2014 Outlook: Inside LinebackerA dearth of veteran bodies should make for a intriguing two-deep battles well into training camp next August.
Potential 5th-year senior: Kendall Moore
Incoming Freshmen: Niles Morgan (6'3" 225 pounds), Nile Sikes (6'1" 220), Drew Tranquill (6'2" 209), Greer Martini (6'4" 215)
Potential 2014 Class Additions: None. Morgan recently filled the imminent need.
Tranquill's listing is a (personal) future projection. I assume his size/speed qualifications are best suited for safety and/or drop linebacker duties as a true freshman. 6'4" 225-pound four-star prospect Richard Yeargin and 6'2" 233-pound sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Doug Randolph were previewed with the outside linebackers.
Randolph worked briefly with the inside 'backers last August before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Yeargin could easily receive his first evaluation inside as well.
Among veterans often mentioned for a move inside are current outside 'backers Ben Councell (6'4 1/2" 254) and Romeo Okwara (6'4" 260). Okwara's more likely move is to defensive end while Councell has been plugged in at the field (Dog/Drop) linebacker position for his entire career. A move inside for the senior-to-be -- one recovering from November ACL surgery -- seems unlikely this off-season.
2014: Kelly's Next GenerationHead coach Brian Kelly's first days on campus included the presence of a trio of sophomore linebackers, two of whom had never played a collegiate snap while the third conversely had each of his snaps celebrated and analyzed as a true freshman on a terrible defense.
Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, and of course, Manti Te'o defined the first four seasons of the Kelly era at inside linebacker. So too did their position coach and the team's defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco.
Only Kelly remains, and his fifth-edition Irish will feature but one regular contributor to the fray, injured senior Jarrett Grace. (Grace told reporters doctors explained he'd begin to "feel athletic" this spring, but would not take part in contact during the 15-practice session).
Assuming a return to health, Grace is a no-doubt starter inside. Though inconsistent in his initial brush with full-time action last fall, Grace produced 10, 8, and 9 tackles in the three games prior to suffering a broken tibia on the Cowboys Stadium turf October 5.
Spring Forward: The outset of the spring session will likely feature a "veteran" tandem as the first unit inside 'backers as expected 5th-year returnee Kendall Moore and senior -- and former preferred walk-on -- Joe Schmidt represent the only players to compete at the college level among the spring's combatants.
Sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Michael Deeb is a default second-teamer -- and a good bet to earn a starting spot exiting spring ball. He ranks among the most intriguing -- and doubtless important -- rookies for the coming months.
As noted above, Doug Randolph received an initial evaluation inside last August. He's not expected to participate in contact drills this spring following shoulder surgery. Randolph though can take second team reps in a red (no-contact) jersey throughout the spring session, regardless of his future position destination.
None of Notre Dame's incoming freshmen enrolled early. Each will thus join the fray this summer.
Fall Battles and the FutureMoore vs. Deeb vs. Morgan? Vs. *Yeargin?
The latter projection isn't your usual internet rookie reach regarding an incoming prospect. Morgan is a five-star prospect that will be given ample opportunity to win a role vs. a 5th-year senior yet to start a game in Moore, and a redshirt freshman in Deeb. But Grace's presence and return to form (plus improvement) remains the key component. Without his veteran leadership and modicum of game day experience, this unit could struggle.
Joe Schmidt provides the group a solid backup option, especially in the defense's preferred dime position package as its lone inside 'backer linebacker. At 6'0" 230 pounds, it would likely be difficult for him to hold up inside over a 13-game slate. (Schmidt took over for Grace as the dime linebacker following the latter's injury. It's a position in which he played well thereafter and could spell Grace during recovery.)
If each of the four noted above remain upright in 2014, incoming freshmen such as Niles Sikes and Greer Martini could benefit from a redshirt season. It's notable that Deeb, Moore, Fox and Calabrese each redshirted prior -- the latter pair benefitting greatly as 5th-year players last fall.
The most intriguing prospect might be Drew Tranquill, an athlete that appears headed for special teams action as a true freshmen. He could begin his career inside, outside, or at safety. The best bet is that he'll work at each prior to the conclusion of the 2015 season before settling in thereafter.
(*Yeargin, profiled with the outside 'backers, could immediately challenge for a two-deep role inside as well, but with Ben Councell ailing as the backup to Jaylon Smith, Yeargin's services might be needed on the perimeter.)
Final Grade and Projections
2013: C- … Each member of the Grace/Fox/Calabrese trio struggled intermittently, especially early in losses to Michigan and Oklahoma and in a near-disaster at Purdue. Each also played -- at times -- the best football of his college career, including Fox who starred late, and Calabrese who played the run well for the bulk of the 13-game slate.
2014: C- … At best? It's all a projection at this point as none of the competitors are proven and/or able to compete.
2015: B … A rotation including Grace, Morgan, Deeb, and either Yeargin or Tranquill should solidify the interior with only Grace moving on for the 2016 (and 2017) season.
Irish fans should see far more consistent efforts from their inside linebackers that what's likely on tap this fall.