New D, New Life

Our summer preview series opens with a preview of sam linebacker John Turner. Will the redshirt-sophomore fall prey to the pitfalls of the classic "tweener," or at six-feet, 217 pounds (and growing), can the former safety use his speed and quickness to thrive in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme?

John Turner concluded his redshirt-freshman season of 2014 with six safeties ahead of him -- and none behind him -- on the Irish depth chart.

But he could run and he could hit.

He played in each of Notre Dame's 13 games last season, albeit with no more than two handfuls of snaps from scrimmage in competitive game situations. The lion's share of Turner's work came as a member of the Irish run teams (kickoff and punt coverage; kickoff and punt return).

And in those appearances, one skill set continually presented leading up to Turner's highlight of his rookie season: a touchdown-saving, likely game-saving tackle vs. Navy kick returner Marcus Thomas at midfield as the Irish hung on for a 38-34 win over the underdog Midshipmen.

For the 2014 Irish, Turner will have a chance to run and hit far more often thanks to a new defensive approach by first-year Irish coordinator Brian VanGorder that offers every defender on the roster a chance to find his niche.

Turner's appears to be sam linebacker in VanGorder's myriad-package scheme.

Stepping up, bulking up

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly first noticed Turner's athletic gifts in a camp setting. Not unlike many prep prospects entering college, they didn't immediately carry over to the practice field.

"John Turner has been an interesting player for us. I'll go back to his recruitment," said Kelly. "We got to see him work out for us for 30 minutes, and we loved his skill set. He's long, he's athletic. It wasn't translating very well, for whatever reasons. We think that with the position that we're looking at him right now, it seems to be clicking a little bit for John."


VanGorder saw an immediate opportunity for Turner

At six-feet, 217 pounds, Turner was big for a safety, but now undersized for a strong side linebacker. Adding weight without losing speed is his chief charge this summer.

"I've been fine, holding up on my own so far," said Turner of his spring foray closer to scrimmage. "I'll probably gain some weight this summer before fall camp. Maintaining weight for the pounding of the season (is) important."

In congress with Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, Turner is in charge of sculpting his body over the coming months. New outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott (formerly Turner's position coach at safety) is tasked with teaching Turner the tools of his new trade.

"I think he's handled it great. I think he's found a niche for himself," said Elliott. "Where at safety he was maybe a little bit overmatched in the quickness area, but now he's a quick, fast outside linebacker. Granted, he's a smaller outside linebacker than we would like him to be, but he didn't know he was making this move until right before spring ball. So I'd like to see what he looks like at the end of summer. I'm sure he'll be bigger and stronger and able to stand in there pretty good."

Though it's given the undersized Turner will be forced to tussle with offensive tackles and tight ends in any defensive scheme, Elliott believes VanGorder's preponderance of sub packages can mitigate how often players such as Turner and wide receiver-turned-linebacker James Onwualu are directly exposed to much bigger opponents during a given contest.

"We have the ability to be situational with those guys, in that they're not necessarily in there when the opponent is (powering up) with run personnel," Elliott said. "But they're going to be able to have to stand their ground against offensive linemen. We're working hard on that. It's a foreign position to both of them as far as when they're in the box against run."

Trapped as a Tweener, or Trailblazer?

A handful of undersized collegiate linebackers annually dominate in creative schemes that best utilize their talents. Dozens more thrive in key roles.

Turner's Irish predecessors -- undersized linebackers that nevertheless excelled -- include identical-sized (6'0" 217) former weak side 'backer Anthony Peterson (1990-93, drafted by the San Francisco 49ers) and Courtney Watson, a six-foot one-inch, 215-pound running back that developed into a 232-pound inside 'backer and Butkus Award finalist.


The loss of Peterson at midseason likely cost the '93 Irish an undefeated regular season.

Former Florida State linebacker Derrick Brooks (6'0" 225) ranks among the best examples of former safeties better suited as collegiate linebackers. After his freshman season along the Seminoles' back line, Brooks moved to linebacker as a sophomore and later earned first-team All-American honors as a junior and senior en route to a Hall of Fame NFL career.

But then there's the rest. Players that prove either too small or too slow to handle the myriad responsibilities of a big-time linebacker. After all, a prototype exists for good reason, it's thus up to Turner -- like Watson, Peterson, and others before him -- to break that mold.

"For whatever reasons, sometimes a change does a guy good," Kelly continued. "He may be the beneficiary of that change. I think it's more of the benefit that in the sub-package, it takes advantage of a long kid who is almost a 'tweener'. He's almost a 'backer, he's that big. So some of the positions that we're running him in right now, he can cover a No. 2 receiver and he can also bring some pressure. He's got a unique skill set."

Buried on the depth chart at safety, Turner jumped at the chance for potential playing time. That field time will likely vary greatly on any given Saturday, pending Notre Dame's foe, as Turner could log the lion's share of snaps vs. spread offenses but potentially cede base defense playing time to six-foot-four, 258-pound senior Ben Councell (out since November 2 with a torn ACL) against power-oriented offenses.

"I definitely saw there was an opportunity to at least come in and provide depth at the position," Turner said at spring's conclusion. "From that point I kept getting better and eventually ended up with the first team in the spring. Now I'm just trying to keep that improvement going and get better each practice.

"After practice I usually go watch film with coach Elliott, so I really haven't had any time off this spring. Just been putting in work, trying to get better."

He's already far better off than at any point in his previous two-year collegiate career -- in position to win a starting role for 2014.


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