Spring Wrap: Outside Linebackers

Our second position review of the Irish defense exiting spring ball examines one of Notre Dame's deepest groups, its outside linebackers. In this, the seventh edition of the Irisheyes.com's "Incomplete" series, O'Malley explains who stood out, who's a step behind, and who might help from an incoming tandem that includes national high school linebacker of the year, Jaylon Smith.

Outside Linebackers -- Full Force

Deep, well-tiered, explosive, and potentially dominant. That's the 2013 outside linebackers unit, coached by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Of the five that participated in spring ball just two will graduate and exhaust eligibility at season's end, seniors Prince Shembo and Danny Spond.

Spring Pecking Order: Shembo starts at the spot commonly referred to as the "Cat" and is backed by junior Ishaq Williams and sophomore Romeo Okwara. Spond starts at "Dog" or Drop linebacker, backed by junior (redshirt-sophomore) Ben Councell. The Cat plays to the short side or "boundary," the Dog to the wide side or "field." Of the group above, its Okwara who has cross-trained for both spots.

Spring Star: Councell. Said Diaco of his third-year competitor: "If Coach Kelly asked for "Player of the Spring' I would at least throw his name out there. Not that he's the best player of the defense, but in terms of improvement from what he was to what he is, I'd say 'Most improved through spring defensively.' He's definitely one of the guys in the conversation."

As well, Williams is slated for, according to Diaco, a conservative estimate of "10-20 more snaps, per week," thanks to his ascent this spring.

Aid on the Way: Five-star prospect Jaylon Smith seems tailor-made for the field side, Drop linebacker role while three-star prospect Doug Randolph made his wares rushing the passer in high school. He'd begin at the Cat if not for a glut of talent at the position. There's a chance Randolph could receive his initial evaluation inside, but I like his future on the boundary.

Remaining Spring Questions

Will Ishaq Williams' intensity match his athletic gifts in year three? How can he just now be learning how to practice properly as Diaco offered? Will the unit's best player Shembo be removed more often in the 3-4 base and focus primarily on playing with his hand down in the 4-3 and as a nickel and dime rusher? Can Spond repeat his sterling performance of last season? Was his collapse vs. Alabama due to time off or the Tide's talent? Can Councell press him for rotation time outside of the standard one series per half?

Where does Okwara end up, and can the 18-year-old redshirt in 2013 rather than play as a No. 3 OLB? Will Okwara instead find his way onto the field as a situational pass-rusher? Where does Smith fit in upon first arrival at this stocked position?

Final Thoughts

Shembo was a top 6-7 Irish player last season until the first drive of the Alabama game -- conversely, one of Williams' 4-5 best outings was against the Tide. If this tandem can put it together for three months next fall, the Irish defense could be better than last year's stalwart group…Though playing time must be earned, Williams' seems the type that would be far more productive if relied upon to do more and in a greater capacity…Shembo played 2012 with a fury; Williams played football for Notre Dame…Shembo was lights out vs. the run for most of last fall, a fact forgotten by many after fiasco in Miami...

Can Smith impact the team better as a No. 3 Drop linebacker that attempts to work his way up the ranks, or by getting an initial evaluation as the nickel? I know my answer…Randolph is far better suited for life on the boundary than inside…I'd redshirt Okwara if the true sophomore is at all amenable to the idea following his best efforts in August camp…Is Councell closing in on Spond, a player that rarely left the field last fall? I doubt it, and I hope Spond doesn't come down to earth any time soon, he was outstanding in the 2012 regular season.

What happened to Spond and Shembo against Alabama? A tape review is on tap for May...

Next in the series: The team's inside linebackers…

Intro to Series

A key defensive line prospect. The nation's best high school linebacker. Two punters (phew!). The offense's quickest player. Two of the defense's three best cornerbacks. One of its three best inside linebackers. Two of its five best safety prospects. Two running backs capable of winning weekly roles. Two freshmen pass targets (one already on campus) capable of filling in at the back end of the rotation. Countless special teams contributors.

The list of potential -- and in many cases, certain -- 2013 commodities not involved in Saturday's quirky Blue Gold Game ranks as one of the spring game's most relevant stories, and leads to my final grade on head coach Brian Kelly's Irish as they exit a 15-session, five-week spring:

Incomplete.

Just as it did in 2012 -- a national runner-up season and the best in 19 years for the program -- Notre Dame's 2013 football team will be made whole by its first-time scrimmage contributors.

That list last fall included major contributions from the likes of Tony Springmann, Danny Spond, Keivarae Russell, Matthias Farley, Sheldon Day, DaVaris Daniels, Daniel Smith, Chris Brown, Nicky Baratti, Elijah Shumate, and of course, Everett Golson.

"We're also going to bring in a number of freshmen that I'm certain are going to be involved in special teams, especially some of those bigger-bodied guys," said Kelly during his spring wrap-up press conference. "You've got (Michael) Deeb and (Doug) Randolph and Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield just to name a few. We've got some guys coming in, some DBs, in (Devin) Butler and (Rashad) Kinlaw. There is going to be an influx of talented guys that can help us in that area."

And from scrimmage as well, not only the freshmen, but those returning from injury, little-used players from 2012, and a host of others. The only guarantee for 2013 is that September's lot of key contributors will differ -- perhaps greatly -- from November's.

For our review of the running backs, a group still searching for a true pecking order and one dependent on incoming freshmen, Click here. For the suddenly undermanned wide receivers, Click here. Our recap of the tight ends can be found here and our breakdown of the quarterback quartet, here.

Our final recap on the offensive side of scrimmage looked at Notre Dame's skeleton crew offensive line, a group in need of its incoming aid for season-long depth.

We also began to examine the defensive side of scrimmage, starting with the program's best unit, its defensive line.


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