Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.
A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.
No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.
Jaylon Smith, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs) Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs) Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)
2015-16 ADDITIONS Josh Barajas* Asmar Bilal* Te’von Coney Daelin Hayes Jonathan Jones Jamir Jones
Greer Martini Josh Barajas Asmar Bilal Daelin Hayes
ANALYSIS Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.
It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.
On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.
The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.
But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.
Pregame Six Pack: At long last, the Longhorns arrive
For all the grand plans on the horizon for Notre Dame’s most promising football team in a decade, none of them can materialize if Saturday goes haywire. So while the Fighting Irish have a team filled with depth, experience and talented playmakers as Texas is mid-renovation in Charlie Strong’s second season, all the magazine covers and preseason All-Americans in the world won’t help once the Irish kickoff at 7:42 on Saturday evening.
After a month of of training camp, the Irish are ready to take aim at somebody else. And as Charlie Strong returns to South Bend for the first time since his days as an assistant to Lou Holtz and Bob Davie, Notre Dame will face a young but proud football team with nothing to lose on Saturday evening.
With a hot and humid Saturday on tap, it isn’t hard to think back to the last time a former Irish assistant came into Notre Dame Stadium and threw a major wrench in the Irish’s plans. So while Kelly’s team doesn’t look like the one that turned over the football five times (and turned their head coach purple), the Longhorns also have a lot more talent than Skip Holtz’s 2011 South Florida team.
Six years into the program, there’s no reason to believe that the Irish won’t step onto the field ready. But that’s the beauty of college football. Every Saturday, another mystery revealed.
At long last, another year of football. And a season opener held under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium. So open up the cooler, it’s time for a pregame six pack, as we prepare for a primetime showdown (7:30 p.m. ET) on NBC.
All eyes will be on Malik Zaire.
With a tip of the cap to the Solid Verbal’s Ty Hildenbrandt, the Malik Zai-era begins. (Clever, right?) And with that comes the eager anticipation to see what Notre Dame’s junior quarterback can do now that the team is unquestionably his.
You’re curious? Don’t worry, so is Brian Kelly.
“As much as we’d like to say Malik’s a veteran, he’s still not. He played really in one game for us last year and he didn’t play the whole game,” Kelly conceded after Thursday’s practice.
“I told him, ‘You don’t have to be the reason why we won. You just can’t be the reason why we lost.’ We’ve got 10 other guys around you that are really good playmakers. Get the ball to them, get it to the right play. If he does that, he’ll do very, very well for us.”
That certainly sounds like the role of “game manager” to me, so for those worried that Kelly forgot about the running game this preseason, this is a pretty stark reminder that Notre Dame’s head coach understands how to manage a first-time starter at quarterback.
So expect not just a lot of Tarean Folston and C.J. Prosise, but a heavy dose of Zaire running the football, a skill that comes naturally to the powerful quarterback.
Six freshmen are set to make their debut on Saturday evening.
Usually, figuring out what freshman will see the field and who’ll be held back is a guessing game that takes a few weeks to figure out. But Kelly was kind enough to lay out the five* freshmen that’ll be participating on Saturday night, impressive work by young talent able to ascend a depth chart stacked full with returning contributors.
We all knew Justin Yoon would handle kicking duties. But joining Yoon on the field will be running back Josh Adams, cornerback Nick Coleman and wide receivers C.J. Sanders and Equanimeous St. Brown.
Something not quite sitting right? It’s probably because Kelly managed to forget about a guy who is nearly six-foot-seven and 305 pounds.
Kelly breezed right by freshman defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, who after spending spring football working exclusively with the first team, does act, play or have the expectations of a first-year player. Sharing duties with sophomore Daniel Cage, Tillery won’t be in the starting lineup, but will be in a more-than-regular rotation at both tackle positions.
Where does Notre Dame have its most lopsided advantage? Experience.
We just got done talking about the half-dozen freshmen who’ll contribute for Notre Dame on Saturday. Well Texas is in the middle of a youth movement, with the Longhorn’s week one depth chart featuring 24 true or redshirt freshmen, including four true freshmen starters.
That group includes true freshmen at left tackle and right guard, with Connor Williams and Patrick Vahe getting their first look at college football. That bodes well for Brian VanGorder’s chaos-based scheme and getting Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell off to a quick start. Also starting is true freshman wide receiver John Burt and middle linebacker (and former All-Everything recruit) Malik Jefferson.
Compare that to Notre Dame’s experience, with 10 returning starters on defense and 10 players having started at least 14 games on the Irish roster. You’ve got to think that this is a sizable advantage for Notre Dame.
For Harry Hiestand’s offensive line, it’s time to show that they’re capable of starting strong and dominating a talented unit.
The strength of the Longhorn defense is up front. Defensive tackles Hassan Ridgeway and Poona Ford both have high upsides. Nose guard Desmond Jackson and strong-side defensive end Shiro Davis are rare seniors on a team filled with kids.
We spent nine long months talking up Notre Dame’s performance in the Music City Bowl, especially in the running game. But led by Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, this offensive line has to prove from game one that they’re capable of dictating terms at the line of scrimmage.
That just hasn’t been the case in previous seasons. While I’m throwing out the Rice game and Notre Dame’s opening win against Temple the season before, when faced with a Power 5 opponent, September has been abysmally slow-rolling.
The Irish’s 31-0 shutout victory over Michigan? It masked the mediocrity Notre Dame displayed on the ground, running for just 54 yards on 31 carries. A week later, the Irish only averaged 3.7 yards per carry on 38 attempts against a Purdue team that won just three games and only beat Illinois in Big Ten play.
This wasn’t just a 2014 thing, but rather an evergreen problem for the Irish offensive line. In 2013, the Irish’s slow start forced Notre Dame to run only 19 times against Michigan in a disappointing loss, but a week later they managed to escape late against Purdue with three fourth-quarter touchdowns, only running for 91 yards on 37 carries.
Stacked box, sold-out defense, whatever. This football team is built to run the football.
And while Zaire’s solid performance against LSU will make just about every defensive coordinator in America show some difficult run looks up front, it’s time for one of Notre Dame’s best front fives in recent memory to dominate anyway.
In a flashy non-conference match-up, Notre Dame and Texas share some history, and are playing for a place in unique place in the record books.
As you might expect when two of the traditional powers in college football match up, the historians sharpen their pencils and pay attention. And with 15 consensus national championships between the two programs, there’s plenty of glitz and glamor taking the field when Notre Dame and Texas sprint out of the tunnel.
Notre Dame holds a sizable edge in the series, leading 8-2, including a four-game winning streak that started with the Irish’s 1977 Cotton Bowl victory that clinched a national title. Texas beat the Irish in the 1969 Cotton Bowl and only once before in a 7-6 showdown way back in 1934.
But the 11th matchup between these two programs is also for a place in the record books. Notre Dame sits second in college football history at 882 all-time victories with Texas right behind at 881. So second place is on the line on Saturday night.
No, I didn’t forget Notre Dame’s edge on Michigan for winningest program in college football (by winning percentage) inched ahead after Jim Harbaugh lost his Wolverine coaching debut to Utah. But Notre Dame needs to hold serve with a victory or let Charlie Strong pull the Longhorns even.
For both Jarrett Grace and KeiVarae Russell, the long road back ends on Saturday.
Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace will return to the football field Saturday night, the end of a very long and difficult journey that started when Grace shattered his leg into multiple pieces in Notre Dame’s 2013 Shamrock Series victory over Arizona State. So when the fifth-year contributor takes the field, he’ll do so 700 days after his career was thrown into chaos. You can’t blame Kelly for putting the fifth-year leader on the Irish kick coverage team. Grace wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but running down the field on the very first play of the 2015 season.
Kelly talked about Grace’s return on Thursday, mentioning that he probably spent more time in the Cincinnati native’s hospital room than any other player in his 25 years as a coach. And while Grace finds himself in a different scheme and place in the depth chart from where he was when he was Notre Dame’s leading tackler at the time of his injury, Kelly said that Grace is all the way back when it comes to speed and explosion, amazing considering the head coach acknowledged that he wasn’t sure if the linebacker would ever play again.
Switching places on the defense, Saturday marks KeiVarae Russell’s return to Notre Dame Stadium. Russell’s exodus was courtesy of a self-inflicted mistake, but the senior cornerback more than paid his dues, coming back a better person and player after a year home in Washington. And frankly, after watching Everett Golson and Greg Bryant take the first train out of town when things didn’t look to be going in their favor, there’s a lot of nobility in Russell owning up to the mistake he made.
But now the senior cornerback needs to do much more than that. He needs to dominate on the field like he has on the image-rehabilitation circuit. He needs to show that the box-jumping and weight-lifting he chronicled on social media last year will allow him to jump back into the world of college football and fulfill his destiny of potentially being a first-round NFL draft pick.
Two Notre Dame football players, two very different ways back to the field. Welcome back, boys.
With a strong recruiting surge, some roster shuffling and some good luck (and hard work) in the health department, Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was rebuilt remarkably quickly. A season after question marks were everywhere, the Irish have a linebacking group that is among the fastest and most athletic we’ve seen in a very long time.
With an All-American star and a returning MVP as its heartbeat, new position coach Mike Elston is working with a group of talented and veteran players. They are also the key to the defense’s success against a schedule that features a variety of offenses and two difficult option opponents.
Let’s take our last look at the linebackers before the season opens this weekend.
LINEBACKERS Position Coach: Mike Elston
OPENING DEPTH CHART
Mike: Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph.
or: Jarrett Grace, Grad Student
Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr.
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr.
OLB: James Onwualu, Jr.
OLB: Greer Martini, Soph.
Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman
Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s most talented defender is ready to take a step forward and play dominant football. After a strong preseason camp and an offseason dedicated to improving key pieces of his game, Smith looks poised to match his world-class athleticism with a better grasp of the Notre Dame defense. Just as important, he’s ready to lead from the front, named a team captain, the only junior of the five wearing the ‘C.’
Capable of being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher and also an elite cover man, Smith can do so many things to help the Irish defense. In what is likely his final season in South Bend, dominance—and a full stat sheet—are just the beginning for him. Willing the defense to a complete performance is another.
NEED A BIG SEASON
Joe Schmidt. The team’s returning MVP and the captain who is the alpha of the unit, Schmidt’s Cinderella story is done and told. Now he needs to be an overly productive middle linebacker, building on a great first season in the starting lineup.
Schmidt’s injury was essentially the beginning of the end for Notre Dame’s defense last season. Now that he’s healthy, it’s even more important for him to take the core basics that allowed him to excel last season and use them to play championship-level football.
Schmidt’s limited physically. But no more than 30 or 40 other middle linebackers in the country, including Scooby Wright, Arizona’s all-everything performer. So it’s time to take the focus off of his size and two-star pedigree.
Schmidt runs well, he’s got plenty of heft at 235 well-sculpted pounds and he’s got a brilliant football mind. Now he’s got to learn how to impact a game more, making plays behind the line of scrimmage in addition to anchoring the unit in the huddle.
THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…
Where will Jaylon Smith spend most of his time? Yes, Smith is still listed as the starter at the Will linebacker spot. But there’s no doubt that Notre Dame will play Smith everywhere, hoping to get him into positions where he can best impact the game.
If Smith shifts outside, what does that do for James Onwualu? If the Irish need to go bigger against triple-option teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, who slides into the middle? One thing seems clear, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But mixing and matching around him is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that’ll only be revealed once the games start.
How will Notre Dame’s linebackers adapt to the up-tempo attacks? It’s great to have versatile pieces of depth. But if you can’t run them on and off the field, you’re only as good as the three guys you have on the field.
On paper, the depth chart looks great. Onwualu is the perfect outside linebacker for teams trying to spread the Irish out. Greer Martini has more mass, capable of holding up in the trenches if team’s try to go big against the Irish. Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan will each have specific jobs in different packages.
But a versatile collection of weapons doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get them out of the holster.
How can this defense optimize their personnel? I’m not sure how you do it, but I think it starts with Jaylon Smith. From there, it’s hard to see a grouping that doesn’t include Joe Schmidt. After that, Notre Dame’s defense will likely view the third linebacker as a swing piece, deciding if Onwualu is a better fit than Matthias Farley or an additional defensive back.
The loss of freshman Shaun Crawford likely tweaks this formula. So does the move of KeiVarae Russell to the slot and Devin Butler to the outside in nickel. It’s easy to see a Schmidt-Smith pairing, but beyond that, finding how best to use the linebackers is going to be key.
THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS
Can this group hold up against the run? A former walk-on, a converted wide receiver and Jaylon Smith walk into a bar…
I’m at a loss for the punch line right now, but with the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle, Notre Dame’s undersized linebacking corps lost a very important protective barrier as this unit looks to be stout against the run.
In 2014, before the rash of injuries the Irish were tough to run against. And while Daniel Cage was praised on Tuesday afternoon by Kelly for his work in the trenches, calling on Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery to play the nose and stuff the point of attack is a step backwards from a senior like Jones. There’s no questioning this group’s athleticism. But the war in the trenches will be one to watch.
Is Te’von Coney ready? A lot of freshmen have been discussed this August. But Te’von Coney has flown under the radar, interesting considering he’s in the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith.
Sure, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But he’s also not a full-time Will linebacker, either. So we’ll have to figure out if Coney’s just a plug-in name on a weekly release or a part of the plans on the inside. The Irish know they have contributors in Grace and Nyles Morgan, but having one in Coney would be impressive, too.
Is it crazy to believe that this group can be elite? Nightmares from November continue to run through my head. Watching Jaylon Smith get stuck behind a cavalcade of blockers against USC as the Trojans just ran the ball through Notre Dame’s injury-ravaged defense isn’t forgotten. Even in the Irish’s improbable victory over LSU, Leonard Fournette got his 2016 Heisman campaign started early, averaging 13 yards a carry as the Tigers ran for 285 yards and 7.5 a carry.
Yet the personnel at this position is talented, physical and extremely athletic. They don’t resemble the group that ran around like chickens with their heads cut off late last season. So while it’s tough to forget a terrible run of football that saw Notre Dame give up an average of 39.8 points a game over the final eight games of the year, this group looks really good both on paper and in practice.
His long road back after a catastrophic injury has been well-discussed. Now Jarrett Grace gets to the fun part—finding his way back to the middle of the Irish defense.
The fifth-year linebacker looked primed to be the heir apparent to Manti Te’o entering 2013. But a shattered leg and Joe Schmidt’s ascent made that impossible. Now Grace will play a critical role in the Irish defense, regardless of if he’s on the field or off.
The Cincinnati product injected immediate enthusiasm into spring practice, his first work with the team after multiple surgeries and a grueling rehabilitation process. Now Grace is in the middle of a packed linebacker depth chart, with the veteran still working his way back to the new normal, running on a leg that should be attached to the Terminator, not a college linebacker.
When he takes the field against Texas, Grace will be proving so many wrong who thought his career ended that fateful evening against Arizona State in 2013. (And it very well should have.) But there’s more to accomplish for one of Notre Dame’s most impressive student-athletes.
Let’s dig in.
JARRETT GRACE 6’2.5″, 253 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 59, LB
Grace picked Notre Dame over Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Alabama and Stanford, a victory for a coach who desperately needed a big-bodied athlete like Grace to man the interior of Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system.
Grace may not have been a true blue-chipper by recruiting analysts’ standards, but his offer list certainly was elite.
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.
Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, serving as Manti Te’o’s backup while anchoring Notre Dame’s special teams. He made 12 tackles, 10 on special teams, including eight on kickoff coverage.
Junior Season (2013): Played in the season’s first six games, leading the team in tackles at the time of his injury against Arizona State. Had split starting duties with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. Notre Dame’s Rockne Scholar Athlete.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Last spring, Grace underwent another surgery to help his leg—swapping out a steel rod that wasn’t quite taking. That all but meant the 2014 season was a goner, even if the official word out of Brian Kelly was hopeful.
Still, give credit to the athletic training staff that Grace is able to complete this comeback. I hinted at their role in this recovery last season, and Grace has publicly talked about the support he’s received as well.
There’s no player you should root for more to come back from injury than Grace. The team’s Rockne scholar-athlete of the year in 2013, Grace has all the leadership traits you could ask for in a football player, and has immense respect in the team’s locker room, earned while waiting his turn to play behind Manti Te’o for two seasons.
If this was five years ago, I suspect Grace would already be facing a medical hardship waiver and his football career in South Bend would be over. But the team’s enhanced medical staff and willingness to go above and beyond for its student-athletes with cutting edge rehabilitation techniques gives Grace the best chance he could possibly ask for to return from this injury.
While a return for the season opener against Rice is the goal, giving Grace a full calendar year to return isn’t unreasonable. If that means getting him back for the stretch run, it’s better than most should have expected. Notre Dame has a good experience on their side in the return of Torii Hunter from a freak bone break. But even that came after a setback in recovery, necessitating a redshirt 2013 season.
Grace is a senior with two years of competition remaining. So while the timing for the injury is unfortunate, getting anything out of the linebacker this season would be a huge bonus for Grace and the Irish.
At this point, we just need to see how Grace looks when he’s back on the field. We’ve heard repeatedly from Brian Kelly how well Grace’s recovery is going, but at the same time we’ve also heard that there’s still work to be done before Grace is back to his full explosiveness.
It’s hard not to think of former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich when you talk about Grace. Herzlich heroically returned from bone cancer in his leg and just recently signed a new two-year deal with the New York Giants.
Grace wasn’t the standout that Herzlich was when he got injured, but he had the potential to be that good. If Grace can fully recover and salvage an NFL career after some dark, dark days, it’d be a tremendous story and a credit to a very impressive kid.
Are you going to doubt Grace? Because I sure don’t want to. That being said, how he fits into the puzzle remains to be seen.
You have to assume Joe Schmidt returns to the middle of the Irish defense. He was the mental hub of the unit in 2014, and his departure all but coincided with the demise of the unit. Throw in a promising young linebacker in Nyles Morgan, and Grace is competing for playing time with two very good linebackers.
Setting aside Grace’s recovery—which is the ultimate barometer—where Notre Dame uses Jaylon Smith will likely dictate how much time Grace gets in packages. If Smith is shifting in and out and being utilized in the pass rush, Grace can play in the middle. And if Schmidt can cross-train at will, Grace and his size/reach advantage can hold ground at the mike spot.
Even if Grace plays a role similar to the one Cam McDaniel did as a senior captain, he’ll help the defense improve by just being in uniform and filling a leadership role. But if he’s healthy, Grace’s ceiling is so much higher than just spot duty, so here’s hoping that he gets some of the spoils that he richly deserves.
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 nextto 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)
*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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.