’s staff by surprise, it does turn a backlog of former blue-chip recruits into potential starters, giving new life to some veterans who now could slide into the starting lineup.

If you’re looking at experienced program players, you could focus your attention on guys like Colin McGovern or John Montelus. Then there’s young guys like Trevor Ruhland, or a freshman like Tommy Kraemer—too good to keep off the field, but not quite ready to play tackle.

At this point, we know so little about the linemen who haven’t had their chance to play yet. This could also include someone like Mustipher, a swing player who might not be a center unless he wins a starting job there. We’ve seen Kelly take his offensive line and crosstrain players, a veteran Mike Golic found plenty of playing time between guard and center. And with Elmer’s playing grades the lowest among the returning starters, this spot was likely more of a competition than you’d have expected anyway.

My Hunch: Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought Colin McGovern had the look of a starter. The problem seemed to be opportunity, and that certainly exists now. Of course, we’ve only seen glimpses of the depth behind Elmer these past years. So it could just as easily be any of the other half-dozen options that get the first shot to start, with McGovern a hunch if there ever was one.

This battle is as wide open as any I can remember on the offensive line under Kelly. Usually that’s a bad thing. In this case, I think having the best man win is a great thing for a position group that can use this competition to infuse energy into the spring.

 

Steve Elmer decides to retire from football

Steve Elmer
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Steve Elmer will no longer play football. The rising senior and 30-game starter for the Irish along the offensive line has decided to move on from the sport, set to earn his degree in May, just three-and-a-half years after he enrolled early as a freshman during spring semester.

Elmer took to UND.com to pen a letter to Irish fans, explaining why he was ready to move on and pursue his professional future away from the gridiron. Head coach Brian Kelly praised Elmer, pointing to the three-year starter as the type of student-athlete that makes Notre Dame special.

“Notre Dame is a special place that develops unique and talented people. Steve Elmer is such a person,” Kelly said in a statement. “He chose Notre Dame to earn a degree from the top University in the world and play football at the highest level. He’s accomplished both and so much more.

“This is an incredible professional opportunity for Steve. We as a coaching staff talk about how attending Notre Dame isn’t a four-year decision; rather it’s a 40-year investment into your life. This University provides so many different avenues toward success, whether that’s on the football field or in the boardroom, and Steve’s another outstanding example.”

Elmer will move to Washington, D.C. this summer, putting to use a degree in economics and a grade point average that currently sits at 3.52. Elmer spent last summer interning for Michigan congressman John Moolenaar.

The timing of the decision is certainly surprising. With a year left of eligibility and a starting job all but assured, Elmer wrote candidly about the decision in front of him, acknowledging that he was ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.

“No matter how excited I am about what the future has in store for me, the question that inevitably comes up is: why don’t you just wait until next year? My answer is pretty simple; the excitement I feel about the professional opportunity in front of me has helped me to realize that I’m just ready to be done with football. I’ve been playing this game for many years, and quite honestly my heart is no longer in it. I realize that this may be considered sacrilege to some, but it’s truth. What I do love, and where my heart will always be, is the University of Notre Dame.”

The Irish will need to replace three starters along the offensive line, with Elmer’s right guard spot now vacant, joining departing center Nick Martin and left tackle Ronnie Stanley.