North Carolina v Notre Dame

Post-spring depth chart: Defensive line

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It’s hard to wipe the memory of November’s defensive implosion away. The biggest culprit? A defensive line that was certainly decimated by injury but also filled with untested kids and leftovers.

Without a healthy Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day, the interior of the line had no chance. And by the time the Irish limped to Southern California, the front-four was playing on roller skates. The Trojans took what they want, when they wanted it, in one of the least competitive games between the two programs since the heights of the Pete Carroll era.

But there’s hope that last season’s embarrassments will fortify the troops. And new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore spent the spring getting to know a very well-stocked depth chart. Yet strength in numbers has to prove it’s actually a strength on the field.

There’s hope that last season’s experience—however painful—will be a good one for the depth chart. With Jones on the mend, Day returning for a much-needed senior year and some intriguing young players in the mix, the front four returns with its reinforcements almost entirely intact.

Now we’ll find out if that’s a good thing or a bad one.

 

POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART

DE: Romeo Okwara, Sr. (6-4, 260)
DT: Sheldon Day, Sr. (6-2, 285)
DT: Jarron Jones, Sr.* (6-5, 315)
DE: Isaac Rochell, Jr. (6-3.5, 287)

DE: Andrew Trumbetti, Soph. (6-3.5, 255)
DT: Jerry Tillery, Fr. (6-6.5, 300)
DT: Jay Hayes, Soph. (6-3, 285)
DE: Johnny Williams, Soph.* (6-4, 260)

DE: Grant Blankenship, Soph. (6-4.5, 252)
DT: Jacob Matuska, Jr.* (6-4.5, 295)
DT: Daniel Cage, Soph. (6-.5, 315)
DE: Jon Bonner, Soph.* (6-3, 275)

DT: Micah Dew-Treadway, Fr. (6-4, 295)
DT: Peter Mokwuah, Soph.* (6-3, 317)

 

STOCK UP

Jerry Tillery. The freshman nearly built a legend this spring, needing just a small handful of practices before Brian Kelly was ready to tab him as ready and capable to be an impact player up front.

He’s certainly got more than adequate size, with length and power that should remind you of Stephon Tuitt. That he also possesses a preternatural knowledge of the game and a very good head on his shoulders gives him a chance to do even more—and sooner—than Tuitt did in his three seasons in South Bend.

No pressure, kid.

 

Jay Hayes. After taking off the redshirt late in the 2014 season only to go down with an injury a game later, Hayes had a tough-luck first year in South Bend. But this spring’s decision to take things easy with Sheldon Day ended up being a very good thing for Hayes’ development, and the New Yorker was dead set on taking advantage.

If you had a starting duo of Hayes and Tillery on your Blue-Gold prop sheet, you’d have likely won a tidy sum. And it’s clear that the early word on Hayes’ “scrappiness” is telling, that he’s willing to mix it up in the trenches is a much needed development, especially with Hayes up to 285 pounds.

 

Isaac Rochell. One of the success stories from 2014 up front, Rochell was thrown into the starting lineup after Ishaq Williams went down with the Frozen Five and Rochell put together an impressive season.

While the Irish roster still misses a true speed rusher, Rochell is going to wreak havoc in 2015, especially if he’s playing with three other capable linemen. Whether it’s sliding inside or at strongside defensive end, the image I can’t get out of my head was Rochell out-quicking Sheldon Day during offseason shuttle runs.

Men that big shouldn’t move that quickly, and Rochell is my pick up front to take a huge step forward in 2015.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

Sheldon Day & Jarron Jones. Until we see both of them on the field again lined up against Texas, it’s a wait-and-see approach. But make no mistake, this duo—when healthy—is among the best defensive tackle tandems in college football.

The mission? Take out the health concerns and contingencies when making the above statement. And find a way to make it through their senior seasons unscathed. If they both do, the NFL will like what they see, and the Irish will have a defensive front that’ll be awfully hard to run against.

 

Jhonny Williams. It sounded like Williams had all the talent needed to see the field last season, but simply needed to learn the game more. That shouldn’t have been surprising considering the basketball and track athlete’s late introduction to the game, but Williams wasn’t one of the emerging stories of the spring, so this neutral grade is a reflection of him not taking the big step forward many were expecting.

 

Romeo Okwara. Notre Dame’s returning sack leader is a senior now. He’s a 6-foot-4, 260-pound athlete that maybe should only be a sophomore in college when you consider he’s not only enough to drink yet, but that’s no excuse.

With the Irish in desperate need of a pass rusher, if Okwara is capable of being the man off the edge a missing link on the defensive will be filled.

 

STOCK DOWN

Jon Bonner. This would’ve been a fast-riser had Bonner not gone down with the spring’s only major injury. While he should be healthy and participating come fall camp after turf-toe surgery, Bonner’s impressive athleticism and quickness is predicated on being healthy, and until we see that, it’s tough to see him ascending a packed depth chart.

 

OVERALL TREND

Buy. This group is likely a value play. On paper, there’s a ton of talent. Players like Jacob Matuska—290-pounders with athleticism—would’ve been staples up front in the Weis era.

But it’s hard to forget that the last time we saw this group, they were turning Leonard Fournette into Techmo Bowl Bo Jackson in the Music City Bowl. And that was after losing November, a month Kelly had built his reputation around.

This is still very much a “show me” proposition. But there’s a lot to like from a young group that should have its best football in front of it.

 

 

KeiVarae Russell’s Return (or the greatest story we’re not talking about)

Jackson Russell
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With the spring semester ended and graduation weekend just about on hand, another school year is in the books.

For cornerback KeiVarae Russell, that means the beginning of a long-awaited new chapter—and the conclusion of a bizarre detour. Just as Russell was primed to be Notre Dame’s defensive leader, he went from being the poster boy of what a student-athlete should be at Notre Dame to an exiled football player branded a cheater. He, along with four other teammates, were suspended by the university for Honor Code violations that ended up costing Russell a football season and two semesters at Notre Dame.

Russell has not spoken publicly about his suspension nor his departure, only releasing a statement last October after the university finally ruled on his role in the academic misdeeds.

We can thankfully move past the university’s clumsy-and-overly-clandestine review process. Russell already has—doing everything he said he was going to do when he vowed to spend his time away from school efficiently and come back in June 2015 better than ever.

Russell taken classes at a community college. He’s taken a part-time job. He’s mentored local high school students and athletes from the area. And he’s trained, fully expecting to come back to the Irish as one of the country’s premier cover cornerbacks.

While his social media chronicles have kept us up to speed on his progress (and freaky athleticism), Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson spent some time in Seattle, getting a look at Russell, who—rust and all—could very well be the Irish’s best player next season on a roster that’s more talented than any Brian Kelly’s assembled.

***

***

Russell wasn’t willing to speak officially on the record (though Sampson revealed during his podcast that Russell’s already done an interview with Sports Illustrated that’ll release sometime in June). But Sampson did speak with a large group of people Russell’s worked with this summer.

And if those comments are any indication, Russell’s going to be a man on fire when he returns to campus in the upcoming weeks.

Here’s a small sampling, from Sampson’s profile:

“He’s like a caged animal,” local trainer Ted Manson told Sampson. “You know when you go to the zoo and see that panther walking back and forth behind the cage? Looks real calm, pacing, but you don’t really want to be in the cage with him.”

And then there’s this from former high school coach at Mariner John Ondriezek.

“He never once wavered. I told him life doesn’t always go in straight lines and yours is a little curved with an obstacle to get over.”

And this evaluation of Russell the football player from former Oregon State safety Anthony Watkins, who has trained with Russell, should have Irish fans excited.

“Kei might be on another level because he has the whole package. He’s very football savvy. A lot of great athletes don’t understand football and that hinders them. With Kei, he’s able to use all his athleticism because he understands the game so well.

“He’s also a freak athlete, fast, can run, jump and he’s so strong. He should be the top corner in the draft next year.”

Sampson’s entire article is worth a read, if only because most of the offseason usually focuses on the departures and storm clouds that annually seem to surround the program. But no roster attrition takes away from the football team that’ll begin taking shape come June—with Russell returning immediately to a leadership role.

Russell’s return has been discussed by Brian Kelly, though only in general terms. And while his re-enrollment is awaiting the university’s rubber stamp, it’s by all reports in process and on track.

So while this month’s story is certainly Everett Golson, next month’s should be Russell. And after paying dearly for a mistake, Russell is more than deserving of a second chance to be the team’s star.

Mailbag: Life after Golson (and an update on comments)

New Mailbox
120 Comments

We’ll get to the mailbag questions, but first a quick housekeeping update. In case you missed it yesterday, I made a change to the previously unfiltered commenting protocols.

For those who have ventured “down below,” It’s been a cesspool. Not because of everybody, but because of a few characters who take great pleasure in ruining nice things. And that’s actually turned some usually thoughtful people into less thoughtful people—bringing out the worst in some of the longest-tenured, enjoyable members of this community as the general standards of pleasantness have gotten long forgotten.

So thanks to some help from WordPress VIP, I’ll be monitoring some I.P. addresses and accounts. It’s the absolute last thing that I want to do with my time, but it’s beyond overdue. Especially as we move into the offseason, where community participation and conversation is much needed and will make this place much more enjoyable.

So if you’ve been a part of our problem, it will be addressed. Apologies for subjectivity, but there’s no Troll Tribunal. So if somebody says something mean or something that you deem “ban worthy,” whatever you do, don’t start calling for the hook or sending me messages. That’s beyond lame. Feel free to police your own words, and know that I’ll be coming around every so often to both participate and make sure things are running smoothly.

To be clear: This isn’t a war on criticism, it’s merely the end of idiocy and blatant trolling. If you want to spray-paint inflammatory comments on a wall at your place of business, go right ahead. I’m just going to take away the paint-cans at mine.

Most people tell me I’m wasting my time trying to make the comments section a better place. Maybe I am. But there’s no reason we can’t have a reasoned conversation—with a variety of viewpoints—without turning things toxic.

So if you’ve got a feud simmering on the board, end it. If you’ve wanted to comment, but been way too annoyed because of certain jerks, come on back and give it another try. If you’ve reveled in being an annoyance or a moron, find somewhere else to do it. Because you’re comments will start going straight to spam.

MOVING ON…

Using that as a wonderful segue, that’s exactly what Notre Dame is doing. So perhaps we can view this mailbag through that lens—discussing what the Irish will look like without Golson behind center.

(Or not. It’s your mailbag.)

Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

Looking forward to a fresh start.

-KA

Swarbrick denies blocking Golson’s transfer options as rumors swirl

Everett Golson
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First came the news that Everett Golson was leaving. Now comes the circus, as we take to the rumor mill to speculate where Golson ends up.

The former Notre Dame quarterback will be free to transfer and play immediately once he earns his diploma. But where he ends up is anyone’s guess. And maybe some unexpected parties—including the SEC and Notre Dame’s athletic department—could have a say in that process.

Some of the earliest speculation as to where Golson would land focused on Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl opponent: LSU. With strong personnel and no true favorite at quarterback, many thought Golson would look to Les Miles and former NFL head coach and current Tigers’ offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for a chance.

Some have also thought returning to home to play for South Carolina made sense as well. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks also seemingly have a hole at quarterback—and interest in their hometown quarterback— that could make Golson a one-year replacement.

But an SEC transfer rule could make that impossible, especially taking into consideration Golson’s academic mishap at Notre Dame that cost him the 2013 season. Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee dug into the rulebook and came out with SEC bylaw 14.1.15.1 Graduate Student Exception.

Golson’s semester suspension for academic dishonesty clearly runs afoul with provision (d):

“The student-athlete has not been subject to official university or athletics department disciplinary action at any time during enrollment at any previous collegiate institution (excluding limited discipline applied by a sports team).”

Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports, who was the first to get his hands on a comment from Golson, also pointed out the two-year eligibility rule within the SEC bylaws. Bizarrely, it appears that the SEC rules only make way for transfers with multiple seasons of eligibility, not graduate transfer cases, without acquiring a waiver.

“A student-athlete who, upon enrollment at the certifying institution, has less than two years of eligibility remaining, is not eligible for financial aid, practice or competition at the member institution. A member institution may request a waiver from the Conference office for a student-athlete transferring from an institution discontinuing a sport, provided that the student-athlete cannot complete his or her eligibility at the institution discontinuing the sport, or for a student-athlete transferring for the purpose of enrolling in an academic program not offered at the institution from which he or she is transferring.”

News Monday evening started circling Florida State as a potential landing spot. 247 Sports’ first reported that the Seminoles were the odds-on favorite to land Golson. The ACC program has a very large hole to fill after Jameis Winston left early to go No. 1 overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and only junior Sean Maguire with experience.

That news is similar to what I heard from a source late last week with connections to the Golson family. Per that source, Golson is “90-percent sure on Florida State,” and has been aimed that way since before Notre Dame’s bowl game.

Golson’s next home will depend on not just SEC rules, but also Notre Dame’s approval rights. Per Feldman’s report, Notre Dame has blocked Texas and select Big Ten programs from Golson’s choices.

That was met with some furor on social media, though athletic director Jack Swarbrick was quick to go on the record and say that wasn’t true.

“It’s just not true,” Swarbrick told the Orlando Sentinel ACC spring meetings. “The way this process works is a student identifies schools they would like to consider and we have not denied a single school that Everett Golson identified as one he has an interest in going to.”

ESPN’s Brett McMurphy, who dropped the initial news that Golson was leaving agreed with Swarbrick.

With another ESPN report listing Alabama as another finalist, along with “at least one Pac-12 school,” it looks like Golson won’t be reuniting with Chuck Martin or Bob Diaco. McMurphy writes that Golson is only interested in playing for a Power 5 conference.

With graduation scheduled for this weekend, Golson’s final decision needs to come between now and early June, when most teams report for summer classes and workouts. So expect the news to come fast and furious until a final decision is made.

 

Post-spring stock report: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt
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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.