Navy fullback Chris Swain (37) tries to recover his fumble as Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) and linebacker Greer Martini (48) go after the ball during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)
AP

Shelved until fall, Martini a key piece of linebacking puzzle

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The ascent of Nyles Morgan has been one of spring’s critical developments. But as Notre Dame pushes into the offseason, one piece of the still-to-be-solved defensive puzzle is still on the sidelines.

Rising junior Greer Martini may end up being one of the team’s most impactful defenders. And he could manage to do that without finding his way into the starting lineup.

Among those spending spring healing after postseason surgery, Martini’s place in the future construct of the defense may not yet be figured out. But with a versatility that’s been on display since he stepped foot on campus, Martini’s role in the defense was discussed by position coach Mike Elston on Wednesday, who pointed to the many roles Martini can fill in Brian VanGorder’s scheme once he’s healthy.

“Greer would afford us the opportunity to cross-train him,” Elston said. “Greer’s got very good understanding of our coverages, so Greer could go from the Sam and when we put a nickel in for the Sam, he could pop over and play the dime position. Greer’s got a lot of flexibility, but he would in base defense be with the Sam.”

Martini will compete for snaps in the base package of the Irish defense with senior James Onwualu, likely taking to the trenches while Onwualu operates in space. But he’s more than just a situational Sam linebacker—he’s a Swiss Army Knife capable of playing any linebacker position once he’s healthy, versatility that the Irish desperately need with little established depth currently on the roster.

That could mean starting at Will if Te’von Coney or Asmar Bilal aren’t ready to make the leap. Or taking over the Sam job while Onwualu focuses on situational work in nickel or playing in space. Some thought Martini could even challenge Morgan for the starting Mike job this spring if he were practicing, less of an indictment on Morgan but rather a testament to Martini’s athleticism and nose for the game.

Not many saw what the Irish staff did when they offered and accepted the commitment of a soft-bodied linebacker and tight end playing against underwhelming competition at a Virginia prep school. But even with three-star status as one of the least heralded recruits on campus, Martini was one of the first onto the field, following the trend he set when he became the inaugural commitment in the 2014 recruiting cycle.

Martini has played in all 26 games of his career in South Bend, doubling the two emergency starts he made as a freshman last year as he continued carving out his niche. One that’s been most prominently displayed is Martini’s work as an option specialist, another job that’ll earn double-time with both Navy and Army on the slate in 2016.

But with Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace all gone from the depth chart, Martini is poised to be much more than a situational substitute. While he might not have a singular spot, his ability to flow from sideline to sideline and to operate in the trenches or out in space will restore some of the versatility the Irish sorely missed last season.

So while Saturday will be an opportunity to see the growth of youngsters Bilal and Josh Barajas and the evolution of Morgan and Onwualu, Martini’s will be watching from the sideline, stuck supporting his teammates at a position group stripped to just four scholarship linebackers this spring.

But come August, expect Martini to be everywhere on the football field—even if he isn’t in the starting lineup.

 

Mailbag: 2016 schedule, Rebuild/reload, Robinson (and more)

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Part two of the mailbag. Thanks again for your questions.

 

irishsoccerfirst: Give us your take on the Irish schedule this coming season. Does it appear weaker than usual at this point? I mean Nevada and Army? Isn’t that two cupcakes? NC State and Syracuse are two weak ACC programs most years. VA Tech has been struggling of late, etc. Your thoughts at this early date would be appreciated, but it looks like any loss could be fatal.

I think Notre Dame’s schedule sets up pretty well for the Irish. I agree with you that Nevada and Army aren’t going to wow anybody, but sandwiching Nevada between Texas and Michigan State, and following up Army with Virginia Tech and USC is more than solid and not too many people will notice with that finish.

The ACC slate is going to be tough some seasons and lighter in others. Getting NC State as they continue to try and climb out is nice, and Syracuse is rebooting itself once again, this time with Dino Babers.

Like most schedules, you can argue anything you want. For those who want to talk up the difficulties, look at the murders row of head coaches facing off with BK and his staff: Charlie Strong, Mark Dantonio, David Cutcliffe, David Shaw and Mark Richt all feel like they have a home among the elite names in college football. Justin Fuente is a rising star, some say the same about Nevada’s Brian Polian, too.

If you’re looking for a reason to be bullish about the Irish, one factor is the schedule. I think it stacks up pretty well for Notre Dame.

To your point about one loss being fatal, that certainly hasn’t been the case so far in the two seasons the CFB Playoff has existed. If the Irish were a one-loss team in 2015, I think there’s a very good chance that Oklahoma was staying home last year and the Irish were the four-seed. (Stanford solved that for all of us.) But it is fair to say that this schedule won’t likely earn as much recognition as maybe other seasons have.

 

4horsemenrideagain:  Who is the one guy on defense that everyone else hates to get tackled by? Who is the one guy on offense that everyone else hates to have to tackle?

Both candidates for this award are off of last year’s roster, as the team usually agreed that a hit from Elijah Shumate was the worst part of practice and trying to stop C.J. Prosise was one of the hardest jobs they’d face.

If I were assigning these for the 2016 team, I’ll say Nyles Morgan on defense and Josh Adams on offense. Neither seem like guys I want to tackle.

 

dudeacow: What do you think of the possibility of Nyles Morgan being the sack leader for the defense? BVG rushed Schmidt a whole lot, but was ineffective due to his physical traits. Morgan is fast, big, and strong.

I’m not sure if he’ll be the sack leader. But I do think he’ll get home more often than Joe did, who hit the quarterback plenty but couldn’t quite seal the deal with a sack. That’s not necessarily an indictment on Joe’s physical traits (though playing with a bum shoulder all year didn’t help), but Nyles has shown an uncanny knack for wreaking havoc in his limited playing opportunities—so I do expect a few sacks from him.

Replacing Schmidt, All-American Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace won’t be easy. But I’m excited to see what Notre Dame’s linebacking corps looks like in 2016. A starting lineup of Morgan, James Onwualu and either Te’von Coney or Greer Martini is a pretty good looking group, especially from an athletic standpoint.

 

jerseyshorendfan: Keith, would you call the 2016 campaign more of a rebuilding year or are we “reloading” to the point that we may be in the hunt for the Final four? What, in your opinion, is going to be the Achilles heel of both the offensive and defensive units this year?

I’m 100 percent on the reload train. I don’t think there’s a rebuild left in this program, especially with the solid groundwork laid at quarterback and the strength in the trenches. Is it perfect? No. I think this staff is understanding that when Notre Dame has great players, they’re susceptible to leaving for the NFL just like other programs. Expect the staff to adjust how they recruit (and manage their roster) after losing guys like Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley and Jaylon Smith without finishing their eligibility.

I have a hard time finding an achilles heel on the offense. This group is going to be loaded. If there was an undoing, I’d say it could be the right side of the offensive line. I’m also interested to see how this receiving corps plays without an established No. 1 receiver. Irish fans got pretty spoiled watching major production from Michael Floyd, TJ Jones and then Will Fuller. Is Torii Hunter that guy? Spring gives us hints. But we certainly haven’t seen it. The last factor on offense to consider is the quarterback position. The personnel won’t be the problem, but rather the balancing act of keeping everybody happy and united is one that will have a low margin for error.

Defensively, I’m watching the secondary. Getting a better performance from the back end is key. Funny enough, I could make an equally compelling argument that we should be worried about the defensive line— or the linebackers. So maybe it’s best to say that the relative youth of the unit is the achilles’ heel, especially considering all the concern about Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

 

bostonjan: Keith…..any word about ND doing a Showtime like series for this season? That show was very enjoyable, and I hope a similar series is planned. I realize that there is the weekly “Inside the Irish” program, but I would like more.

I’m sure Showtime would like to return to South Bend, but it’s not happening. That was a one-year experiment for the football program and I think both parties got exactly what they wanted out of it.

The series is likely continue with another program—and it’ll be a show I watch whether it’s Notre Dame or not. I found the inside look fascinating and I think it served the purpose Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick hoped it would, offering total transparency and a clear look at a program that’s taken plenty of shots in the past—not all of them fair.

The non-stop nature of that series and the fact that a small army of cameras and producers were following that team for the better part of five months is really, really taxing. That took some significant getting used to and not all players (or coaches) liked it.

And Jan, an “Inside the Irish” program? Did you just book me a weekly TV show? If so, let me know where the commission check should go—I’ll have my people get in touch with your people.

 

jerseyirish10: Keith, with news that Corey Robinson was out again for a concussion and is being evaluated Tuesday, how surprised would you be to see him announce he is giving up football? He clearly has a lot of outside interests, is a bright kid, and maybe just sees the writing on the wall that football isn’t his path anymore.

I wouldn’t be surprised at all. Brain injuries are scary. Especially for guys who like to use their brain.

Robinson certainly has lofty goals for life outside of football and everybody on campus—coaches, professors and administrators—want to see that he makes the best decision for him. That said, I think what Kelly said last week about Robinson wanting to return to the team is true. But he needs to get his concussion cleared up before doing anything else, and spring practice isn’t all that important for a guy with a lot of reps in the program.

(Worth reading: Former Stanford linebacker A.J. Tarpley wrote about retiring from the NFL after suffering a fourth concussion. You’ve got to think these stories will get more and more common.)

 

 

Mailbag: Offensive identity, special teams, and more

DeShone Kizer, Kevin Kavalec, Harold Landry
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With the spring game just around the corner and the weather forecast looking perfect for Blue-Gold weekend, let’s dig into the mailbag and get into some of your questions.

irishkg07: Do Kelly’s comments about the QB situation and referencing OSU’s issues last season rotating QBs convince you that the Irish will enter ’16 with a singular true No. 1 at QB?

I don’t think that’s what BK was saying. I think he referenced Ohio State from the perspective that they lost their identity amidst the different quarterbacks, getting away from their bread and butter—Ezekiel Elliott serving as a sledgehammer—and ultimately it cost them a chance to play for a national title.

One thing I think Kelly is committed to doing is playing out this quarterback battle. He’s also committed to having an identity on offense, regardless of who’s behind center. That means a commitment to running the football, playing physical and not mixing and matching what the team looks like on offense depending on who is at quarterback.

Will there be a singular starter and a backup? Maybe (and I’m leaning towards probably). But I think both these quarterbacks are too good to keep off the field, and they’ll both play in some fashion.

 

onward2victory: Do you know if the coaching staff is taking any steps to get more fire and passion from the players at game time? Look at the focus and intensity they had vs Texas, just ready to dominate. Never saw it again the rest of the year. Let’s get more time spent on emotions and less on heady technical X’s and O’s.

Onward, you know I love you, but this is one of those statements that have zero basis in truth, nor is it anything we can prove, one way or the other. (You aren’t running for president are you?) I thought the Showtime series did a nice job of looking behind the curtain, and I certainly didn’t think “fire” or “passion” were the issues that plagued this team. Think back to that speech BK gave at halftime against USC. That didn’t get you fired up?

Now the reason I think this question is a valid one is that the Irish have started slow at times, especially on the road and in big games. Defensively, Brian VanGorder talked about that being a focus this spring, and that the staff was doing things to make sure the team started faster. Kelly has long had a series of mental edge exercises the team does in pregame to prepare them. I’m sure they’ll keep tweaking the formula as they search for ways to win.

But will all games be a 38-3 trouncing? No. But I just don’t think effort or passion was an issue with that team.

 

rocket1988: Demetris Robertson. Where is he playing in the fall?

I have no clue. Would be fun if it were South Bend, but bizarre circumstances like this don’t usually end up Irish.

I’ll guess Georgia.

(If you’re interested in the odyssey of Robertson, our friends at OneFootDown did a great piece on his bizarre recruitment.)

 

freshnd: Farley has been a special teams stud the last several years and his presence on the coverage teams will be greatly missed. Who ascends on ST to fill his void?

This is a great question! Notre Dame will miss Farley’s presence on special teams, and I’m curious to see who steps forward into a role like this. A few guesses:

I wonder if it’s someone like Asmar Bilal, a speedy linebacker who can get down the field. Otherwise, maybe it’s Avery Sebastian? He’s a veteran (sixth-year eligible) and might not be a starter, but could be a lock on every unit. Ashton White is a big, physical cornerback who I think might be a good addition to the special teams unit.

With a great punter/kicker battery, making sure the coverage teams are top notch is critical. This has been a big area of improvement and will continue to be a focus, especially with Marty Biagi brought on as a special teams analyst.

 

newmexicoirish: Keith, do you anticipate Kelly relinquishing the play calling to Mike Sanford this season?

I’ve been told by people in the know that it wasn’t Kelly or Sanford, but rather Mike Denbrock that handled the actual play calling. So it isn’t really about BK relinquishing control, he might have already done so.

Don’t expect him to give any more insight into this until he’s ready to, though. He was tight-lipped about the process, other than to say he thought it was going well, and that’s likely how it’ll stay.

BK on the Blue-Gold game: Live quarterbacks, new faces

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With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday and televised live on NBCSN at 12:30 p.m. ET, Brian Kelly gave a lay of the land to ace reporter Jac Collinsworth.

(Nice suit, Jac!)

Hear what BK has to say about playing his quarterbacks live during the spring game, his belief in rising sophomore Brandon Wimbush, and some new faces on the rise—including early enrollee freshman Kevin Stepherson.

 

 

Spring stock report: Defense

Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell
AP
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With tidbits coming out of Saturday’s open-to-the-media scrimmage, the state of the Irish roster is slowly coming into focus with just two practices left before the annual Blue-Gold game. While a two-hour workout will likely lead us on as many wild goose chases as it does clear up questions, that’s what spring is all about—matching up what eyes see and ears hear, all while knowing it could all go up in smoke by the time the pads go back on in August.

Regardless, the reports are mostly favorable after watching the Irish scrimmage in Loftus over the weekend. And our stock report focuses on a few key contributors, most moving from the sideline to the starting lineup.

 

STOCK UP

Nyles Morgan. That Morgan looked like a dominant, dynamic presence in the middle of the Irish defense might be the biggest story of the spring. It certainly is a story Brian Kelly didn’t think was being discussed enough.

“There’s not been a lot of talk about Nyles Morgan, which is kind of interesting,” Kelly said over the weekend. “Here’s a guy who didn’t play much last year and stepped into the middle linebacker role. There’s always a lot of talk about Coach VanGorder’s system and it’s so complicated and you’ve got to communicate, and no one’s really talked about Nyles and it’s because he’s been that good this spring.”

Catching up via social media, you’d be hard-pressed to find a report that didn’t rave about Morgan’s performance on Saturday. Pair that with his media availability last week—Morgan looked and sounded like a guy not short on confidence—and it’s looking like life after Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith won’t be all that bad, especially once Greer Martini returns from injury.

Productivity sounded like the name of Morgan’s game on Saturday. Here’s a quick tidbit on Morgan from Bryan Driskell’s practice report at BlueandGold.com:

Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan was arguably the team’s most impressive performer during practice. There is no doubt he was the top performer on defense. Morgan was dominant during the inside run drills by quickly diagnosing the play, beating blockers to the point of attack and arriving at the ball carrier at or behind the line of scrimmage. Morgan spent the entire practice around the football.

His instincts against the run were impressive, as was his ability to diagnose between run and pass during team periods. On a sprint out during the final team period, quarterback DeShone Kizer was rolling to his right and Morgan read the play perfectly, flew through his gap and blew up running back Justin Brent, who was the secondary contain blocker. Morgan also blew up quarterback Malik Zaire on a speed option play in which he made a decisive read and used his top-notch speed to quickly arrive into the backfield.

Morgan was very good in coverage. He quickly reads crosses and takes good angles to the ball. He had good depth on his zone drops and played the ball well. The only time he got beat was by sophomore tight end Alize Jones on a red zone corner route, but Kizer missed long.

That should be music to the ears of Irish fans, and a huge piece of the 2016 defensive puzzle moving forward.

 

Drue Tranquill. Notre Dame’s bionic man could turn into a Swiss Army Knife next season. Tranquill will be set loose next season, all over the field if reports are a glimpse into the future.

Tranquill’s versatility might overshadow the fact that he’s played his way into an every-down role as a starting safety. But there sounds to be some comfort growing in coverage for Tranquill (not necessarily his strong suit thus far) and an expanded knowledge base can’t hurt as the Irish put him all over the field trying to exploit mismatches.

Still mid-recovery from his second ACL injury in as many seasons, Tranquill needs to keep his speed up, especially if he’s going to be asked to cover receivers in space. But a tackling machine on a defense that definitely needs his consistency, it’s been a great spring for the rising junior.

 

Shaun Crawford. Another ACL recovery that looks to be making great progress, Crawford might be playing his way into a starting cornerback job in addition to serving as the team’s nickel back.

The loss of Nick Watkins to a broken arm opened up reps for Crawford at cornerback across from Cole Luke and he seems like the quickest fit for the job. But that might take him away from the all-important nickel job, an inside-cover slot that allows Crawford to use his surprising physicality and his nose for the football.

It won’t take long for comparisons to Antoine Winfield or perhaps, more currently, the honey badger Tyron Mathieu. But the fact that Crawford’s even out on the field right now making up ground should be good enough.

“I’ve exceeded expectations I had for myself by just being able to play in the (Blue-Gold) game,” Crawford told Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister. “I think I’ve only missed one game my entire time playing football, so it was really hard missing an entire season, even missing practice.”

 

Isaac Rochell. Approaching his second season with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, Rochell could take a big step forward in 2016, an awards-level caliber player who could wreak havoc from the big defensive end position.

It shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. Rochell was the defense’s third-ranked player, according to PFF College. But until he steps up his pass rush game, he’ll be a somewhat one-dimensional end, especially on a defense crying out for someone to get to the quarterback.

That improvement was evident, per multiple reports from practice. The physical skills are there—Rochell was spotted out-quicking Sheldon Day during some of UND.com’s practice reports last offseason. But adding some versatility to his pass rush game would be a huge addition to the defense, and a credit to Gilmore.

 

STOCK DOWN

Nick Watkins. After being the beneficiary of some late-season injuries in 2015, it’s Watkins who now has to work from behind entering the upcoming season. A broken arm that should be healed in six weeks cost him the second half of spring practice, a difficult blow dealt to a talented cornerback who looked to have a leg up in the race for KeiVarae Russell’s open job.

Summer workouts—run by a strength staff that now has former Kelly lieutenant (and Buffalo head coach) Jeff Quinn on it—will be critical in Watkins development. The Irish need a cornerback who can hold up in man coverage. Watkins seems like the best option, especially if it allows Crawford to freestyle and serve as the team’s primary nickel back.

 

Jerry Tillery. This might be a harsh assessment, but the days of being a precocious freshman are over. Tillery is coming off a debut season where he spent the final game watching after an off-field rule violation, and needs to add some urgency to a career most have high hopes for.

With great size and ridiculous athleticism, Tillery still looks the part of an All-World defensive lineman. But any comparisons to Stephon Tuitt will be blown away if Tillery doesn’t make a huge leap in 2016. Remember, Tuitt went from a mostly anonymous freshman (who also missed a game because of a rule violation) to an All-American sophomore who challenged for Notre Dame’s sack record.

Fair or not, that’s the bar set for Tillery—especially with Sheldon Day gone and Tillery slotted for the three-technique. It’s not impossible. But that big move hasn’t happened this spring.

 

NEED MORE INFORMATION

Jarron Jones. Another defensive lineman who is absolutely critical to the defensive structure, Jones has had an up-and-down spring practice as he continues his recovery from a knee injury that kept him off the field for all but 14 plays against Ohio State.

While the Irish only need him healthy come the first Sunday of September, Kelly talked about the challenges Jones has faced this spring. He also knows what kind of player he has once the bright lights go one.

That hesitancy is understandable. But a full-strength and fully-motivated Jones is an impact defender. Pair him with a top-of-his game Tillery and the interior of the Irish defense could be one of the more dynamic in the country.

 

Max Redfield. Don’t kick dirt on Redfield just yet. Nor should you read too much into the ascent of early-enrollee freshman Devin Studstill. A freshman making a big move during spring drills is one thing. A true freshman being trusted on the back-end of the defense during game situations is another.

Redfield has all the tools needed to be a productive college football player. He was done no favors by playing in a bowl game as a true freshman. But he’s entering his third season under Brian VanGorder. That means the mental lapses that have plagued his game need to be eliminated.

We’ll see if the timeshare this spring was a motivational tactic or a kickstart of the eventual transition to the Studstill era come August. Until then, I expect Redfield’s final season in South Bend to be a surprising positive.