Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

Post-spring stock report: Linebackers

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One year after wondering if the Irish could find a two-deep at linebacker, the position group is overflowing with talent. Between the heroic stories of recovery (Jarrett Grace) and the intriguing flexibility of the talent pool (Where do you play Jaylon Smith? Can Joe Schmidt play next to Nyles Morgan?), there’s plenty to like at linebacker for Notre Dame.

In one of the great reloads we’ve seen, Brian Kelly and his recruiting efforts took dead aim at adding some athleticism and versatility to the position group. With Mike Elston now working with linebackers as they continue into their second season in Brian VanGorder’s system, we should see plenty of speed, talent and athleticism on the field—a dramatically different look than the groups asked to knock heads and hold the point of attack in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme.

Let’s take a look at the unofficial depth chart with spring practice finished (and how different it might look come Texas in September) before we take stock of the pieces and some potential moves.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART*

Sam: James Onwualu, Jr. (6-1, 220)
Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr. (6-2.5, 235)
Mike: Joe Schmidt, GS (6-.5, 235)

Sam: Greer Martini, Soph. (6-2.5, 240)
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr. (6-0, 230)
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph. (6-1, 237)

Sam: Kolin Hill, Soph. (6-1.5, 230)
Will: Doug Randolph, Jr.** (6-2, 240)
Mike: Jarrett Grace, GS (6-2.5, 253)

Mike: Michael Deeb, Jr.** (6-2, 255)

 

*This is probably the least accurate depth chart in history
**Denotes fifth-year of eligibility.  

(Not to trash my own work, but the following needs to be written. Notre Dame will release a weekly depth chart. And my guess? It’s two-deep will look something like this.

But if you’re looking for the six or seven linebackers who’ll see time this season, with injuries obviously dictating certain terms? It’ll be much different, for reasons we’ll explain below.)

 

STOCK UP

Jarrett Grace. The ultimate stock-up candidate, I had all but expected Grace’s career to be over and the grad student to start his coaching career in 2015. How Grace fits into this defense will be interesting. Assuming—and that’s a very big assumption—that his health continues to progress, Grace has a place in this defense, especially as a leader and 250-pound thumper.

But in a system that values speed and athleticism over the ability to take on guards and interior linemen, Grace finds himself behind last season’s MVP and a rising star in Nyles Morgan. So it’ll likely depend on scheme and situation for Grace to see the field, something that’s more a product of a really talented group of players than the recovery Grace has shown after the devastating leg injury he suffered during the 2013 season.

But with the Irish facing two option attacks, and a running game like Boston College’s that’s basically the same thing, there’s plenty of usage for Grace. So before getting too bent out of shape for a guy listed as a third-stringer, Grace could play a huge role next season.

 

Jaylon Smith: It was never likely to be kept a secret, but VanGorder and Kelly talked about Smith cross-training some at the Sam linebacker spot, a move that makes too much sense to not at least consider. Because for all his athletic virtues, Smith isn’t an inside linebacker.

While Notre Dame’s coaches can talk about opponents taking Smith out of the game by running away from him, late last season opponents knew an even better way to take him out of the game: run the power game right at him.

Smith’s 2014 season included 100+ tackles, impressive considering he was still learning how to play on the inside of a defense. But utilized as a surgical instrument, Smith can do so much more in 2015 to impact the game, especially as his mastery of scheme and responsibility get better.

Notre Dame looking for a pass rusher? Why not Smith.

Want to lock up a tight end in coverage? Why not Smith.

If the Irish can stablize the inside linebacker position with a solid depth chart, Smith’s capable of dictating terms by his alignment on the field. That can only help this defense perform optimally, far more than shedding blockers in the trenches.

 

Nyles Morgan: With both Jarrett Grace and Joe Schmidt fifth-year players and Smith likely giving the NFL a very hard look after 2015, Morgan is the future of the linebackers. And as Schmidt spend spring healing from a fairly serious broken leg of his own, Morgan got plenty comfortable as the heart of the Irish defense.

The Chicago product is capable of bringing elite athleticism and power to the middle linebacker position. And after racking up tackles while playing close to blind as a true freshman in the middle, Morgan’s study habits will help make his second season a very good one.

If the Irish line up with Smith and Schmidt surrounding Morgan, that’s the most athletic three-man linebacking corps we’ve seen in South Bend in a long, long time. And while nobody’s asking me to fill out a lineup card, trot those three out there behind the defensive line and let’s see what happens against Texas.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Joe Schmidt: While Schmidt started running around and working with the linebackers at the tail-end of spring drills, he was mostly a bystander for 15 practices. So until we see last year’s Team MVP back to 100%, this grade stays neutral.

All that being said, it’s worth a quick (recent) history lesson. And for those wondering if Schmidt could go from the team’s best defensive player to benchwarmer (with some even considering putting Schmidt back to walk-on status), don’t be crazy.

If we’ve learned anything in the past five seasons, Brian Kelly plays his best 11. And Schmidt certainly fits in that category, and I’d argue he’s comfortably inside the Top 3.

 

James Onwualu: While the potential move of Jaylon Smith to Sam might push the Onwualu, the former WR, out of the starting lineup, there’s still a very big role in this defense for the 220-pounder.

In his second spring as a linebacker (technically, it’s probably his 1.5th spring, as he started last year as a safety before coming down into the box), Onwualu took a big step forward, finding more comfort at a position that requires both physicality and athleticism.

That the Irish can count on a former wide receiver in space—who also likes to go toe-to-toe down in the trenches—is a real steal. So while a potential demotion never sounds good, Onwualu isn’t going anywhere.

 

STOCK DOWN

Michael Deeb. As bodies were dropping last November during the blowout loss to USC, Deeb had prepared to come into the game just before halftime, subbing in for Nyles Morgan after he was briefly hurt. But the Trojans called off the dogs, and Deeb’s chance to playing major minutes on the inside of the defense disappeared when Morgan returned.

That’s likely the closest we’ll get to seeing Deeb man the middle linebacker position. Unlikely to factor in to the plans at linebacker, it’s only logical to kick the tires on a potential position switch to defensive end.

Recruited by Bob Diaco as a prototype 3-4 interior player, Deeb may end up being a special teams contributor, but his days as the future at inside linebacker seem long gone. And as a chiseled 255-pounder, Deeb might find some magic coming off the edge.

 

Doug Randolph. After various injuries made it difficult for Randolph to contribute in his first two seasons, the Will linebacker might be joining Deeb in the revolving door at defensive end.

With Bo Wallace’s entrance into Notre Dame no longer happening this June, Randolph might be the next candidate to try and provide a pass-rushing pop for the offense. He flashed those skills as a high schooler, so maybe necessity is what jump-starts Randolph’s career.

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. This might be my favorite position group on the roster. After recruiting templates under Bob Diaco, the Irish have a little bit of everything—situational players like Kolin Hill and James Onwualu, bonafide stars like Jaylon Smith, and tremendous leaders like Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace.

If the Irish defense is going to play more like the group at the beginning of the season than the one at the end, they’ll need to be buoyed by the front seven. And if the linebacking corps can stay healthy and find a smart way to get contributions from all of their front line players, this can be a really productive group.

One final item to keep in mind: The Irish could lose massive amounts of playing time after this season, especially if Smith decides to head to the NFL. With a stout early-season schedule ahead and no clear let up anywhere, how the Irish develop their young depth will be crucial.

 

 

Mailbag: Anything but the QBs

Temple v Notre Dame
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Just to get our mind off the big quarterback news. Let’s tackle a few mailbag questions… that don’t talk about the guys playing behind center.

 

twebb2: why are you so bullish on our offensive line? The reason I ask is that a year ago they were supposed to be the strength of the team, but seemed to struggle more-or-less all season, forcing the coaching staff to mix it up. They really put it together against LSU, thus kicking off 2015 on a good note. I agree with you that there’s lots of talent, lots of experience, lots to like, but I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned their disappointing 2014 performance.

You make a fair point, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily true to say that they struggled all season. While the running game was a bit sporadic, I think that was more because the offensive philosophy — and the juggling of personnel — made that the case.

That said, the shuffle of the offensive line also pointed to some issues being had by two key contributors: Nick Martin and Steve Elmer. Martin just wasn’t as healthy as he was in 2013 when he made his debut in the starting lineup. And Elmer isn’t a right tackle, even if he looks like one. Throw in the back injuries that Christian Lombard dealt with all season, and even the best laid plans needed to be scrapped.

Why be optimistic about this year? Well, Notre Dame might have the best left tackle in college football in Ronnie Stanley. Martin is healthy, back playing center. He’ll be one of those Watch List guys. Elmer finished the year strong, with only a few ugly snaps leading to the perception that his sophomore season was a mediocre one.

The new starters, Mike McGlinchey and (likely) Quenton Nelson have a lot to like. Both are physically dominant players — McGlinchey a road-grader at right tackle who did more than hold his own against LSU (and didn’t get exposed against Leonard Williams at USC) while Nelson is a beast coming off a redshirt year. Throw in Alex Bars as a sixth man and this group is in great shape.

It’s a pretty perfect mix of experience, talent and a new commitment to the ground game. Maybe that’s why I’m expecting big things.

 

Nudeman: Here’s a question I saw on another board that is THE question for the year: what will be the game ND loses this year that they have no business losing? Don’t argue with me boys, it’s happened every year in the BK era except 2012.

Tulsa, Pitt, Northwestern, Navy, Louisville, etc … Who gets added to the list this year?

Oh Nudey…. Shocker that this one’s coming from you. But I’d like to point this out before getting to the actual question: Are you trying to say Brian Kelly is the only coach to have an upset pulled on him each season?

You could just as easily indict USC’s program, or Florida State’s (up until the last season and a half), with the same “shouldn’t lose” games tripping up just about everybody—Nick Saban included. Jimbo Fisher might as well have been known as “Guy who loses as a 12-point favorite on an annual basis” before selling his soul to the devil Jameis Winston came along.

I’m going to do some parsing. Throw Tulsa away. I hope we never experience a week like that again, and it’s hard to say that anybody really should care about that football game just days after losing Declan Sullivan.

As for Navy — the national champs last season were on the ropes entering the fourth quarter, so while it’s certainly one of the uglier losses of the BK era, it’s not the laugher that it was before the program turned around under Paul Johnson and Ken Niumatalolo. It’s a bad loss. But again — it was a Year One defeat.

Louisville had double-digit players drafted from last year’s team. So I’m disqualifying that loss as one that Notre Dame had no business losing. But I give up on Northwestern. That was brutal. Throw in the Pitt game from 2013 and they were both ugly, ugly losses.

If I’m looking for some unexpected speed bumps next season, I’m going back to two well-known culprits: Pitt and Boston College.

With Pat Narduzzi building off of Paul Chryst’s momentum, you’ve got a hard-nosed offense combined with a defensive master craftsman who is familiar with the Irish offense at the helm.

And playing in Fenway Park against Boston College (if Eagles fans can afford a ticket), I think Steve Addazio—a former Notre Dame assistant under Bob Davie—will have his dudes ready to play.

Those are my pothole games. I don’t think Notre Dame is losing either, but those are the ones I’d circle.

 

boatclubprez: Who is your best guess to start at Center after Martin departs? Could you see McGovern or Montelus making a move?

First off, great handle. RIP Boat Club. What a filthy, yet wonderful, establishment.

It’ll be interesting to see how Tristen Hoge develops. Notre Dame hasn’t really recruited a true center during Kelly’s time in South Bend, so if he’s as good as advertised, expect him to be in the conversation.

But during spring ball, Sam Mustipher was given the first chance at the backup job. And you’ve got to think he’ll stay there, with no interest in burning a year of eligibility from Hoge—though whoever is backing up Martin will need to show they can handle the shotgun snapping.

While keeping Matt Hegarty on campus would’ve been nice, with the roster crunch to get to 85 (much less crunchy as of today) I still think the Irish will be okay. But life after the Martin brothers will be interesting, and we’ll finally get a chance to see if Harry Hiestand has recruited as well as we think he has.

 

Five things we’ve learned: Analyzing Everett Golson’s departure

Discover BCS National Championship - Notre Dame v Alabama
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The dust has settled. Everett Golson is leaving Notre Dame. So while the rest of the story will take chase—the wheres and the whys eventually coming out—the only thing that’s important for the Irish is looking at what remains, and how the program moves on from here.

On paper—and that’s all this decision has been with volleying written statements of gratitude from Golson and head coach Brian Kelly—things become far simpler for the Irish offense, though the margin for error is eliminated.

Malik Zaire is the starting quarterback. And as Kelly said in his statement, he’s got “supreme confidence” in his third-year sophomore quarterback.

So let’s take a look at a few different angles as we explore Golson’s departure.

 

You can’t blame Golson. But you certainly can judge him. 

With a final season of eligibility remaining and a deep desire to put himself in position to be an NFL quarterback, Golson ultimately didn’t believe his best opportunity to do that was at Notre Dame.

“I have decided that it is in my best interest to graduate from Notre Dame and transfer to another school effectively immediately,” Golson said in his statement.

That move comes with consequences.

Golson’s legacy is now a complicated one. He’ll join Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix as quarterbacks in the modern era who ended their once-promising careers at another school. But unlike those two, Golson accomplished impressive things—though leaving before he had a chance to cement his legacy certainly earns him no historic favor.

A fifth-year in the program would’ve given Golson a chance to make a run at some impressive statistical numbers, especially surrounded by this personnel. More importantly, Golson could lead the Irish into a lofty postseason game—a second appearance reserving him a spot among the elite quarterbacks at Notre Dame.

Legacy is a difficult concept to grasp as a 22-year-old. And it certainly doesn’t pay the bills once you leave South Bend.

But after receiving universal praise for battling back from his academic suspension and returning to Notre Dame, it’s more than fair to criticize this decision as an easy way out, even while it may very well escalate his 2015 season’s degree of difficulty.

 

It’s time to recalibrate some offensive expectations. 

In the day-after analysis game, there are some winners and losers that jump to mind. Zaire the most obvious winner of them all. Notre Dame’s best offensive leader will now be the captain of the ship—a desire he made clear from Day One of this competition.

But while Golson’s connection with rising junior Will Fuller in the Blue-Gold game served as the game’s biggest play, this certainly isn’t good news for Fuller’s stat line or the passing offense. While Fuller will get his opportunities to take the top off of a defense, you’ve got to think that the sheer number of balls coming his way (not to mention successfully completed) will be down significantly. That will trickle down to Chris Brown, Corey Robinson and the rest of a talented receiving corps, with the untested tight ends potentially getting more involvement.

Harry Hiestand’s meeting room likely isn’t wallowing in sorrow. As an offensive line, a 230-pound sledgehammer of a quarterback that serves as a trigger man for a devastating zone-read running game is a dream come true. No need to try finessing anybody up front. The trenches will be a fist fight, one that fits the personality of this group—and now offense—just fine.

While we will all inevitably dig into the LSU game to look for clues as to how this offense will look, the one-game sample was never a good predictor. And it certainly won’t be with DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush serving as primary backups.

So expect Zaire to be put on a proverbial pitch count when it comes to running the football, and expect the three-headed monster of Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant and C.J. Prosise to be more than happy to pick up the slack.

 

The plans for Brandon Wimbush have changed. 

Even as the crown-jewel of the 2015 recruiting class, incoming freshman Brandon Wimbush expected to spend his freshman year learning. That’s not the case anymore, with Wimbush now likely thrown into the backup quarterback battle with Kizer, who didn’t necessarily have the best of spring games.

Wimbush spoke with the South Bend Tribune about the transfer news, candidly discussing how it’ll change his early college experience.

“I was really shocked,” Wimbush told the Tribune‘s Tyler James. “It gives me an opportunity, which I’m excited for, but I’m kind of disappointed that he left because I wanted to be able to learn under him.

“I wanted to redshirt. I had the mindset of coming in and redshirting and being able to learn and get acclimated for a year. With this, my mind changed immediately. My mindset really did change quickly as soon as I heard it.”

Wimbush hits campus in early June. From there, it’ll be straight to the deep end, working with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford to master the offense as quickly as possible, though it’s still far from ideal to have any young quarterback—highly touted or not—as part of the game plan.

 

There’s a lesson to be learned here for Brian Kelly. 

From the moment Golson set foot on campus, he was the apple of Kelly’s eye. And perhaps that created a blind spot for a head coach who has otherwise had 20-20 vision.

After inheriting a depth chart filled with quarterbacks that didn’t resemble his prototype, Golson was the solution. And after a redshirt season spent grooming, Golson won a three-man race that turned into the 2012 season—a year where both the head coach and quarterback flourished.

But after Golson’s academic departure essentially cost the Irish a potentially great 2013 season, the quarterback came back and Kelly acted like nothing had happened. That approach worked when wide receiver Michael Floyd spent spring practice in limbo and then made the most out of his second chance. But it didn’t at the quarterback position and the team suffered for it.

Kelly hung tight with Golson last season longer than just about anybody else would have. And while none of us were in practice or meeting rooms watching Zaire prepare for his chance to play, when Golson finally flamed out against USC, it was clear that the team took to Zaire’s energy and playing style immediately.

Entering this spring, Kelly once again appeased Golson, taking him out of the media availability circuit, allowing him to focus on football and academics—a decision that certainly spared Golson from talking about the elephant in the room.

And with Kelly, associate head coach Mike Denbrock and new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford all praising Golson for his work ethic and commitment this spring, it still ended up with the quarterback’s departure.

Credit Kelly for finally being honest with his quarterback—even if it came too late to salvage 2014. (And really, unless Malik Zaire could play linebacker like Joe Schmidt, that season wasn’t going to be salvaged.)

Kelly could’ve told Golson whatever he needed to to keep him on campus. But with the potential for a great season in 2015 with either quarterback behind center, Kelly considered the other 84 scholarship players on the roster instead of the one who had only gotten his way.

Competition is only the lifeblood of a program if it’s happening at every position. And if Golson wasn’t comfortable competing, he’s better off playing somewhere else.

 

The Malik Zaire era has begun. 

Golson’s departure means Kelly is still hunting for his first multi-year, consecutive-seasoned starter, crazy when you consider he’s entering his sixth season.

Enter Malik Zaire.

Whether it was Plan A or not, Zaire has the chance to be a three-year starter and a multi-year captain for the Irish, the perfect lead-from-the-front, face-of-the-program type quarterback that Golson was never comfortable being.

Now Zaire needs to show the maturity to handle the spotlight. That means no more emotional tweets of the less-than-cryptic variety, that will certainly serve as an earthquake amongst the far from stable segment of this fanbase that still expects the worst when it comes to this program.

It also means growing into the quarterback Notre Dame needs. While Zaire will be the perfect runner in the Irish system, if the offense will be optimized, it’ll require a dedication to the craft of quarterbacking. That means a better mastery of the mid-level passing game and a deeper understanding of the playbook.

Zaire can get away with a late throw playing against USC reserves trailing by multiple touchdowns. He can’t playing against the Trojans in mid-October with an undefeated season on the line. Or on a 3rd-and short in the red zone when the line of scrimmage is stacked and expecting a run.

While the woe-is-me crowd will look at Golson’s departure as another sign that the gods are conspiring against the Irish, the reality is far from it.

Simply put, Golson looked into the future and didn’t like what he saw.

While dodging competition certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to make it to the NFL, the decision has been made and the Irish are moving forward with Zaire. Now it’s up to the brash and confident young quarterback to prove he was a leading man all along.

 

 

Recruit Bo Wallace announces he’s not coming to Notre Dame

Rivals.com
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A few hours after Notre Dame lost one of their two quarterbacking options, their incoming freshman pass rusher announced his own departure as well.

New Orleans prospect Bo Wallace took to Twitter to announce he’ll no longer be attending Notre Dame. He gave no rationale as to why that was the case. But as the Irish try to avoid an 85-man roster crunch, a process that was thought to take until the fall might be done by Friday afternoon at this pace .

Wallace, a three-star prospect who could slot in at weakside defensive end, was a Semper Fi All-American. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder from John Curtis High School was the lone true pass rusher in the recruiting class.

“We were looking for a flat‑out pass rusher, and we found one in Bo Wallace,” Kelly said in February. “He can come off the edge and pass rush.  He’s going to have to put on some weight right now but we’ll get him in here in June and Coach Longo and his staff will get to work with him.”

Where Wallace ends up this fall remains to be seen—and the timing of his departure could lead some to believe it’s an academic issue. But in a recruiting class that sorely needed personnel that could come off the edge and rush the passer, the Irish have missed completely after the loss of Wallace.

***

It’s official: Everett Golson will transfer (UPDATED)

Everett Golson
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It’s official: Everett Golson is transferring.

ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported the move via Twitter, likely scooping Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman, who has an official quote from Golson, who is deciding to move on after earning his degree from Notre Dame.

The two-headed quarterback of Golson and Malik Zaire left spring practice with Golson seemingly ahead of Zaire. But Golson’s decision to leave and start over leaves the Irish with Zaire and a depth chart of inexperienced backups behind him, with redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer and true freshman Brandon Wimbush getting to campus in June.

Golson gave the following statement to Feldman and Fox Sports:

“After much thought, prayer and discussion with my family, I have decided that it is in my best interest to graduate from Notre Dame and transfer to another school effectively immediately,” Golson said. “I would like to thank everyone at Notre Dame for the opportunity to compete at the highest level of college football, but most importantly to obtain my degree from one of the finest universities in the country. To all the Fighting Irish fans, I want to thank you for your support over the past four years and let you know I truly love Notre Dame. To my former teammates, who I will miss tremendously, I wish much success in the future and will be your biggest fan from afar.

“I will have no future comment at this time and ask that you respect my time as I figure out this live changing moment. God has a plan for each of us and I ask for your prayers as I move forward in this new journey in my life.”

Poised to be a four-year starter, Golson’s career went sideways after leading the Irish to an undefeated 2012 regular season and a date in the BCS title game against Alabama.

An academic violation cost him the 2013 season and the fall semester. Golson returned for spring football after his suspension, winning the 2014 starting job over Zaire.

But after a hot start to the season, turnovers doomed Golson, torpedoing the Irish offense and eventually costing him his starting job after being pulled before halftime in the blowout loss to USC.

There’s been no comment from Notre Dame about the transfer. But entering his sixth season, Brian Kelly is once again looking for a starting quarterback—as Golson’s career in South Bend is over.

***

UPDATED: Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame football program released the following statement:

“I’d like to thank Everett Golson for all he did as a member of our football program. He had many significant achievements, including helping us to an undefeated regular season and berth into the national title game. But his most important accomplishment is completing his course work toward a degree from the University of Notre Dame. I wish him all the best moving forward.

“We, of course, have approached our preparations for the upcoming season with this possibility in mind. The emergence of Malik Zaire, based on his performance in the Music City Bowl win over LSU, and throughout spring practice, has given our staff supreme confidence that he can lead our team to great success in 2015.”