Keith Arnold

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish returns a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Report: Knee won’t push Jaylon Smith out of Top 20


As Jaylon Smith begins his rehabilitation process after surgery to repair two torn knee ligaments, the “where will he fall to?” conversation seems to be quieting down. Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker, who opted into the NFL Draft even after suffering a major knee injury, seems to have made the decision knowing teams won’t take the multi-talented linebacker off of their board.

Sure, Smith’s days as a potential top-five pick might be over. But a recent report by NFL Network’s Albert Breer has one AFC scouting director believing Smith is a lock to still go in the top 20, with the in-state Colts at No. 18 seemingly the floor.

“He’s fast, athletic, instinctive and versatile,” the scouting director said. “He can close quickly against the run and shows very good athletic ability and speed in coverage.” When asked for a weakness, the scouting director sarcastically texted, “Knee injury.”

While Smith won’t be working out at the upcoming NFL Scouting Combine, the late-February cattle call will be an opportunity for teams to meet with Smith and take a look at the progress he’s made in his recovery.

“A lot will really depend on how the docs see the repair and recovery,” the scouting director told Breer.

After rumors of nerve damage were quickly shot down, Smith’s medical team made their confidence in a complete recovery well known. While that conclusion will certainly need to be shared by team doctors around the league, it’s worth pointing to Todd Gurley‘s draft-day ascent into the Top 10 last season as a good reason to believe that Smith’s slide won’t be too precipitous.

While an insurance policy protects Smith if he slides out of the first round all together, the game tape he supplied over the past three years will likely do more to make sure he’s one of the first linebackers off the board.

Irish get visit from 5-star LB Ben Davis

Ben Davis
Rivals / Yahoo Sports

Linebacker Ben Davis very well might end up at Alabama. But the 5-star prospect was on campus this weekend in South Bend, as Notre Dame’s staff rolled out the red carpet for one of the nation’s top linebackers.

Many expect Davis to end up as a member of the Crimson Tide, where his father is the school’s all-time leading tackler. But the Gordo, Alabama native spent the weekend touring campus, and the early returns from the visit were promising.

Andrew Ivins of caught up with Davis who said the following:

“It was way better than anything I could have expected,” Davis told Ivins. “That was my first time up there and everybody was just so great, and so opening. Notre Dame is just something that you really can’t explain, you just have to see it. It was great overall trip and I had a great time. Notre Dame is in it.”

Davis is the No. 1 middle linebacker in the country per Rivals’ rankings and a Top 15 player overall, per 247’s composite rankings. Autry Denson landed the on-campus visit, a testament to the young assistant’s recruiting acumen. Davis is just one of three elite prospects the Irish are still chasing at linebacker, with Fresno’s Caleb Kelly and Houston’s Jeffrey McCulloch the others.

Davis has pushed the Irish into his top three schools (Georgia and Alabama are the others, with a visit to Auburn still upcoming). That puts the Irish in the mix to land a game-chasing talent, with Notre Dame still in the mix on a handful of key prospects, an opportunity to make some noise on Signing Day in a class that’s already a Top 10 group.


Last Look: Front Seven

Sheldon Day, John Fadule

With Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day playing at All-American levels, Notre Dame’s front seven featured two of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. Smith’s junior campaign may have ended in heartbreak, but he made 114 tackles, easily pacing the team. Day’s senior season finally unlocked the potential we’d heard about for three years, with the veteran leading the team with 15.5 TFLs, making it through all 13 games healthy.

Four pieces of the front seven were essentially every-down players: Smith, Day, Joe Schmidt and Isaac Rochell. Per PFF College, Schmidt led the defense in snaps played at 873. Rochell led the defensive line with 816 snaps, while Smith finished with 801 and Day had 786.

Senior Romeo Okwara led the team in sacks, finishing with 12.5 TFLs about eight official sacks. It was the type of breakout senior that the Irish desperately needed from a pass rusher.

Some of the defense’s inconsistencies are also revealed in these statistics. From a productivity standpoint, Schmidt’s 78 tackles may be second on the team, but he graded out as Notre Dame’s worst regular in PFF’s rating system. Some of that may be on Schmidt’s physical limitations. Some of it is on the defensive tackles playing in front of him.

Without Jarron Jones, Notre Dame was forced to play Daniel Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery. While that duo’s future looks bright, Tillery made just 12 total tackles while Cage was slightly more productive with 18 stops. Compare that with the 40 tackles and 7.5 TFLs Jones had in his first season starting and you start to see some of the effects of losing a 330-pound run-stuffer who also protects your middle linebacker.

Notre Dame’s front seven will be rebuilt this offseason. While Rochell returns, the Irish will need to replace their Smith, Schmidt, Okwara, Day and Jarrett Grace. Before we turn our focus to the future, let’s hand out some year-end rankings.

Front Seven












MVP: Jaylon Smith. Smith’s elite skill-set makes this feel like a no-brainer, but Sheldon Day’s value to this front seven made this a much harder decision than you may have thought. But Notre Dame’s latest Butkus winner did so much for this defense, especially in a linebacking corps that so heavily relied on him.

Without Smith, Notre Dame’s linebackers would’ve been beyond ordinary. While most of the focus this offseason will be on his recovery from knee surgery, Smith’s ability to drop and cover, read and react and — maybe most importantly — cover for mistakes with speed and athleticism, allowed him to erase plays. That will be missed.


Co-MVP: Sheldon Day. These are my awards, so I get to make one up for the season Day had. For years we’ve heard Aaron Donald referenced as a comp for Day. Finally in 2015, Day made that reference not seem laughable.

No, he won’t likely become one of the NFL’s most dominant interior players. But Day’s senior season has him popping up in the first round of some mock drafts, a credit to the dominance Day displayed this season—not always evident in the stat line he put up.

How good was Day? Consider PFF College’s grading system. Day doubled Smith’s overall grade, earning a +59.0 to Smith’s +29.4. Day ranked as PFF’s No. 1 defensive tackle this season, while Smith finished as the No. 5 OLB.

Paired with two young players with next to no experience, Day still managed to dictate terms in the trenches. While we can only wonder what this group would’ve done with Jones by his side, it was a special season.


Biggest Disappointment: Nyles Morgan’s disappearance. Joe Schmidt’s value to this defense was made clear anytime reporters asked Brian Kelly or Brian VanGorder why Morgan couldn’t get on the field. But even if Schmidt’s acumen and ability to direct the unit will forever go under-appreciated by fans, you can’t help but wonder what a sophomore season spent playing special teams did to Morgan’s development schedule.

Let’s be clear: Morgan’s freshman season—or even his ceiling as a linebacker—aren’t based on anything we’ve seen with our eyes. But you still would’ve liked to find some snaps where Morgan could’ve contributed situationally. That he didn’t doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on player or coach solely. But it puts the onus on the rising junior to have a big spring practice, hopefully stepping into both the middle linebacker job and a leadership role.



Brightest Future: Jerry Tillery. Notre Dame’s freshman defensive tackle ended the season on a sour note, suspended for a rules violation in Scottsdale that forced Notre Dame’s only healthy defensive tackle to watch the Fiesta Bowl from the sidelines. But Tillery’s going to be a key piece of the defensive puzzle in 2016, asked to fill the role of his travel roommate and (try to) replace Day’s production.

A starting front-four of Tillery and Jones on the inside surrounded by Rochell and Trumbetti should be able to hold up in the trenches. Now it’s time for Tillery to take the sting of missing the bowl game and carry that into spring football, where he’ll no longer be an overachieving freshman and will be asked to take the type of leap Stephon Tuitt did in his second season.


Williams gets his long-awaited NFL audition

USC v Notre Dame

Ishaq Williams found himself in an unfamiliar place these past few days. After a two-year hiatus, he was back on a football field.

The one-time 5-star recruit had his chance to breathe life into his football career this week, down in Texas participating in the College Gridiron Showcase. It’s the first time Williams will have played in a competitive football game since the Pinstripe Bowl, the last two seasons ruined by the academic dishonesty probe that froze the football careers of five Irish players.

Williams spoke with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen to talk about the opportunity to audition for potential employers. He also discussed the road he’s traveled the last two years, finding his way back to Notre Dame and on track to earn his degree in May.

“I’m a totally different person,” Williams told Hansen. “I’m positive, hard-working, have a passion for stuff. This situation has changed my life for the better.”

Do yourself a favor and read the entire article. It’s a testament to the work Williams put in to even give himself this chance.

Williams’ football career essentially ended in August of 2014, when Notre Dame pulled he and four of his teammates from participation while the university worked through an investigation into improper academic activity. The drawn-out results of that investigation led to a two-semester ban from school for Williams, KeiVarae Russell, Kendall Moore and Davis Daniels. Only Russell returned to Notre Dame to play football in 2015.

Williams was free to return to the university after the suspension. His eligibility was a different story. Details remain murky to this day, but Williams’ appeal to play in 2015 was denied by the NCAA, who also ruled that Williams couldn’t even participate as a scout team player.

While he could lift weights in the Gug and spent time with his former teammates in the locker room, he needed to find a way to prepare for his potential football future. That led Williams to former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley, who spent the fall semester working with him at Sharpley’s training facility in Elkhart.

The work paid off. Williams has slimmed down, now carrying around 260 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. He’s also cleared his head of any negativity that could carryover from the entire incident—two seasons of football lost for an academic mistake.

“I watched every Notre Dame football game this year, but never at the stadium, always from home,” he said. “Those guys welcomed me into the locker room, welcomed me to work out at the Gug (ND’s football facility). They never gave up on me. So how could I give up on myself?

Williams, a philosophy major, is familiar with the famous quote “It’s never too late to become who you might have been.”

But it’s no longer about justifying that old five-star recruiting tag. It’s about new beginnings, wherever they take him.

“I can’t put into words what it’s like to have this chance to overcome,” Williams said. “It means everything to me. There are so many people to thank, however and wherever it ends.”

Williams will be back at Notre Dame this spring, when he’ll audition for scouts at the Irish Pro Day. There’s no question his size and athleticism will draw some interest from a league where teams covet untapped potential.

Credit goes to Williams for doing his best to get back on track.


Kelly reiterates stance on staying put at Notre Dame


In what is fast becoming an annual rite of winter, Brian Kelly has once again explained why he’s not interested in going to the NFL. Notre Dame’s head football coach, who just wrapped up his sixth season in South Bend, was asked the inevitable question about coaching at the game’s highest level.

Irish 247’s Nick Ironside caught Kelly’s comments on a Monday afternoon SportsCenter where Notre Dame’s head coach once again explained why he plans on staying in the college game.

“I really feel like I’m at the level,” Kelly said, according to Irish247. “I know the NFL gets that notoriety because it’s professional sports, but it doesn’t mean necessarily it has it right in all facets. I think college football has it right for me, because for me it’s coach centric where I control the scholarships. I control the roster. Not that I’m a control freak, but this is my 25th year as a head coach.

“So doing it for so long, I like to be able to know what’s going on in the front office. Those are my biggest concerns sometimes. There’s so much turnover in the NFL. There’s the lack of continuity. In every great business there has to be some change, but continuity is important and I’ve always liked the continuity. And at Notre Dame we’ve got great structure. Great continuity. Great athletic director. Great president. So that’s why there’s no need to go chase anything else. I’m in a great situation at Notre Dame.”

Kelly’s comments are similar to the ones he made in the lead-up to the Fiesta Bowl—and closely mirror what Urban Meyer said during the same time period when Ohio State’s head coach acknowledged receiving a phone call from an interested NFL team but said no thanks. It’s also a reflection on the realities of today’s coaching world, where the money, power and autonomy in college sports is second to none.

Kelly’s declaration won’t please everybody who still think back to the head coach’s conversations with the Philadelphia Eagles after the Irish played for the BCS title. But they do likely eliminates any questions about the relationship between Kelly and his bosses.

For as long as Notre Dame has had a head football coach, there’s been rumblings about his relationship with the athletic director or the university president. With Rev. John Jenkins engaged (and part of the ongoing battle to support the amateur model in college athletics) and Jack Swarbrick among the best in the business, Notre Dame may not have some of the advantages that come at football-first schools like Alabama, but Kelly certainly has support from above that didn’t always exist the last few decades.