Notre Dame’s most athletic group of linebackers in years has been led by All-American candidate Jaylon Smith. Just as he did last season, Smith has filled up the stat sheet, while also managing to make that the least impressive thing he’s done on the field.
Behind him, the play has been good and bad. Captain Joe Schmidt may very well be the nerve center of the Irish defense, but he’s struggled at times making tackles and being in position. James Onwualu and Greer Martini have exceeded expectations.
Against the option, the Irish turned to Martini, who played incredibly productive football in a difficult situation. While Onwualu has shown himself once again to be the type of dependable athlete that the Irish staff can count on in space. But even he was subbed out for Jarrett Grace when the Irish needed to add some bulk against Navy, the fifth-year senior getting a shot after nearly two years of recovery time.
This group’s best football is still ahead of it. For Smith, that’s a scary proposition. For the rest of the linebackers? It’s playing to the bar this coaching staff has set for them. Let’s take a closer look at Mike Elston’s position group through seven games.
MVP: Jaylon Smith
No, it’s not particularly close. Smith has answered most of his critics by doing a much better job in the trenches and being a tremendously sound tackler. That’s allowed him to use his cheetah-like athleticism to run down plays and also be PFF’s No. 2 rated OLB in a 4-3.
Smith hasn’t made the impact as a pass rusher that we maybe thought he would earlier in preseason camp. But that’s mostly been because he’s been so useful in pass coverage. A key prospect in the eyes of NFL personnel men, Smith might be playing his final half-dozen games in a Notre Dame uniform. If he is, let’s hope Smith goes out on top.
Needs to Improve: Joe Schmidt
All the wonderful leadership attributes and mental abilities don’t take away from what the game tape is telling us (or at least PFF). Schmidt’s struggles have been notable, and he’s having one of the worst graded seasons of any inside linebacker in college football.
There’s more to it than just the numbers. Schmidt hasn’t had the easiest assignments with two option teams mixed in with athletic offenses like Clemson and USC. Add to that the physical limitation that comes with playing through a broken thumb.
But with Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini and Jarrett Grace all on the sidelines, Schmidt needs to clean up his game. As it’s been mentioned a few dozen-too-many times, Schmidt’s physical limitations make it imperative that he plays as close to assignment perfect as possible. That hasn’t necessarily been the case and the results have hurt the Irish.
Sneaky Productive: James Onwualu & Greer Martini
If you were surprised that Jaylon Smith graded out as the No. 2 OLB in a 4-3 system in college football you’d be really surprised that not that far down the list behind him was James Onwualu. The second-year linebacker, who started his freshman season as a wide receiver ranks as PFF’s No. 15 OLB. That’s really impressive for a guy most had pushed out of the rotation.
Martini’s game just gets better the more you watch him play. He’s an instinctive guy who knows how to do his job. You see that as he thrives against option competition. Physically, he’s got the type of skills that fit in the middle of the defense. It’ll be quite a competition in life after Smith and Schmidt as the next group of defenders fight for starting jobs in 2016. While most assume Nyles Morgan slides inside, Martini is too good of a football player to stay off the field.