Making sense of middle linebacker

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It didn’t take an additional surgery to Jarrett Grace‘s broken right leg to turn the inside linebacker job into a big question mark. After having Manti Te’o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese around for the last few years, Irish fans got spoiled having a position that was well stocked with veteran talent.

That’s certainly not the case right now.

Notre Dame’s best inside linebacker is hoping for good news in six weeks after a rod was inserted into his right leg, the after effects of a horrific injury that broke Grace’s fibula in four places. From those that saw Grace limping gingerly last week, it’s no surprise that more surgery was needed. And it’s likely that the Irish coaching staff is already preparing for life without Grace next season.

What does that leave behind? Well — a lot of question marks. But with Brian VanGorder installing a new system, spring was always going to be about building up core competency, not necessarily finding the players that’ll plug a fairly significant hole in the defense.

If some answers have been found, they’ve come from surprising places. First, it’s that former walk-on Joe Schmidt has ascended to the top of the depth chart. Most expect this move to come from Kendall Moore or Michael Deeb, not Schmidt. But the veteran’s grasp of the system and athleticism have made him an essential element on this defense.

But while we try to look into the future and see what exists come August, Brian Kelly did his best to pump the brakes on that exercise this weekend.

“I really think it is really too early to tell where we are at that position,” Kelly said. “I think to use the spring to determine who the middle linebacker is with a lot of new things going in is not something that we’re concerned with at this point. It’ll take time to round itself out. That includes dipping into freshmen that will come in in the fall as well. I think this is a question that is not going to be answered until we move ourselves into the preseason.”

Those freshmen are also an X factor worth considering. Under Bob Diaco, it took injuries to veterans before the defense begrudgingly relied on KeiVarae Russell and Jaylon Smith, the only two consistent freshmen starters of the Kelly era. But with VanGorder now running the defense, it’s too soon to tell how he utilizes freshman, and everything we hear about Nyles Morgan has us believing he’s a very tempting option.

But even identifying Morgan as the best immediate option is foolhardy. Last offseason many expected Greg Bryant to be the blue-chip freshman that instantly impacted the offense. Yet it was Tarean Folston who carried the load down the stretch, a recruiting afterthought for many following along. Nile Sykes will be given every opportunity to walk in and play as well, so expect the Chicagoland prospect to make a name for himself as well.

A four-man front and a defense that’s still building its identity makes the search for inside linebackers less dire than if Diaco’s system was still in place. But as we try and connect the dots during spring drills, the evolving depth chart at the heart of the Irish defense is one worth watching.