#6 - LinebackerFifth-year senior Kendall Moore, seniors Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, and Joe Schmidt, junior John Turner, sophomores Michael Deeb, James Onwualu, Doug Randolph, and Jaylon Smith, incoming freshmen Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Nyles Morgan, Drue Tranquill, and Jhonathan Williams.
Standout: Jaylon SmithOne of the nation's best true sophomore entering 2014, Smith is as important to Notre Dame's success -- both this fall and next season -- as any player on Brian Kelly's roster. Capable of starring at four different positions in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's scheme (MLB, ILB, SLB, or Nickel), Smith concluded spring ball as the weak side, inside linebacker. His move from the perimeter was intended to put the team's best playmaker closer to the action.
He'll blitz, he'll cover, he'll chase down ball carriers sideline-to-sideline -- and we'll soon find out if he can hold up inside against power rushing attacks. Regardless, the future NFL first-round pick is the least of the team's worries and among the two best players on the roster -- and he just turned 19.
Next In Line: Joe SchmidtHis remarkable rise from preferred walk-on to indispensable starter has been well-documented, but it's also, unfortunately, a product of injury to his classmate Jarrett Grace. In good health, Grace would be the no-doubt starter inside but VanGorder and Kelly found a keeper in Schmidt -- a veteran that understands the new scheme, can impart that understanding to others, and most important, appears able to execute his myriad responsibilities.
Concerns are valid that Schmidt can't hold up for four months and 13 games as an every down middle linebacker. He won't have to, as the defense will find pieces to spell him (a recovering Grace included) as the season progresses. But September will be Schmidt's, and he's well-equipped for the role in the short-term.
Additional DepthGrace was on his way to becoming a reliable, front-line starting player (consider his level that of a "major bowl" middle linebacker) prior to injury last October, a broken tibia and fibula that has required two surgeries. The goal is to have him ready to play football against Rice on August 31.
The goal after that is likely incremental improvement and assimilation for the weeks that follow, but it seems reasonable that the senior-to-be could ascend to a near full-time role by the time Stanford rolls into South Bend on October 4 -- 364 days removed from his gruesome injury.
Schmidt and Grace could provide a strong 1-2 punch over the seasons' final eight contests.
It's evident that the strong side linebacker position (SLB) will employ more than one regular, with a player such as John Turner or his understudies James Onwualu and Drue Tranquill, occupying the lead role against true spread option offenses, and Ben Councell holding down the fort against power-oriented teams.
X-Factor -- Nyles Morgan: The true freshman will find a role in VanGorder's scheme, largely because heavy substitution packages are essential to the veteran coordinator's approach. Morgan has the build to be evaluated as a potential SLB against power teams (more speed, "safety speed" is needed against the spread), or the staff could go with the more direct approach and groom him for a middle linebacker job from the outset. Much of the latter might depend on Grace's status early in fall camp.
Regardless, expect Morgan to carve a first-year niche.
Camp QuestionsHow quickly can Grace progress from "taking contact" to becoming a football player again? Can his fellow senior Councell, himself just nine months removed from knee surgery, be prepared to play as a part-time starter at SLB? Can Turner, the team's top SLB exiting spring ball, hold off challenges from younger players such as Onwualu and Tranquill? Will each member of that trio have a chance to start the opener vs. Rice? Or perhaps by the time the squad plays Game 4 against Syracuse following a Sept. 20 bye?
Will Schmidt maintain an insurmountable lead over Grace, Morgan, and redshirt-freshman Michael Deeb exiting camp? Can newcomers Jhonathan Williams and Kolin Hill find a (pass-rushing) role in the defense's myriad sub packages? Can redshirt-freshman Doug Randolph find a role entering his second season? Can Kendall Moore do the same entering his fifth and final campaign? (Both will be given opportunities to start on the Irish run teams, aka, kickoff and punt coverage and return.)
Best Case ScenarioSmith ascends as projected and becomes one of the nation's five best linebackers…Schmidt holds down the fort in September and receives aid from Grace or Grace and Morgan for the final eight contests…Councell provides a physical presence on the edge vs. power rushing attacks and in short-yardage, goal line situations…Either Turner, Onwualu, or Tranquill -- or some combination therein -- thrive in the new scheme, one that allows the SLB to play in space…Either Williams or Hill becomes a first-year pass-rushing threat similar to what Prince Shembo provided as a rookie in Kelly's first season, 2010…The Irish get something from Moore (or Randolph), allowing Smith to rest a play or two between now and the bowl game.
Worst Case ScenarioSmith is only very good…Schmidt wears down…Grace doesn't return to full health until spring 2015…Councell takes longer than expected to recover…Turner's move to linebacker isn't successful and the Irish are forced to feature a converted WR (Onwualu) or a true freshman (Tranquill) and both prove to be a year away from prime time…The backup corps remains far behind the presumed starters, just as they were exiting spring ball.
Out on a LimbSmith will finish the season as a second-team All-American and he'd be a first teamer if the Irish won 11 games instead of 9…Schmidt is one of the team's 10 best players in September but needs the help of (many) friends over the final two months -- and he's rejuvenated for the bowl game…Tranquill earns multiple starts at SLB…Morgan earns a start during the season at one of three LB positions…Williams and/or Hill register multiple sacks…The linebacker corps concludes the season as a battle-tested -- but also battle-weary -- team strength. That is, the future appears certain and bright after intermittent struggles through 2014.
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