Spring Prospectus: Defense

Part II of our position-by-position rundown the Irish during the first stages of spring ball examines the Notre Dame defense...

Below is an early look at the Irish defense for 2013 through the eyes of head coach Brian Kelly.

Click here for Part I and a review of the Irish offense heading into spring ball.

Inside Linebackers

The team's most sparsely populated position group has the tall task of replacing the best middle linebacker at the program in at least two decades.

First in line to fill the massive shoes of Manti Te'o is junior (redshirt-sophomore) Jarrett Grace, though head coach Brian Kelly and his staff don't view the Mike linebacker battle, or any other, for that matter, as do the program's fans.

"I think the way we set things here, there isn't a depth chart," Kelly said. "You don't walk into the locker room and see a depth chart. Does the first group have to go out?  Yes. I think when you talk about the spring, especially when you're coming in and taking over for somebody like Manti, we're going to get the best guys on the field.

"Certainly (Grace) has some experience at the position. It would not surprise me that he becomes a key player for us. But, again, great competition at that position.  It's going to be fun to watch.

Kelly added that Grace is up 13 pounds to 248, and his max bench press increased from nine reps of 225 pounds to 22. Along with senior cornerback Lo Wood and 5th-year senior Tyler Stockton, Kelly offered Grace as one of the winter conditioning sessions defensive leaders.

Aligned next to the Mike starter is the Will linebacker tandem of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. The returning 5th-year pair has combined to start the last 26 games (Fox x) with Calabrese also starting the first eight of his redshirt-season 2010 prior to injury.

Fox is coming off off-season shoulder surgery.

"Dan Fox obviously is a guy we know can play the inside position," Kelly said. "They played two different positions.  We're not looking at Dan Fox playing Mike.  Clearly we have Carlo, (senior) Kendall Moore.  We've got a number of guys that we think can play in there.

"I think it's just going to be, again, setting depth.  You saw us play last year.  We're not just going to play one guy.  Now, Manti was different.  He never came off the field.  But we need two and three deep at these positions.  That's really how we're going to approach the spring."

Moore worked primarily at Mike last season.

Outside Linebackers

The spring unit includes six, with Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, and Anthony Rabasa as Cat (boundary) 'backers; Danny Spond and Ben Councell the Dogs (drop/field side), and Romeo Okwara presumed to be evaluated at both.

"You've got to remember with the Cat position you're going to put your hand down 47 percent of the time," said Kelly when asked about a beefed up Okwara (6'4" 258 after a freshman season at 239 pounds). "It just depends on how you look at it. When you're looking at him, maybe he's standing up all the time, but he'll put his hand down too.

Councell will continue to compete with incumbent Danny Spond on the outside, who was part of off-season speculation for a move to the Mike following Te'o's graduation.

"I don't think so for the spring," said Kelly of a position move for Spond. "We really want to continue the continuity with him and Councell out at the Dog position.  They're going to work there.  That will be their primary focus.  We're really focused on the Mike linebackers that have been in that position and keep them inside.

"How things pan out in the fall or during the season, we'll conquer that when we get there.  Right now moving forward, (Spond) is at the dog position."

Kelly added that Councell is "up 16 pounds, now he's 248 pounds. (Bench press numbers) 19 reps, 225 pounds."

Defensive Line

The program's best unit returns a trio of All-America candidates in nose guard Louis Nix, defensive end/tackle Stephon Tuitt, and Cat/defensive end Prince Shembo. 

Tuitt will sit for at least half of the spring session due to recent surgery for sports hernia.

"He feels great," said Kelly. "We'll probably get him the latter end of spring ball. The last half of the season he really struggled with it. He fought through it but it was something that needed to be repaired. That was done before spring break. Again, it's usually a four-week process. We think we're going to get him back for the last couple of weeks.

"He's already moving really well. He feels so much better. He had some restriction in that groin, hip flexor area where he was really restricted in really running out. We said 'You know what? Let's get it done. Let's not wait on it. It's something that we may have managed, but we want to get him 100 percent."

Tuitt's absence will give a slimmed down Tony Springmann more reps with the first unit. Springmann lost 16 pounds (down to 286) but Kelly noted the defensive end is still available to rotate inside as he did often in 2012.

"He's still a guy that we could move inside if we need to, but certainly we wanted him to be able to play that four-technique," Kelly said of the 6'5" Springmann. "We think he's perfect for it. He's got great reach and size. Believe he could do a really nice job for us."

All part of the work-in-progress that is a team's reliable depth up front.

"We're getting there.  I think there's still work every year on the defensive line," Kelly said when asked for a comparison of his group to the "SEC" standard. "I don't think there's any coach that's going to stand behind this microphone and say, 'We are so loaded in depth at the defensive line.'

"Everybody feels like there's a hole somewhere.

"I'm just looking at our guys: (senior) Kona Schwenke is a veteran established football player on the defensive line. People would love to have him as a guy that hasn't started a lot.  Here is a guy that can go in and compete right away.

"We really think a lot of (redshirt-freshman) Jarron Jones. He's a 300-pounder that we think is going to be able to compete for us. I talked earlier about Chase Hounshell, how important it is for him to step up for us. He's shown that he's healthy (after shoulder surgery). He's 275 (pounds), we'd like to get him in the 280 range. He's working towards that.

"When I look at our list with Tuitt, Nix, Springmann, I feel pretty good. I think (senior) Justin Utupo is going to be able to help us. He lacks a little bit of size (height), but he's a tough competitor, four years into the program, very strong, up to 281 pounds.  I really think that we've got some depth there, especially guys that haven't played a ton that can definitely contribute to our success."

Certain to contribute is sophomore Sheldon Day, a major part of the rotation last season and a former early enrollee entering his second spring.

"He's 286, a guy that's played a lot of valuable minutes for us.  Obviously he's a guy that we expect to step into that position, as well."

Also in the mix is a surprise fifth-season recipient, Tyler Stockton, the 2012 Scout Team Player of the Year.

"Tyler Stockton, who didn't play much for us, is a leader even though he's not on the field," said Kelly. 

Safeties

An already well-populated unit added another with 2012 nickel Elijah Shumate joining the group. A natural safety, Shumate opened the team's initial spring practice as a first unit safety alongside incumbent Matthias Farley.

"Here's another guy who came in and has done a great job," said Kelly of Shumate. "He's at 213 pounds at the safety position. Farley is at 204 pounds now.  We really like the size there.

"We wanted to put Elijah at that safety position.  He's a heck of a tackler.  He's very physical.  He needs to work there. We don't want to be bouncing him around corner, nickel.  We really want to focus on a position with him. I think obviously that's a position that best suits his skill set."

Shumate's move pits him vs. junior (redshirt-sophomore) Eilar Hardy, sophomore Nicky Baratti (recovering from off-season shoulder surgery), and sophomore (redshirt-freshman) John Turner. Neither Hardy nor Turner has appeared in a college game.

Returning senior Austin Collinsworth has plenty of experience, just none from 2012 after a spring game shoulder injury that required surgery. He later had back surgery but is back in the fold, competing with Farley (if today's alignment was any indication) and likely for the nickel role vacated by Shumate.

"I thought Collinsworth moved around very well, said Kelly of his senior's first day back. "He's a smart player. It's good to have a veteran player with a lot of smarts who could play a number of positions or us."

Farley is a presumed starter, but there's enough talent behind him to push.

"I think Matthias is going to be challenged as well," said Kelly. "We think he played well for us last year. That experience is going to prove well for him. Baratti got a little experience playing last year.  A much better situation than when we lost Jamoris Slaughter. We felt like we were shorthanded.  We don't feel like that's the case. (John) Turner, Eilar Hardy have had really good workouts. They're starting to show up a little bit more. I'm noticing them. That's a good thing for them."

Gone from the mix is 6'2" 220-pounder (up from 208) C.J. Prosise. The redshirt-freshman is now with the team's wide receivers.

"We're going to take a look at C.J. Prosise and cross-train him at safety and wide receiver," said Kelly. "Big-bodied guy.  We're doing it because we got a glimpse of him during bowl practices.  We had him at wide receiver and really loved his ball skills.  He's a big kid, got strong hands, a physical kid. 

"We think he may be able to help us there because there are so many talented players at that safety position. But we'll evaluate him at the wide receiver position in the spring."

Cornerbacks

Notre Dame opens camp with two potential starters in good health: sophomore Keivarae Russell and senior Lo Wood. Wood is just under seven months removed from surgery on a ruptured Achilles . Shelved at present is the team's best overall cornerback from 2012, Bennett Jackson, who'll participate without contact after off-season shoulder surgery.

"I liked the way Lo Wood looked," said Kelly of the first practice. "Obviously competition at the cornerback position is always good for your team I liked the way he looked.

"I think that you want to be able to play nickel and dime. We couldn't even get into dime last year. We couldn't put four potential corners on the field," Kelly said of the ultimate plan at the position.

"It just opens up your defensive playbook a little bit more to match up, so if you're going to go four-wide -- Oklahoma would be a great example -- where we had to keep (linebacker) Danny Spond on the field. He did a great job, but we would have liked to play more nickel and dime. It just gives us more flexibility I knowing that those guys will get a chance to play more because we've got guys that we trust that can play for us every single down."

Key to that flexibility will be the emergence of a fourth

"We need to find those guys that are going to step in and be key players for us during the season.  You can never have enough of those guys," said Kelly in reference to 2012 uncovered gem Matthias Farley. "We welcome that. That's part of our job as coaches to recruit so there is competition amongst the ranks. We didn't have much of it. Now we're excited that we're gaining more and more competition.

"(Cornerback) Jalen Brown is up to 207 pounds. He's another guy that will be given an opportunity.  It's going to be exciting to watch how that pans out in the back end."

Rounding out the spring group is junior Josh Atkinson. The unit will gain three freshmen in summer camp including potential varsity player Cole Luke.

"We want competition. Your program is in good shape when there's competition within.  And competition, without thinking about who's coming in. We want that competition.  So it's going to be a competitive situation. The best guys are going to play.  We'll choose the right 11."


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories