2014 Outlook: Outside LinebackerThree-year starter Prince Shembo leaves a physical void with his departure from the boundary side. Though Shembo's tackles-for-loss total dropped from 10.5 in 2012 to 5.5 last fall, his 17 quarterback hurries were the second most of the last decade in South Bend. (Though five occurred vs. Temple in the opener.)
Potential 5th-year senior: None
Juniors: Romeo Okwara (2015)
Potential 2014 Class Additions: None
I consider 6'6" 251-pound DE/OLB Grant Blankenship a future defensive end rather than outside 'backer prospect. With a similar frame, Jhonathan Williams (6'6" 237) projects as such as well.
2014: Well-TieredThe forthcoming season will feature the following in terms of eligibility: a graduating senior in Williams; a senior with two seasons of eligibility in Councell, a true junior (Okwara), a true sophomore (Smith) and a redshirt-freshman (Randolph). Add to that mix a trio of incoming prospects and the edge of the Irish defensive front seven has ample talent (both developing and in-waiting) plus experience on hand for the foreseeable future.
Jaylon Smith is the prototype field side linebacker (Drop/Dog in fans vernacular) and ranked among the team's top 10 players in 2013. (Smith was among the team's five best by season's end.)
He enters 2014 as the most promising player on the Irish roster though nowhere near a finished product. Look for Smith to be heavily involved in upfield pass rush (and run blitz) situations in Year 2 of his development.
Opposite Smith to the boundary side (Cat) will be either three-season enigma Ishaq Williams or the up-and-coming Romeo Okwara. Both will play often, both will likewise work as defensive ends in the team's 4-3 defensive alignments. Questions remain whether either can handle the heavy lifting required should they play as defensive ends in 3-4 fronts.
Councell spelled Smith for the first two months of the '13 season but had his season truncated on November 2 by a knee injury. His return to contact during spring ball is unlikely but the physical presence Councell provides on the edge is necessary for the 2014 season. By opening kickoff, Councell will be 10 months removed from ACL surgery -- ready to compete, but not likely yet back to his former self.
Also returning from injury is 2013 freshman Doug Randolph. Moved inside due to a dearth of athletes last August, Randolph had surgery on his shoulder during training camp and thus received very little evaluation as a fourth-team competitor just getting his feet wet. He could remain inside for 2014 to ease his transition back to the field of play, but our future projections show Randolph lined up on the edge at the boundary (Cat) position. He's at his best on the edge, rushing the passer, not taking on blocks from uncovered guards as an interior 'backer.
2015 and BeyondIf Councell can contribute by mid-September, none of the incoming trio of freshmen would be pressed into unnecessary service -- but Richard Yeargin will be difficult to keep off the field.
Yeargin could compete for a two-deep role at either outside or inside linebacker and is a near lock to earn early field time on the Irish special teams (kickoff and punt coverage).
Hill and Bonner project well to the Cat position occupied by Williams and Okwara. In an ideal world, both would receive a season on the scout team -- withheld from action to ensure a fifth-year of eligibility and a strong future on the edge of the Irish defense.
Final Grade and Projections
2013: B …The 2012 season's combination of Shembo and Danny Spond received a solid A grade. This year, Smith made more plays in space than did Spond but it took a solid five games for the 230-pound freshman to fully assimilate to the physical demands of the Dog (field-side) linebacker position. Shembo was named the team's Defensive Player of the Year in the post-season banquet, but was frankly a better player (in terms of my evaluation) in 2012 than in 2013.
2014: B+ … Smith could rank as the nation's best at his dual-role of coverage and attack while Okwara is among the team's 10 most intriguing players for the upcoming season. Regarding Williams: time for the light to go on.
2015: A- … A Smith/Okwara combination on the edge, coupled with the list of talent above, will help outside linebacker rank among Notre Dame's best positions for 2015.