Options abound for Irish Linebackers

Jaylon Smith back outside? Nyles Morgan and Joe Schmidt side-by-side? The return of a former starter to the fray? Status quo appears the only unlikely scenario as Brian VanGorder's linebacker unit reloads with experienced troops.

A year ago today, no Notre Dame position group posed more troubling questions and fewer definitive answers than its linebacking corps.

The 2014 season that ensued brought a little of everything from the unit: outstanding play, at least from its starting inside pair, a crucial, team-debilitating injury, and the discovery of one, if not two promising prospects for the future.

As a result of the machinations of the season past, Notre Dame fans enter the 2015 off-season with more than misplaced hope and pie-in-the-sky projections. More pieces in place than what-if's.

But work -- not to mention position slotting -- remains, and it starts with a potential fifth-year senior left for dead, in congress with the team's top athlete.

Regardless of your grading criteria, Jaylon Smith finished the season ranked among Notre Dame's top four overall performers -- all-the-while playing out of position.

Smith seems the ideal candidate for Notre Dame's field-side sam linebacker spot. He instead, by necessity, toiled in 2014 at the will, a (at it's root) inside 'backer position tasked with movement responsibilities to the boundary, but also one that required a great deal of north-south run stuffing inside. As expected, he was outstanding against the former, intermittently successful against the latter.

But the season's emergence of senior middle linebacker Joe Schmidt (a lock to return for a fifth season) and freshman Nyles Morgan offers Vangorder and his defensive staff options entering this crucial off-season, the most compelling of which is a move of Smith back outside (sam) with Morgan and Schmidt able to carry the load inside.

Schmidt proved he can play and thrive at the mike; Morgan, according to head coach Brian Kelly, can fit the bill at any of the three 'backer positions the team employs. That trio, especially if Schmidt returns at full strength after a broken and dislocated ankle on Nov. 1, is easily the defense's most appealing alignment.

With Schmidt likely out for spring contact, Morgan's fellow rookie, Greer Martini, can serve as a starting stand-in. Martini worked at will for the bulk of his freshman season while serving as a mike over the final weeks. He's an ideal spring backup candidate for both as Schmidt returns to health.

Speaking of returning to health...

In case you missed it, supposedly Dead-Linebacker-Walking Jarrett Grace has received a stay of execution.

In the greatest comeback since Lazarus rose from the dead, Grace began to play football again in December, that after a season-long struggle with things such as remembering how to run, as the term "foot-strike capability: dotted every answer offered by Kelly regarding the former starter's stunted progress.

"He’s very pleased that he was able to re-learn the foot strike," said Kelly of Grace who was nowhere near padded competition as of mid-November. "We have a machine called the Ultra G in our training room, which is essentially zero gravity treadmill. The zero gravity treadmill has allowed him every day to reteach that foot strike. It’s really made great progress. And he’s put in the time. He’s got great strength. We just couldn’t get that foot strike back. Just the re-teaching of it, it’s great to see.
"When he’s out there he’s got some Joe Schmidt in him," Kelly continued. "You can see the change in practice when a guy like Jarrett Grace is out there, his energy, his leadership. There will be some good problems there that we’ll kind of have to work through in the off-season.
It's nonetheless logical to assume Grace is unlikely to be the Grace-of-old. And if he is, that still might not beat out the Schmidt-of-old, or the Morgan of the future. But a recovered Grace would rank as a top-notch backup mike linebacker behind either teammate -- a development that would further the call for Smith to move outside as an enviable two-deep will have formed at the team's mike (Schmidt or Morgan, backed by Grace), will (Schmidt or Morgan, backed by Martini) and sam (Smith backed by James Onwualu) positions.

The scenario suggested by Kelly in his final December meeting with the media concerned Smith staying put. That means Smith at the will, backed by Martini, while Morgan and Schmidt Duke it out at the mike. Should Morgan lose in August, he'd likely move to sam -- where he'd again be a rookie in terms of assignment and eye progressions.

Grace (mike) and Martini (will) would fill-in as No. 2 'backers while Onwualu, the default sam "starter" (he split that role with nickel Matthias Farley) would battle Morgan -- and likely back him up -- on the edge.

In this example, both Morgan and Smith appear slightly -- if not completely -- out of position.

(Jack, not a huge subhead, just highlighted) Crucial Takeaway: Don't believe everything you hear in December -- Grace's purported return to health could have a domino effect on the unit as a whole, because there's no need for Morgan, Schmidt, Grace, Martini, and Smith to remain inside as a quintet, leaving the undersized Onwualu alone at sam.

If Smith moves to sam, Onwualu, on paper, appears the odd man out, as there's not much call for Smith's backup in competitive action. But in Vangorder's defense, an aggressive athlete without a position -- and that appears to be the former receiver Onwualu's lot as of today -- can always find a role in sub packages.

The Irish defense could do much worse than a dime package that features Onwualu joining the fray for every third-down passing situation, with Smith shifting inside to relieve Schmidt or Morgan. There's ample playing time for Onwualu, the squad's second-best special teams player (or arguably 1B to C.J. Prosise) last fall. Kelly and his staff could reasonably consider Onwualu in a dual-role at wideout as well, especially considering the position lacked for consistent downfield blockers at times in 2014.

Rookie dime linebacker-turned-safety Drue Tranquill won't be able to compete for a role at full strength this spring after tearing his ACL on Nov. 22. Tranquill concluded his season by starting his final two games at safety but he was far more effective as a dime package linebacker over the previous nine. His ability to compete at full strength will be determined over the summer and deep into August camp.

(Look for Tranquill to be a much better football player next November as compared to September.)

-- Remaining members of the crew include Doug Randolph (will) and Michael Deeb (mike), neither of which appeared close to winning roles from scrimmage last season. Randolph earned November starts on multiple coverage/return units (though not against LSU) while Deeb made his college debut late in the first half for two plays against USC, the result of suspension (Morgan) and injuries (Schmidt, Martini).

Deeb's next step is to win a job on special teams for his true junior season.

2015 pledges Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas join in August -- neither should be necessary, though Barajas could arrive game-ready for a sub package role.

In other words, don't considering the lineup Irish Illustrated highlights in the first -- or likely last -- practice of the spring, to be written in stone.

With myriad intriguing options, the only certainty, once again, is change.

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