At Their Best: Irish Linebackers

Irish fans have high hopes for the future of what is a youth-filled, inexperienced roster heading into 2014. With the best likely yet to come, we review the best single-game efforts to date from players in each position group.

Below is a look at the best efforts to date by Notre Dame's returning linebackers. As many as eight more potential linebackers (some will serve as defensive ends) will join the fray for 2014.

Irish Linebackers

Incoming freshmen Jonathan Bonner, Kolin Hill, Jhonathan Williams, and Grant Blankenship could receive first-year evaluations at either outside linebacker or defensive end. Classmates Nyles Morgan, Nile Sykes, and Greer Martini are expected to debut as 'backers for new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

Returning players yet to make their debuts from scrimmage include redshirt-freshmen Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, while junior (redshirt-sophomore) John Turner played as a safety last fall, his first season of varsity action. True sophomore James Onwualu will work as a nickel linebacker this season after debuting as a wide receiver in 2013, starting three contests at the position.

Sophomore Jaylon Smith: Smith ranked among the defense's best players vs. Michigan, Arizona State, USC, Navy, Pittsburgh, and Stanford, with game-changing plays against both the Trojans and Midshipmen -- the latter in which he definitively saved the game-winning score on fourth down -- but his best overall outing as a rookie was doubtless vs. the Sun Devils in Cowboys Stadium.

Official numbers show Smith with 9 tackles including 1.5 for loss, but in reality you can add two sacks to that total -- both credited to the "team" that Smith both created and finished.

The first of Smith's tackles-for-loss helped force an ASU field goal after the Sun Devils had breached the Irish red zone. The second did as well. As did the third. It was a dominant, breakout performance and an effort that would have been nationally recognized had the Irish not lost twice previously.

Senior (redshirt-junior) Jarrett Grace: Grace played well in a half-game-plus against Arizona State before his 2013 season was truncated vs. the Sun Devils due to a broken leg -- an injury that has put his 2014 status in doubt as well -- but the senior-to-be's best likely came in the final contest he did not start last fall, September 21 in West Lafayette against the Purdue Boilermakers.

Grace recorded a career-best 10 tackles that evening and added a (third-down) pass breakup. He likewise recorded an open-field stop of Purdue running back Akeem Hunt to force a Boilermakers punt.

Senior Joe Schmidt: A spot player for most of 2013, Schmidt's best effort to date is likely the easiest to pinpoint among the returning Irish 'backers: his debut contest as the team's chief dime-backer -- against arch-rival USC.

A first-time "starter" in the middle of Notre Dame's dime defense (one linebacker, six defensive backs), Schmidt and the Irish dime faced 13 snaps (all obvious passing situations) and stopped the Trojans short of the first down marker on 12 of them, the most impressive and relevant when Schmidt delivered a shot over the middle to would-be Trojans pass-catcher Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, jarring the ball loose in an end-game 3rd and 8 situation that would have given the visitors a first down at the ND 40-yard line. The Irish defense held on fourth down to secure a 14-10 victory.

Senior Ishaq Williams: Unfortunately for the 2013 Irish defense, Williams' best efforts occurred in 2012 and likely in back-to-back wins over Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, with late-game heroics against the Panthers ranking at the top.

Unproductive through most of the contest in a relief role, Williams recorded a third-down tackle for loss that gave Notre Dame the ball back for an eventual game-tying touchdown, then in overtime, his third-down pressure of QB Tino Sunseri forced an eventual field goal when the Panthers had a chance to win outright.

Williams likewise recorded a tackle-for-loss one week prior vs. Oklahoma -- the only back-to-back weeks in which the enigmatic senior has registered stops behind the line of scrimmage during his Irish career. Junior Romeo Okwara: The still-developing pass-rusher played his best when the chips were down last November, coming up with a career-best five tackles and half-sack (the first of his career). Okwara added a tackle-for-loss and stop that limited the Midshipmen to one yard as well in a 38-34 Irish victory.

Senior (redshirt-junior) Ben Councell: Like Okwara, Councell's career-best likely occurred last November vs. the Midshipmen. Councell recorded five tackles including one for lost yardage along with a pass breakup before injuring his knee in the second half, the last play of his 2013 campaign.

Councell showed well as a redshirt-freshman in 2012 as well, recording four tackles in relief vs. Wake Forest in a Senior Day blowout win for the Irish.

5th-year senior Kendall Moore: Moore is more than two seasons removed from his best statistical effort, a four-solo tackle effort vs. Maryland that included a tackle for loss, though it's likewise notable each of his four stops occurred on the Terrapins final drive.

Moore's greatest contributions remain as a member of the Irish kick return unit but he also played a crucial relief role vs. Navy in the aforementioned 38-34 win, recording three tackles, one that stopped the Midshipmen short of the marker on 3rd and 8.

Sophomore James Onwualu A wide receiver last season, Onwualu started vs. Michigan, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and Stanford, and recorded a leaping 23-yard reception vs. the Panthers in a Heinz Field defeat, but his best moment came as a lead blocker to help spring running back Cam McDaniel for what became the game-winning touchdown in a 17-13 slugfest over Michigan State.

Hard to top that effort vs. the eventual 12-1 Spartans...

b>Junior (redshirt-sophomore) John Turner: A safety by trade in 2013 but primarily a kickoff and punt cover man last season, Turner's best likely saved Notre Dames season -- a kickoff return tackle at midfield of Navy return man Marcus Thorne that saved a potential go-ahead touchdown late in the contest. Notre Dame held on for a four-point victory just over three minutes later.

Senior (redshirt-junior) Anthony Rabasa: Registered a career-best three tackles, including one on third down and one for lost yardage, in a 45-10 blowout victory at Air Force last October. Top Stories