Tag: Joe Schmidt

Kris Boyd, Josh Adams

Injuries mean opportunities for young talent



Notre Dame lost Tarean Folston on his third carry of the season, with the junior running back tearing his ACL within the first 10 minutes of the season. The injury hurts the Irish depth chart, taking a frontline player from a position group that already was thin on numbers and experience.

Folston’s injury is the second one of Notre Dame’s building blocks to go down. The Irish already lost Jarron Jones in preseason camp, the starting defensive tackle rolled up in a pile and done for the year, erasing a large piece of experience (and talent) in the trenches.

But injuries happen. And while Irish fans thinking back on last season’s injury-plagued demise are likely looking over their shoulder, Brian Kelly‘s team soldiers on.

So a program that’s long held the tenet “Next Man In” will call on the credo one more time, with the sixth-year head coach ready to show that injuries also create opportunities.

After all, before there was KeiVarae Russell, there was serious worries about how the Irish would replace cornerback Lo Wood. Russell would’ve likely never played on the defensive side of the ball had it not been for an Achilles injury to Wood, paired with the preseason departure of Tee Shepard.

Don’t forget Joe Schmidt. Notre Dame’s captain and underdog story might just be another special teams ace if not for the injury to Jarrett Grace and depth issues plaguing Bob Diaco’s 2013 unit.

A football coach likely knows the best way to make God laugh—tell him your (preseason) plans. So while the on-paper team we saw coming together this offseason is already off course, the Irish coaching staff was likely expecting the unexpected. That’s why Kelly and his assistant coaches are spending today preaching a new lesson to the bottom-half of a very talented roster.

“We have some young guys that we think are still capable of playing for us that are down on the depth chart a little bit. They kind of have that look like, well, I may never get out of this position that I’m in,” Kelly said after the game on Saturday.

“I told our coaches, it’s important that you go to these guys on Monday and let them know, they are probably going to get an opportunity to play this year. And to continue to work with them and continue to build their confidence that when we call on you, be ready, because we think we have some depth that may have to play for us and they are quality players.”

Those plans likely include activating Dexter Williams, a running back that in an ideal situation may have saved a year of eligibility. They include a tag-team at defensive tackle with sophomore Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery, and likely snaps from guys further down the depth chart, especially with Georgia Tech right around the corner.

Notre Dame’s work on the recruiting trail, and Kelly’s six-year efforts to rework the Irish roster are taking hold. And that will allow a talented freshman class that looked ready to wait its turn push for every opportunity it can get.

“Any top-notch football program has to be able to call on some of these freshmen players that have the mental and physical—and I underline the mental, as well as the physical ability—to come in and compete right away, because it creates competition within your program that rises all ships,” Kelly said. “And that means the upperclassmen, as well.”

We’ve seen that in the secondary, where junior cornerback Devin Butler fought his way into the lineup as the unlikely outside cornerback in nickel situations. We’ve also likely seen DeShone Kizer take a step forward, noticing the talent of freshman Brandon Wimbush. That applies to all positions across the board.

Josh Adams has made my two veteran running backs better, because of his level of play, and that’s across the board. Equanimeous St. Brown has made Will Fuller better,” Kelly said.

“So when you get a freshman class like that that can come in and compete and play at that level, those kids see it. Those veteran kids see it, and it really drives them to be better players. And I think it’s a very, very important factor.”

Right now, you talent like Nick Coleman is making his impact on special teams. Same with Te’von Coney. But that’ll change in the coming weeks, as the Irish are forced to call on their depth as the schedule stiffens until the Irish play USC in mid-October before taking a well-earned week off.

“We like the guys we’ve got. That’s football,” Kelly said, when asked about how he moves forward without his starting running back. “We’re certainly disappointed for Tarean. He’s worked so hard to get where he is. But that’s the nature—there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s why you try to develop the depth in your program.”


Last looks: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

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.


Position Coach: Mike Elston



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.

Additional Depth:

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.



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.



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.



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.

Now let’s see what happens when the games start.




Irish A-to-Z: Joe Schmidt

Purdue v Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s returning MVP, Joe Schmidt is no longer just an underdog story. He’s one of the most important pieces in the Irish defense, the central nervous system for a defense that collapsed without him in the middle.

Coming off a major injury and returning to a depth chart filled with options, Schmidt has another reason for skeptics to doubt him. And that might be the best thing to happen to him since breaking his ankle against Navy.

Let’s take a look at the former Cinderella story, readying for his final season in a Notre Dame career we’ll remember for decades.


6’0.5″, 235 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 38, LB



Schmidt was a recruited walk-on (I know, it’s been discussing), joining the Notre Dame program after turning down scholarship offers from smaller programs. Schmidt was a three-year letter winner and starter at Mater Dei High School, a Southern California powerhouse.

You want RKG? You’re not finding a bigger one that Schmidt.



Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2012): Played in the season’s final 10 games, making mostly special teams appearances. Credited with six tackles, two coming against USC in the regular season finale.

Junior Season (2013): Played in all 13 games, making 15 tackles while receiving spot duty at inside linebacker. After injuries hit the defense, Schmidt played a key role late in the season, forcing a critical pass break-up against USC that helped cement a defensive victory.

Senior Season (2014): Started the first eight games of the season at middle linebacker before an injury ended his season. Named Notre Dame’s Most Valuable Player, collecting 65 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions. Had a season-high 11 tackles against North Carolina and had eight against Navy before being injured in the second quarter.



I feel very good about this prediction.

Get ready to see a very productive linebacker. Capable of running down plays and excellent in coverage, Schmidt’s the type of player who may not have a future on Sundays but will certainly be productive on the field.

Talking with Schmidt earlier this week, it’s clear that he’s a born leader with a lot of sway in the locker room. He’s also an unselfish player, talking about the pride he takes in making sure fellow linebacker James Onwualu is lined up correctly or helping to put Jaylon Smith in a position that helps him make plays.

Schmidt will have his hands full, as the Irish implement a system that’s an NFL scheme. But I expect him to finish in the Top 3 in tackles this season, and play very good defense against the pass.



No, Schmidt’s not going to wow you with his physical traits. (Maybe the linebacker was wearing wedges when he stood in front of the yard-stick when the measured him at over six-foot.) But Schmidt is a high IQ, productive linebacker, capable of making the ordinary play as well as a few that were much better than that.

The MVP Award is perhaps the most telling piece of evidence when you consider the linebacker’s worth. He also made Jaylon Smith a much better football player and teammate, forcing the more talented athlete to play within the framework of the defense, something he didn’t do when Schmidt went down.

If there’s a question in Schmidt’s game, it’s the inability to make more big plays. Through eight games, Schmidt had just .5 TFLs. Lost as he was as a replacement, Nyles Morgan simply talented his way to seven times that amount.

There’s versatility in Schmidt’s game that could allow him to slide to the Will linebacker position if Morgan shows he’s capable of handling the starting job on the inside. But all of this presupposes that Schmidt’s healthy and fully ready to contribute after a fairly serious injury. We’ll know the status of that soon enough, as Schmidt will once again hold the keys to a successful defense.



Barring a health issue, it’s still hard for me to imagine Schmidt coming off the field in 2015. We saw what kind of tire fire this defense looked like without Schmidt helping get people aligned. And while Morgan’s more athletic and Jaylon Smith sure isn’t coming off the field, Schmidt is the key to making sure both guys are positionally sound in a scheme that was exploited at times last season when too many players were freelancing.

(That might be too kind, freelancing usually assumes some level of mastery.)

An undersized linebacker who relies on his speed and athleticism can’t afford a bad foot. So if Schmidt opens camp at less than full speed, it’s certainly worth watching, not to mention worrying about. But outside of health, it’s going to take a brick wall to slow Schmidt down during his final season in South Bend. And as the team’s unquestioned leader on defense, he’ll serve as the heartbeat of a unit that needs to rebound after a miserable stretch of football.


THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL
Quenton Nelson, OL
Tyler Newsome, P
Romeo Okwara, DE
James Onwualu, LB
C.J. Prosise, WR/RB
Doug Randolph, LB/DE
Max Redfield, S
Corey Robinson, WR
Trevor Ruhland, OL
CJ Sanders, WR





Counting down the Irish: 15-11

Rice v Notre Dame

For those getting caught up, start here. Then, check out the players who just missed the cut. Our rankings start with No. 25-21


What a difference a day makes. Just 48 hours into our rollout and Notre Dame announces it’ll be without our No. 24 player on the list, running back Greg Bryant. Already lost for the first third of the season, Bryant’s inability to handle his business in the classroom adds another detour to a promising football career that may never get back on course.

But for as important as Bryant may be on paper, he was essentially Notre Dame’s No. 3 running back. So for all the five-star hopes, if this is “the big preseason story” that usually collides with Brian Kelly’s team in its opening days, the Irish should feel lucky.

Now back to the players eligible in 2015…

After looking at five experienced players who’ll help make up the core of the Irish, our next five players found ways to either play very good football, or at least show the ability to be able to do that.

There’s a multi-year starter. One of the team’s most impressive breakout defenders. A preseason All-American and a defender who—if healthy—has the same ceiling. And oh yeah, the team’s returning MVP.



25. Jerry Tillery, DL
24. Greg Bryant, RB
23. Durham Smythe, TE
22. Matthias Farley, DB
21. Quenton Nelson, LG
20. Nyles Morgan, LB

19. Chris Brown, WR
18. Elijah Shumate, S
17. Corey Robinson, WR
16. Mike McGlinchey, OT


Purdue v Notre Dame
Purdue v Notre DameMichael Hickey/Getty Images

15. Steve Elmer (RG, Junior): Elmer started last season at right tackle, a tough fit for a young player who had just learned how to play guard on the fly. While he’s certainly got the size to play on the edge, Elmer’s body control sometimes let him down, lunging his way out of position and missing—sometimes badly—on blocks.

But after three games, Elmer slid back inside to guard and his play almost immediately improved. And while there were still some high-profile rough patches, by season’s end Elmer had put together an impressive sophomore season, and found a permanent home at guard.

With NFL size and above-average athleticism, Elmer seems primed to have an elite season. He’s a high IQ played and with the chance to play two-straight seasons next to Mike McGlinchey, the right side of the Irish offensive line has really nice upside.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 18th.


Keenan Reynolds, Isaac Rochell
Keenan Reynolds, Isaac RochellAP Photo/Alex Brandon

14. Isaac Rochell (DE, Junior): It looked like Notre Dame was going to have a huge question mark at defensive end last season when Rochell stepped into the starting lineup. While Brian Kelly sounded confident with his praise during preseason that Rochell could capably replace Ishaq Williams, it was hard to project greatness for Rochell after a mostly anonymous freshman season where he filled in sparingly.

But Rochell’s play up front was probably the best surprise on the defense. He held up well against the run. He made plays behind the line of scrimmage—with 7.5 TFLs and 10 quarterback hurries. But most important? He stayed healthy. On a defense that seemed to lose a body every game down the stretch, Rochell started all 13.

Where’s the pass rush going to come from in 2015? Why not Rochell? A three-down player who can kick inside on third down if Brian VanGorder wants to put some speed on the edge, Rochell has already shown the productivity of his more heralded teammate Sheldon Day, and he’s still just scratching the surface.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: 22nd.


Notre Dame v Arizona State
Notre Dame v Arizona StateChristian Petersen/Getty Images

13. Max Redfield (S, Junior): As you can see from the variance in ballots, the jury is still out on Redfield. When Notre Dame’s junior safety was named to Phil Steele’s All-American team, a few Irish fans chuckled. That certainly wasn’t the safety who got benched for a one-armed Austin Collinsworth and true freshman Drue Tranquill.

But Redfield salvaged last season against LSU. After hurting his ribs against USC, Redfield came back and played a productive football game, notching 14 tackles for a defense that badly needed support from its safeties.

One of the best athletes on the team, we heard this spring that the lightbulb turned on for the former five-star recruit. Checking in at No. 13, it’s pretty clear that this is still very much a wait-and-see proposition for this group, though it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Redfield takes a big leap forward in his second season playing in VanGorder’s system. For the sake of the defense, they need Redfield to do it.

Highest Ranking: 8th. Lowest Ranking: Unranked (one ballot).


Joe Schmidt
Joe SchmidtAP Photo/Joe Raymond, File

12. Joe Schmidt (LB, Grad Student): Again, our panel had a big difference of opinion on Notre Dame’s returning Team MVP. Some (me included) had him among the team’s top players. That was based on both above-average productivity as well as the mental part of Schmidt’s game that kept the defense on the same page.

Yet others see Schmidt for what he is: An undersized veteran who is surrounded by athletes at his position that look and fit the role of a middle linebacker better. Add in a more-serious-than-discussed ankle and leg injury, and Schmidt’s road back to the starting lineup may not be as difficult as the one that got him there to begin with, but it’s no easy stroll.

Ultimately, Schmidt’s production tipped the scales to allow him to sneak into the top half of our 25-man list. But as the personnel on this roster continues to improve, Schmidt’s ceiling may not match with the best players on this team, so he’ll have to continue to find a way to maximize his performance.

Highest Ranking: 5th. Lowest Ranking: 25th.


North Carolina v Notre Dame
North Carolina v Notre DameJonathan Daniel/Getty Images


11. Jarron Jones (DL, Senior): If Jones wasn’t coming off a late-season foot injury, you could probably expect him to be closer to top-five than just outside the top ten. But then again, we’re still at a point in Jones’ career where the sample size is still relatively small.

For as dominant as Jones was against Florida State, Notre Dame’s senior defensive tackle is still learning the tricks of the trade. That stems from a slow start after a redshirt season spent at defensive end and a sophomore season only saved by an emergency Senior Day performance at nose tackle after Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke went down.

By nature, Jones is a productive player. While his body is sometimes doing the wrong thing, he has a knack for making plays. He’s dangerous as a kick blocker (it helps to be nearly 6-foot-6). He’s also shown an ability to wreak havoc in the backfield. But at No. 11, it feels like there’s still some worry about his healthy before our panel is assured that Jones is the type of talent who could emerge on the national stage.

Highest Ranking: 7th. Lowest Ranking: 17th.



Our 2015 Irish Top 25 panel
Keith Arnold, Inside the Irish
Bryan DriskellBlue & Gold
Matt Freeman, Irish Sports Daily
Nick Ironside, Irish 247
Tyler James, South Bend Tribune
Michael Bryan, One Foot Down
Pete Sampson, Irish Illustrated
Jude Seymour, Her Loyal Sons
JJ Stankevitz, CSN Chicago
John Vannie, NDNation
John Walters, Newsweek 

Post-spring stock report: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt

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.



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.)



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.