Notre Dame v Arizona State

Jaylon Smith cross-training opens up linebacker log jam

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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
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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.

Turf toe surgery scheduled for DE Jonathan Bonner

247Sports
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After a promising start to spring football, defensive lineman Jonathan Bonner will need surgery. The rising sophomore will undergo a procedure for a turf toe injury, sidelining him until mid-June.

Last week, Bonner was singled out by head coach Brian Kelly for a string of good practices. He was spotted in a walking boot at practice on Wednesday, Notre Dame’s first since returning from Easter break.

“He has a bad case of turf toe that will require surgery,” Kelly said. “He’ll go up to the Cleveland Clinic and have that done on Tuesday and… we will have him back late June and fully recovered for preseason camp and into the season.”

Kelly compared the surgical procedure to one that Prince Shembo underwent in the spring leading up to his senior season. Shembo missed a large portion of spring practice but came back and had a strong season at the Cat linebacker spot.

Before the injury, Bonner was providing depth behind Isaac Rochell at the strongside defensive end position. One of the Irish’s most explosive defensive linemen, Bonner is a candidate to provide a pass-rushing presence off the edge after sitting out 2014 and saving a year of eligibility.

Will Jerry Tillery’s spring performance carry over to the fall?

Tom Loy, 247 Sports
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To put into context what freshman Jerry Tillery is doing this spring, you have to look back at the last time Notre Dame saw a breakout freshman along the defensive line. It was Aaron Lynch. The lanky, pass-rushing defensive end set the Blue-Gold game on fire, unblockable off the edge in his first semester as an early-enrollee college student.

Jerry Tillery isn’t cut from the same mold as Lynch. At 6-foot-6, 300-pounds, he’s closer to Lynch’s classmate Stephon Tuitt, though the image of Tuitt competing in a triathlon (let alone crowd-surfing on his official visit) is a tough one to conjure.

But Tillery’s dominance this spring has been the story of spring football. And as Jarron Jones recovers from foot surgery and Sheldon Day gives some of his snaps to lesser-established players, the Louisiana native running with the starting defense when he should be going to prom adds another intriguing part to the young Irish defensive line.

“Far and away the story is Jerry Tillery,” Kelly said, singling out Tillery. “He’s just a unique player, one that I can’t remember that I’ve ever coached.”

So what exactly should we expect from Tillery? Lynch’s spring campaign led to an impressive freshman season, where he was named to the FWAA Freshman All-American team, joining Timmy Jernigan and Jadaveon Clowney on the defensive line.

His 5.5 sacks led the team. He finished third with seven tackles for loss. But Lynch’s 14 quarterback hurries nearly lapped the rest of the defense, teasing Irish fans with a dominance that we’d never end up seeing at the college level.

It wasn’t all great for Lynch during his freshman season. His tendency to freelance kept him (and Tuitt) off the field against Michigan, the fourth-quarter defensive collapse likely could’ve used somebody barreling off the edge. And Lynch’s off-field struggles adapting to life in South Bend led him to walk off the team during spring practice, a bizarre departure that went against his family’s wishes, taking Lynch on a road-less-traveled path to being a late-round selection by the San Francisco 49ers.

Tillery doesn’t necessarily look like a pass rusher in the traditional sense. His size and length will likely having him taking reps on the interior of a four-man defensive front, where both Kelly and new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore have praised his technique and skill, comparing him to a seasoned veteran.

Opportunity is another factor. It’s fair to assume that Notre Dame’s best three defensive linemen are Day, Jones and Isaac Rochell. Tillery likely falls into the next tier, though slots best in the positions played by that trio. (Imagine Lynch coming into the program this season—he’d be a plug and play defensive end immediately.)

All that being said, Brian VanGorder will put his best personnel on the field when finding his starting eleven. So that means Tillery will be competing not just with the defensive tackles, but for snaps with defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti, even if the natural fit isn’t quite there.

Notre Dame desperately needs to find a pass rush from the defensive line. Okwara led the Irish with four sacks last season, the lowest single-season leader since Ethan Johnson led the anemic 2009 defense.

Tillery’s impact won’t necessarily be rushing the passer, though it sounds like he’s capable of doing anything he wants after hearing Kelly fawn over him. But after seeing the Irish fall apart at the point of attack after injuries weakened its core, Tillery could be asked to provide stabilization for a defensive tackle position that couldn’t hold up after losing Day and Jones.

Of course, it’s worth pumping the brakes on all of this. Tillery’s ascent is just one of many spring stories where we have been told that the sky is the limit. For every breakout—and Lynch’s numbers were far less dominant than many of us (me included) expected them to be—there’s been a freshman breaking in period that’s been underwhelming.

But Tillery is far from your average freshman. There’s a (presumed) comfort level that he plays with, and an intellect that reminds you of KeiVarae RussellJaylon Smith and Corey Robinson, young guys capable of seeing the field early because of their maturity off of it. But both Russell and Smith needed a break to see the field, and Tillery’s likely in a similar position.

So as Irish fans work themselves into a frenzy predicting Tillery’s immediate impact, acknowledging Kelly’s attempt to temper that enthusiasm should be advised. But even if his freshman season is closer to Tuitt’s than Lynch’s, Tillery’s on a trajectory to be one of the next great Notre Dame linemen.

Not half bad for a guy most predicted to play offensive tackle.