Post-spring stock report: Linebackers

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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.

 

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)

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.)

 

STOCK UP

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.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

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.

 

STOCK DOWN

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.

 

OVERALL TREND

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.

 

 

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter