Loss of Schmidt To Test Irish

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly started the season with what appeared to be a brutal blow to the program's annual goal of championship contention: Five suspended competitors, four from the two deep, three starters, two of whom were arguably among the roster's five best players overall.

Thereafter came a pre-opener injury to captain Austin Collinsworth, a starting safety and the second from the position in as many weeks to be knocked from the two-deep in August (suspended senior Eilar Hardy the other).

But thanks to Kelly's ability to stock the program with game-ready talent and developable depth, none of the above six personnel losses proved to be a death knell.

His Irish didn't' blink: Win, win, win, win, win, win, win(briefly)/loss, win.

But entering a trying four-game stretch to conclude the season, trouble is afoot. Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt was lost Saturday in a win over Navy with a broken and dislocated ankle. Surgery, out for the season.

Schmidt's season ends with the senior (redshirt-junior) first on the squad in both tackles and forced fumbles; tied for second in interceptions, tied for fourth in QB pressures, and a runaway first in importance to the operation.

He aligns, and more important, realigns, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's ever-moving parts. VanGorder said Schmidt's knowledge of his defense trumps that of any player he's coached.

With that responsibility came the unofficial mantle of leader, at least for the defense, and partially, it appears, for the team. When a media member erroneously referred to Schmidt as "a team captain" during a post-game interview at Florida State, no one blinked. His defensive teammates regular refer to him as such as well.

Now he's out, and a true freshman is Kelly's proverbial Next Man In.

"Nyles will be in there," said Kelly of former Scout.com five-star prospect Nyles Morgan. "And we'll figure out what the depth looks like (thereafter)."

As for Schmidt's role as a play-caller and chief pre-snap checker, Kelly offered, "Not sure yet. We're still kind of trying to figure out what direction we want to go there. Too early really to decide what direction we want to go."

It's too early because there's not an obvious answer. Will (weakside inside) linebacker Jaylon Smith will doubtless absorb part of Schmidt's duties. Smith's football acumen is outstanding, a true student of the game. He's also a sophomore that relied on Schmidt's preternatural knowledge to aid him through a position switch and challenging scheme.

The team's safeties, Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield, will likely be asked to shoulder a bit of the burden. But that pair is seven games removed from first encountering a similar challenge in the wake of Collinsworth's aforementioned injury. (Collinsworth dressed last week, but is battling a badly sprained shoulder and any playing time this week would be a surprise.)

Both Collinsworth and fellow injured former starter Jarrett Grace will do their part from the sidelines. Grace would have started in the middle had he never suffered a gruesome leg injury 13 months ago in Arlington. He travels with the team, doesn't dress, and will be asked to help Morgan more than he already has.

As for backup Will linebacker Greer Martini, he of the game-high nine tackles Saturday against Navy?

"No, I mean, I think Greer is pretty much a Will linebacker for us, he's Jaylon's backup," said Kelly. "We'll look at Nyles, we'll look at (redshirt-freshman) Mike Deeb. Michael Deeb will get a chance to work there, as well, and we'll kind of assess where we are. We can certainly do some cross-training with some other guys, too, see how that kind of plays out.

"But I'd say Greer has been doing a lot of work at the Will linebacker position, but like I said earlier, it's still kind of early.  I think I'll get a better understanding by Tuesday where we are."

Deeb is the only member of the 2013 recruiting class yet to play a college down. He dressed for Saturday's contest sans the massive elbow brace that accompanied his right arm in every contest prior.

Backups at Will linebacker include walk-on Austin Larkin, who also debuted Saturday night, and redshirt-freshman Doug Randolph. A former high school defensive end, Randolph played extensively as a special teams starter against the Midshipmen. Size/speed measurables abound, but he's never been mentioned as a two-deep contender to date.

Little-used senior SLB Ben Councell could be an option. After tearing his MCL last Nov. 2 (against Navy), Councell has suffered two concussions this season, one in August, one on Oct. 11 vs. North Carolina. He's since been cleared and was on the kick return unit Saturday.

Said Kelly of Morgan's debut outing, one that included four tackles highlighted by a diving stop for lost yardage, all in less the a quarter and-a-half: "Two major mistakes. He let the fullback out on the two-point play," said Kelly. "That's his. We repped that all week, and he just had poor eye discipline on that, and then on the toss sweep, he overlapped the defense. 

"But his trait is physical, and that trait shows itself. He made some real big physical plays for us.  He's going to be a good player, he's just a young guy that just needs to continue to grow, and he's going to get that opportunity because he's going to be put in that position now."

Asked about the complexity of the Mike linebacker position, Kelly offered alternatives.

"It generally has a leadership component relative to understanding all of the fronts and adjustments and clearly getting people lined up," he said. "So the complexities are that that position generally takes on that leadership role.

"If it's not; in other words, if it's given to somebody else, the Mike linebacker position can be as easy as you make it. You can be a single-gap run supporter; you can be a hook player, and you can make it really easy. We certainly are going to have to take some of that load away from Nyles and really kind of disperse it to others because we're not going to heap that all on him. We obviously felt good about putting all that on Joe's plate. We're not going to be able to do that with Nyles."

This Saturday, fellow playoff contender Arizona State (7-1), likely the best remaining team on the Irish schedule, will be the new-look defense's first test.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories