LinebackerThough the unit lacks the depth of contributors of its brethren along the defensive front, Notre Dame's linebackers have likewise played beyond all reasonable expectations through the first seven games of 2014.
Top player to date: Call it a tie between unranked 2011 prospect Joe Schmidt and 2013 five-star Jaylon Smith. Neither could perform the other's job as well and the defense would be dealt an unsustainable blow by the loss of either.
On the Rise: None -- Which means strong side linebacker James Onwualu and Nickel linebacker Matthias Farley must step up over the final five games. Farley was fantastic through September and made crucial plays vs. Stanford but has fallen off over a two-game span since. He'll be put in position to make several perimeter plays vs. Navy's triple-option next Saturday, a perfect opportunity to get back on track.
Sleeper for the final five: Drue Tranquill -- the true freshman is a constant in the unit's third-down Dime package and his athleticism in space could prove invaluable against athletes from Arizona State and USC.
Best game as a unit: Stanford -- Smith (14) and Schmidt (7) combined for 21 stops including 2.5 for loss with a sack (all to Smith) and two QB pressures (Schmidt's)
Most Difficult Outing: North Carolina -- Smith was pancaked more than once by true freshman RB Elijah Hood in a lead-blocking role and Schmidt missed more tackles vs. the Tar Heels than vs. any other opponent (by a wide margin). Farley was used sparingly and Onwualu did little in his stead.
Toughest Upcoming Test: USC -- running back Javorius Allen is among the nation's 2-3 best all-purpose threats.
Crucial area for Improvement: Maintaining technique against the up-tempo, spread attacks that litter the November slate.
Quote from the Coordinator: "Joe’s tremendous as our middle linebacker. Gets us into all of our defensive fronts and coverages and all the checks and coverages. He’s been tremendous. Jaylon obviously trusts him. They’ve got a great working relationship. We’re trying to grow Jaylon in that area too where he becomes more of a communicator too in it all also. They’ve got a great relationship. They’re both tremendous character guys that work hard and it’s very important to him."
-- Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on his ILB pair.