SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates with Cole Luke #36 after recovering a fumble against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Bye week snapshot: Linebackers

50 Comments

Notre Dame’s most athletic group of linebackers in years has been led by All-American candidate Jaylon Smith. Just as he did last season, Smith has filled up the stat sheet, while also managing to make that the least impressive thing he’s done on the field.

Behind him, the play has been good and bad. Captain Joe Schmidt may very well be the nerve center of the Irish defense, but he’s struggled at times making tackles and being in position. James Onwualu and Greer Martini have exceeded expectations.

Against the option, the Irish turned to Martini, who played incredibly productive football in a difficult situation. While Onwualu has shown himself once again to be the type of dependable athlete that the Irish staff can count on in space. But even he was subbed out for Jarrett Grace when the Irish needed to add some bulk against Navy, the fifth-year senior getting a shot after nearly two years of recovery time.

This group’s best football is still ahead of it. For Smith, that’s a scary proposition. For the rest of the linebackers? It’s playing to the bar this coaching staff has set for them. Let’s take a closer look at Mike Elston’s position group through seven games.

 

MVP: Jaylon Smith

No, it’s not particularly close. Smith has answered most of his critics by doing a much better job in the trenches and being a tremendously sound tackler. That’s allowed him to use his cheetah-like athleticism to run down plays and also be PFF’s No. 2 rated OLB in a 4-3.

Smith hasn’t made the impact as a pass rusher that we maybe thought he would earlier in preseason camp. But that’s mostly been because he’s been so useful in pass coverage. A key prospect in the eyes of NFL personnel men, Smith might be playing his final half-dozen games in a Notre Dame uniform. If he is, let’s hope Smith goes out on top.

 

Needs to Improve: Joe Schmidt

All the wonderful leadership attributes and mental abilities don’t take away from what the game tape is telling us (or at least PFF). Schmidt’s struggles have been notable, and he’s having one of the worst graded seasons of any inside linebacker in college football.

There’s more to it than just the numbers. Schmidt hasn’t had the easiest assignments with two option teams mixed in with athletic offenses like Clemson and USC. Add to that the physical limitation that comes with playing through a broken thumb.

But with Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace all on the sidelines, Schmidt needs to clean up his game. As it’s been mentioned a few dozen-too-many times, Schmidt’s physical limitations make it imperative that he plays as close to assignment perfect as possible. That hasn’t necessarily been the case and the results have hurt the Irish.

 

Sneaky Productive: James Onwualu & Greer Martini

If you were surprised that Jaylon Smith graded out as the No. 2 OLB in a 4-3 system in college football you’d be really  surprised that not that far down the list behind him was James Onwualu. The second-year linebacker, who started his freshman season as a wide receiver ranks as PFF’s No. 15 OLB. That’s really impressive for a guy most had pushed out of the rotation.

Martini’s game just gets better the more you watch him play. He’s an instinctive guy who knows how to do his job. You see that as he thrives against option competition. Physically, he’s got the type of skills that fit in the middle of the defense. It’ll be quite a competition in life after Smith and Schmidt as the next group of defenders fight for starting jobs in 2016. While most assume Nyles Morgan slides inside, Martini is too good of a football player to stay off the field.

Stay tuned.

 

Bye week snapshot: Defensive Line

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Sheldon Day #91 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Isaac Rochell #90 celebrate after making a tackle for a loss of yards against the Texas Longhorns during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
4 Comments

Notre Dame’s 2015 plans were thrown off when Jarron Jones was injured during preseason camp. But even without a true pass rusher, Keith Gilmore’s position group has done a nice job—getting a leading man performance from Sheldon Day and precocious play from Jerry Tillery.

The Irish are giving up just over three touchdowns a game, ranked 41st in the country with 22.6 points against. While a big game against Navy pushed the rush defense down to 81st in the country, the Irish have been effective making plays behind the line of scrimmage, 35th in the country in TFLs, impressive considering they only have 11 sacks (82nd in the country).

With five games to go and the defense’s best football in front of it, let’s take a look at the defensive line.

 

MVP: Sheldon Day

While his numbers on the stat sheet still don’t match his impact on the field, Day has shown what a good decision it was to come back for his senior season by wreaking havoc in the trenches. Moving inside and out, Day has been Notre Dame’s most impactful player behind the line of scrimmage, even if he’s only managed to convert two sacks compared to his 10 quarterback hits.

Just as impressive as Day’s productivity has been his ability to stay on the field. With the depth chart shorter than ideal, the pressure has been on Day to play the lion’s share of snaps. He’s been able to do that, staying on the field for just about every play that mattered for the Irish defense, all while racking up an absurdly high PFF rating of 29.8, the third-best ranking of any defensive tackle in college football.

 

Impressive Newcomer: Jerry Tillery

Yes, you knew this was going to be Tillery. But even if his stats seem relatively pedestrian, what he’s doing is not. Tillery’s ability to hold his own in the trenches have allowed Day to play like he has this season. And the fact that Tillery is doing this all while still figuring things out—and against two option opponents—everybody who is calling him a special player knows what they’re talking about.

Interestingly enough, Tillery’s best game of the season was against Clemson. That the freshman was able to go toe to toe, especially as a stout run defender against one of the better teams in the country, was huge. Paired with run-stuffer Daniel Cage, this duo has done a tremendous job filling in for Jarron Jones.

 

Secretly Productive: Isaac Rochell (and Romeo Okwara)

Notre Dame’s defensive ends are too often discussed for what they can’t do. Yet both Rochell and Okwara are doing a nice job filling up the stat sheet, with Rochell the defensive line’s most productive tackler and Okwara once again finding a way to lead the team in sacks.

Rochell earns his living as a run defender. He hasn’t shown any productivity as a pass rusher if you’re to believe PFF’s rating system. But with 35 total tackles and 5.5 TFLs, he’s a handful for offensive tackles, and shown himself capable when he’s shifted inside.

Blink and you might have missed Okwara once again move to the top of the sack list. The senior has three sacks among his 16 total tackles, a fairly prolific number that at least helps buoy the one true deficiency of the defensive personnel. Interestingly, Okwara’s mental lapses have been what’s stood out to PFF, not his sacks. His lowest rated game of the season against USC had Okwara taking down Cody Kessler.

 

Waiting His Turn: Jay Hayes

While his Twitter outburst earned him a scolding from his head coach, the ability to save a year of Hayes’ eligibility this season would be huge. After burning a redshirt late last year when Notre Dame had zero depth, Hayes’ frustrations of not seeing the field likely came because he didn’t see the big picture.

Without Sheldon Day next season, Hayes will be a rotational player, playing opposite Jarron Jones and Daniel Cage and likely teaming with Tillery at three-technique. So credit the Irish staff for finding a good way to earn Hayes that year back, even if Notre Dame hasn’t had the best luck with five-year defensive linemen.

 

Showtime posts two free episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame”

Property of Showtime Sports
19 Comments

Interested in watching Notre Dame’s doc-series, but don’t have Showtime? Your bye week problems are over.

In a fairly unprecedented move, Showtime has released their two most recent episodes of “A Season With Notre Dame” for free. You can see behind the scenes of Notre Dame’s impressive victory over Navy and their rivalry win over USC.

The series has been a weekly look inside Notre Dame’s football program. It’s featured a behind-the-scenes look at injuries to guys like Jarron Jones, Malik Zaire, Tarean Folston and Drue Tranquill. It’s also given up the sitcom we can’t stop dreaming about—Sheldon & Jerry, who are quite literally (the size of) two-and-a-half men.

Enjoy the two episodes here, or on Sho.com, YouTube or Facebook.

Episode Six:

Episode Seven: 

Bye week snapshot: Special Teams

3 Comments

Long seen as one of the weaker parts of Brian Kelly’s team, Season Six in South Bend has turned the special teams into a weapon for the Irish. And you’d really have been hard pressed to see it coming.

Yes, Notre Dame’s depth chart is as strong as it’s ever been. But stepping into key roles on special teams were true freshman placekicker Justin Yoon, redshirt freshman Tyler Newsome and true freshman CJ Sanders. Three first year performers with quite a responsibility hoisted onto their shoulders.

But they’ve all thrived in the situations. Yoon battled through some shaky moments to be a clutch operator. Newsome shanked one kick against Clemson, but also put up a career day for an Irish punter. And Sanders’ impact has turned him into one of the more dangerous punt returners in the nation.

With coverage teams doing their job and the Irish making a game-changing punt block against USC, it’s all come up roses for Scott Booker, who up until now served as a human piñata for Irish fans.

Let’s take a quick look at the specialists.

Justin Yoon — FG: 9 of 11, long of 52. PAT: 29 of 31
Tyler Newsome — 30 punts, 43.5 yard average, 13 inside 20, 9 of 50+ yards

CJ Sanders — Kick: 12 returns for 290, average 24.2, long of 46 Punt: 14 for 142, average of 10.1 yards per punt. Long of 50, one TD.
Amir Carlisle — Kick: 8 for 156, average of 19.5, long of 29

 

Co-MVPs: Justin Yoon & Tyler Newsome

Notre Dame’s freshman placekicker has missed a few kicks, most notably two extra point attempts. But after battling through some early struggles, Yoon has proven to be rock solid, never letting the moment get bigger than him.

After watching Notre Dame’s kick unit fall to pieces last season, Yoon’s resiliency has to be the most impressive thing so far. When called upon to make clutch kicks, especially against Clemson, Navy and USC, he’s been money. Brian Kelly said on Signing Day last February that Yoon would be one of the most impactful freshmen. He’s proven to be correct.

For as nice of a surprise as Yoon has been, Newsome’s ability to boom the football has come out of nowhere. While we all talked about DeShone Kizer‘s struggles in the spring game, Newsome was no great shakes, either. Yet put him on the field in 2015 and he’s shown the ability to flip the field, with nine 50+ yard punts and some really nice work pinning opponents inside the 20.

If all goes according to plan, Notre Dame’s next four seasons at kicker and punter are locked into place. You couldn’t ask for more.

 

Most Promising Future: CJ Sanders

Now that Notre Dame has the depth to enhance their special teams units, Sanders will likely be the beneficiary. The lightning-bug sized slot receiver isn’t getting the reps offensively some thought he’d get, but he quickly took over on kick returns and has been excellent returning punts as well.

Sanders has good speed, can turn on a dime and hasn’t shown any nerves catching the football. And after years of watching John Goodman call fair catches, having a game-changing return man who wasn’t absolutely mandatory as an every down player allows Kelly and Scott Booker to take some chances. Credit the freshman for allowing them to do it.

Bye week snapshot: Offensive line

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; The Notre Dame Fighting Irish offense lines up against the Virginia Cavaliers defense in the second quarter at Scott Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
USA Today Sports
26 Comments

Entering the season, Harry Hiestand’s offensive line had all the ingredients to be one of the more dominant units in recent Notre Dame memory. A star-in-the-making in left tackle Ronnie Stanley. A fifth-year veteran and two-time captain in center Nick Martin. Add in former high-profile recruits like Quenton Nelson and Steve Elmer, along with promising tackle Mike McGlinchey, and there was plenty of reason for optimism.

Expected to be the strength of this offense, the line hasn’t disappointed.

The Irish ground game is one of the best and most explosive in the country. The Irish are seventh in the country in yards per play, and averaging 38.3 points a game, another Top 15 unit.

We’ve seen the time this line has given young quarterbacks Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer to throw and the holes they’ve opened for C.J. Prosise. But with no true statistics to calculate how this group is playing, we’ve turned to ProFootballFocus’s snap count and grading system, our best look at a progress report for the six main contributors along the offensive line.

The MVP: Ronnie Stanley

It shouldn’t a surprise that Ronnie Stanley grades out as the top performer along the offensive line. What might be a surprise is how badly penalties have impacted his overall rating. Stanley is head and shoulders above every other blocker when it comes to pass protection. Only Quenton Nelson and Nick Martin edge him in the run game. But penalties have killed his grade.

The senior potential first-rounder knows he needs to clean up the mental mistakes, some penalties attributed to the different cadences between Zaire and Kizer. But with some good defenses still on the schedule, Stanley has an opportunity to finish strong and play dominant football.

 

Needs a better second half: Steve Elmer

While I won’t take these ratings as bible, it doesn’t take much to notice the slow start to the season by Steve Elmer. The junior is in his third season in the starting lineup, and even though he’s found his home at guard it appears he’s still making too many mistakes.

Elmer’s overall grade is negative mostly based on two tough games—the season opener against Texas and, maybe surprisingly, some struggles against Navy. But Elmer’s held down his starting position, playing the most snaps of any starter on the line, matched by Mike McGlinchey’s 493 plays.

The major deficiencies have come in run blocking. We’ve seen Elmer get his body out of position, too often swinging and missing on a block in tight quarters. Those end up being play-ruiners, and if the junior can clean those up he’ll likely help power the interior ground game, especially against strong rush defenses like Temple, Pitt, Boston College and Stanford, all Top 40 teams against the run.

 

Early Season Surprise: Quenton Nelson

I knew Quenton Nelson was tough. But I didn’t think he’d immediately step into the starting lineup and grade out as Notre Dame’s best run blocker. Nelson’s grades are buoyed by a dominant performance against UMass, but the fact he’s at the top of the stat sheet here is impressive. I also like the fact that he was able to come in and gut out 44 snaps against USC after suffering an ankle sprain. He didn’t earn a positive grade, but the Irish ground game wore down the Trojans late in that ball game.