Josh Barajas

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Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

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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.

 

DEPARTURES
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

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

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.

Last looks: Linebackers

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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.

Additional Depth:

Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman

 

LEADING MAN

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.

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

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Josh Barajas

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Incoming freshman Josh Barajas enters Notre Dame with great expectations. Viewed as one of the state of Indiana’s top prospects, the Irish won a tough recruiting battle with Penn State, flipping Barajas back to the Irish—a place where he looked like a perfect fit all along.

With length and speed, Barajas needs to add some bulk to his frame. And while he’s not quite at the level of a Jaylon Smith when it comes to freakish traits, Barajas has the type of playmaking skills that have many thinking he could be the next great linebacker to come through the pipeline.

Brian VanGorder’s system demands an outside linebacker with both speed and length. Barajas looks to have both of those traits, and he’ll look to use them as soon as possible.

 

JOSH BARAJAS
6’3″, 220 lbs.
Freshman, No. 30, OLB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American. Consensus 4-Star player. All-State Indiana, with 247 viewing him as the state’s top prospect. Barajas more than held his own in San Antonio, his first national exposure as a football player.

Had offers from Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Oregon among others.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

Athletically, Barajas fits the sweet spot in the size-speed-athleticism matrix. And from the sound of Brian Kelly’s signing day comments, he profiles nicely when you compare him to athletes like Nyles Morgan and Jaylon Smith, not exactly bad comps.

“I think he possesses a lot of the same physical traits: Speed, the ability to arrive with a violent collision. He’s just a physical player and that size and power is a unique trait. It’s very similar to what you mentioned in Nyles and Jaylon,” Kelly said.

“So he’s got similar traits, similar qualities, and we’re going to progress him just like we did with those two guys. We’ll see how much he can handle, and as much as he can handle is as much as we’ll give him.”

Again, even the best freshman middle linebacker recruit in the country struggled and looked lost at times last year. But the fact that Barajas is an edge player might be an advantage to seeing the field early.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

When a team returns the majority of its defense, it’s always difficult to see how a freshman fits into the equation before ever actually seeing him on the field. But in Barajas’ case, his versatility could be a great piece in sub-packages, and certainly could lead to him seeing the field on coverage units.

While he doesn’t have the look of a pass rusher, you’ve got to wonder if the departure of Bo Wallace might allow the Irish staff to kick the tires on Barajas as a hand-on-the-ground pass rusher. It’s a move that got Kolin Hill on the field as a freshman, and most believe that Barajas is at least as good of an athlete.

Ultimately, the 2015 season looks like one where just about every freshman defender will be hoping to earn a bit role in the larger unit. That’s likely the plan for Barajas, who needs to gain some weight before he’s big enough to survive in the trenches.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB

Faxes in: Josh Barajas

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JOSH BARAJAS
Valparaiso, IN

Measurables: 6’3″, 215

Accolades: U.S. Army All-American, All-USA Indiana linebacker, consensus 4-star prospect, All-State 3A, Defensive Player of the Year by Times of Northwest Indiana.

Impressive Offers: Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State

 

Quick Take: Barajas was a terrific addition to the Irish recruiting class, battled away from Penn State after a surprising commitment to James Franklin’s staff early. Barajas was always a highly touted recruit, but only after he took part in the All-Star festivities in San Antonio did he truly get some looks among the national elite.

Barajas is too light right now to be a in-the-box linebacker, but he could be the prototype for what Brian VanGorder is looking for at the Sam linebacker spot. He’s a top-shelf athlete that’ll do his best to fight his way onto the field as a freshman, especially if he’s a quick study in the defense.

 

What he means to the Irish: Defending the home turf is crucial and landing Barajas is a big part of that. It also brings an elite defensive player into a depth chart that’s still evolving at linebacker. He’ll likely be a large part of the team’s DNA once Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt are gone.

Looking for an interesting test case? Let’s see how much weight Barajas gains during his first year in the program. I’ll set the over/under at 25 pounds.

 

Obligatory YouTube Video: Here’s Barajas laying the wood at linebacker for his Andrean squad as a senior:

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Irish flip blue-chip LB Josh Barajas

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One of Notre Dame’s top linebacking prospects is in the fold after the Irish out-dueled Penn State. Josh Barajas, one of Indiana’s best prep players, has verbally committed to Notre Dame, backing away from a pledge to James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.

The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has offers from Michigan, Ohio State, Tennessee, Wisconsin and other top schools. He had been one of Notre Dame’s top linebacking targets until he made a surprise commitment to Penn State after a visit.

But the Irish coaching staff didn’t give up on Barajas. According to Andrean High School coach Phil Mason, defensive line coach Mike Elston stayed in contact with the coach, continuing his recruitment until Barajas realized he was a better fit at Notre Dame.

Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated explains:

The move to Notre Dame began when Barajas reached out to Mason in mid-May to express second thoughts about his decision to commit to Penn State. Barajas was unclear if Notre Dame would still be interested in taking his pledge after hosting him for a junior day in early March, at which point it seemed the Irish held a strong lead for his services.

“He said, ‘Coach, do you think Notre Dame would still be interested in me?'” Mason told Irish Illustrated. “Coach (Mike) Elston has stayed in contact with me throughout the process. I will give Notre Dame a lot of credit. They stayed very professional. They didn’t do anything to persuade him. They stayed very much out of the picture and let Josh make the decision.”

Barajas plans to visit South Bend this summer, likely heading to campus for the Irish Invasion camp. He’s an early Top-250 prospect on just about every recruiting board, though several services will get a better look at him in the coming weeks as some national camps begin.

For the Irish’s recruiting efforts, Barajas is a huge get. He’s the new prototype outside linebacker for Brian VanGorder, a speed player who will add bulk to an already nice frame. With the Irish still in a battle with Urban Meyer for Cincinnati linebacker Justin Hilliard, landing Barajas is a huge step towards filling the position with some of the top players on their recruiting board.

After reading various reports, it’s pretty obvious that both Barajas’ family and his high school coach were in Notre Dame’s corner. Mason told IrishSportsDaily.com the following about how the change of events went down:

“He called Penn State last night and he called Notre Dame this morning,” Mason said. “My conversation with Josh was, ‘Josh, this is it. You’ve got to be sure now.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Coach, I’m sure.’

“I said, ‘Good. I’m not sure how you couldn’t be. I would have done anything to play at that university. I think when you say college football, if Notre Dame isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind, I don’t know what it is.’”

Barajas is Notre Dame’s ninth commitment in the 2015 class. He joins safeties Nico Fertitta and Prentice McKinney on the defensive side of the ball.

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