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.