Author: Keith Arnold

Notre Dame v Arizona State

Jaylon Smith cross-training opens up linebacker log jam


As Notre Dame’s defensive coaches try to deal with their latest champagne problem, linebacker Jaylon Smith seems like a lone constant.

He’s not coming off the field.

With the linebacking corps stocked with talent and Smith one of college football’s most versatile and freaky athletes, Smith was cross-training at outside linebacker on Wednesday, a move both head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had talked about this spring.

Smith’s shift outside returns him to familiar grounds. As a freshman, he played outside in Bob Diaco’s system, a drop linebacker asked to turn and cover more often than setting the edge. Most think his future is outside as well, with the NFL likely using Smith in space.

But after learning to play in the trenches last year because the team needed him on the inside, Smith’s cross-training should open up the depth chart next fall, pairing him with James Onwualu on the outside.

“Jaylon now has played the Sam and he’s playing the Will. We feel like now he has his reads down, a comfort level playing inside. We can now look to a bigger, physical presence on the perimeter with a James Onwualu,” Kelly said of a possible platoon. “So if you want to put a tight end in there and play more physical, we have a guy like Jaylon who could step up and play there.”

Physicality wasn’t necessarily part of Smith’s strengths last season, especially late in the year when teams ran right at Notre Dame’s leading tackler. But a move to the outside allows the heavy banging in the trenches to be Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace’s job—a three-for-two that could also include sophomore Greer Martini and early enrollee Te’Von Coney.

“I think we’ve all talked about with Joe Schmidt, now Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan, we have to find a place for those guys. And Te’Von Coney. Those are inside guys,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to get those guys on the field.

“Jaylon now allows us in certain situations to move him out on the perimeter if we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon, we can now do that. We have to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time.”

That Jarrett Grace has gone from spring success story to a part of the Irish plans is great news. It’s even better for the Irish defense, giving Notre Dame a true thumper that can take reps at the Mike linebacker spot and be up to speed on the mental necessities of the position.

After having little depth in the linebacking corps, the position is now the deepest on the defense. And that allows Smith’s greatest asset—his versatility—to shine through, giving VanGorder essentially a new sports car in the garage.

Irish QB battle will (understandably) head into fall camp

Michigan v Notre Dame

Wednesday, Brian Kelly confirmed what just about every Notre Dame football fan already knew: The quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will head into fall camp.

“They’ll continue to compete into August. There’s no question,” Kelly said.

What that means remains to be seen.

For Zaire, it’s the status quo. After all, Kelly said the same thing last spring, telling anybody who’d listen that Zaire was giving Golson a true run for his money. (It didn’t result in the shackles being taken off Zaire until late-November.)

For Golson, it’s not quite as simple. With his transfer options wide open after he earns his diploma in May, Golson can play next season for anybody. Kelly’s announcement makes any decision to depart a very complicated gamble.

There’s no team where Golson will go that has better weapons. There’s no offense he knows better. And there’s no group of players where he’ll feel more comfortable.

Ultimately, Kelly and the offensive staff understand that. And they also know that after living and dying with Golson in 2014, they’ll need both of their quarterbacks to push each other, making the turnovers and mistakes that plagued Golson’s game dealbreakers.

“I think that’s healthy competition. They’re both trying to get better and working to get better in the areas we’ve asked them to focus on,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “I can’t see where that’s not healthy and it will continue to work to get us better as a football team because they’re getting better every day.”

But just because the winner won’t be named until fall camp, doesn’t mean the competition won’t continue. On Saturday, the Irish will go live—quarterbacks included. It’s the type of scenario that wasn’t possible in years’ past, when the Irish usually had a starting quarterback but an unproven backup.

That’s not the case heading into 2015. If all goes according to plan, the Irish will enter camp with two starting-caliber quarterbacks.

And if that happens, Kelly can consider this spring a success, even without naming his starter.