The Irish have Sunday off, wrapping up an eight-day stretch of practices for the Irish. After a quick look at the offensive players, let’s flip to the other side of the ball and run through everything that’s happening on the defense.
For appearances, it seems the Irish are locked in to their starting rotation, with Stephon Tuitt at one end, Kapron Lewis-Moore at the other, and Louis Nix sharing the nose tackle duties with Kona Schwenke.
From there, the depth is young, but Chase Hounshell fought his way onto the field last year and Sheldon Day looks good after an impressive spring semester. We may or may not see Jarron Jones this year, but it’s pretty clear the Irish have another intriguing prospect at a position that used to be like Kryptonite to Irish recruiters.
It’s hard not to play the inevitable “What would they look like?” game if their best pass rusher didn’t flee during spring drills, but Brian Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and line coach Mike Elston aren’t looking back.
And for all those worried that the Irish won’t have a game-breaking talent along the defensive line, sophomore Stephon Tuitt seems intent on allaying your fears.
“I expect myself to be an impact player. I’m not going to lie,” Tuitt told reporters on Saturday. “But I’m going to stick to my assignments, stay humble with it, and do it the best way possible to help my defense and to help my team.”
If you’re wondering why many inside the Irish program were relieved to hold on to the massive defender from Georgia, this quote gives you a good idea why.
Even though Carlo Calabrese won’t be traveling with the team to Ireland, it’s clear the coaching staff isn’t treating his absence like they are Tommy Rees’ at quarterback. Calabrese is still splitting No. 1 reps next to All-American Manti Te’o, with he and Dan Fox expected to platoon once again. But after an impressive redshirt season, Jarrett Grace is going work his way onto the field, with the 6-foot-3, 240-pounder showing some impressive physicality. Kendall Moore is also too talented to keep off the field, but until Te’o’s gone, he’ll be working in a reserve role.
On the outside, Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams are the preferred duo at the Cat linebacker position. But the seriousness of Danny Spond‘s injury — one Kelly classified as a non-concussion — has left the Dog linebacker position depth precariously short behind Ben Councell, and Kelly has responded by shifting freshmen Romeo Okwara and CJ Prosise to the position, with the understanding that Shembo can also play there if needed.
You get the feeling that the Irish would like to save the eligibility of Okwara if it can, even if the 6-foot-4, 239-pound 17-year-old has been impressive. It’s also interesting that the Irish picked Prosise, who has been taking reps in the return game, as the guy to move down to linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 208-pounds, Prosise is the second most physically imposing safety on the depth chart, and with a sprinter’s pedigree, he might be an intriguing weapon that close to the line of scrimmage.
After having a roster nearly barren of safeties when this coaching staff arrived, the roster is jammed full of them, giving the staff the flexibility to move certain guys to spots where they can fill a need. We just saw that with Prosise, and last week Kelly also announced that Elijah Shumate would work with the cornerbacks as well.
Early returns on Shumate are incredibly positive, with the New Jersey native a physical specimen that looks like he’s been in Paul Longo’s strength program for years. He’ll fit a need at cornerback (or in the nickel) where Diaco and Kerry Cooks are looking for strong guys that can also run and cover.
At safety, Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta are locked into the starting jobs. The third safety position that would’ve likely been handled by Austin Collinsworth seems to be in the hands of fifth-year vet Dan McCarthy. Athleticism and size have never been a problem for McCarthy, and it’d be great timing for a breakout season, similar to his older brother Kyle, who burst on the scene late in his career.
Bennett Jackson has locked down the boundary corner position that Gary Gray played. But the surprise of camp has been the steady play of Lo Wood. Kelly praised the junior for a great offseason, and it looks as if he’ll hold off Josh Atkinson heading into the Navy game.
“If you ask me after the first five days the guy that’s really impressed the staff the most it’s been Lo Wood,” Kelly said. “He’s 192 pounds up from 178. Breaking on the ball, tackling, communicating.”
There’s confidence in Cam McDaniel if he’s needed to see the field. There’s also hope that Jalen Brown has made strides after a first year spent swimming in the deep end.