Notre Dame's Enviable Issue Inside

Irish linebacker competition likely to rage through season's end thanks to a trio of potential starters in the middle.

So a Team MVP, a former starter, and five-star prospect walk into a bar…er, locker room.

Notre Dame's middle linebacker competition this spring, summer, and through August camp is no joke -- that's what it was last season at this time when the only viable competitor was still a guy referred to as "former walk-on Joe Schmidt."

The Irish appear well-stocked at the position with Schmidt on the mend, Jarrett Grace nearly all-the-way back, and sophomore Nyles Morgan through his November 2014 trial-by-fire and no worse for the wear.

"Nyles is getting better," said head coach Brian Kelly. "We had a little bug going through the team (last week) but he's a tough kid, he went out and practiced anyway…I just love the kid. He'll do anything to get back on the field. He loves the game of football. He just loves it. He has a passion for the game. Just continue to learn. He's a guy that'll play for us."

So too, at least in good health, will the pair of fifth-year seniors, both at expert (Schmidt) or close-to (Grace) in their mental mastery of the mike linebacker duties.

Out for the bulk of last week's practices due to a concussion, Grace is slated for full-time duty Wednesday, Notre Dame's last practice prior to Easter break.

"We're going to turn him loose in a full, live scrimmage," said Kelly of his former 2013 starter inside. "He's close. When he opens up on that leg, he's not firing on the same level. Everything else, straight-line, stop and starts, looks really good. When he opens up in pass coverage he's not 100 percent there yet, but he's darn close."

Schmidt doesn't appear close, though he wasn't expected to be either. He's nonetheless participating in team stretching, jogging and jumping as necessary through the team's FSA period prior to practice.

Contact will commence in August.

In their stead has stepped Morgan, first-team reps in pursuit of a job that will likely be shared among three competitors with disparate skills.

"If (opponents) want to get big inside, we feel like we can match up now with a Jarrett Grace as a big Mike," said Kelly. "I don't think we'll say, 'This is your job. You go take it. You're the only guy,' Kelly noted this week in reference to Morgan. "I think we're going to have a committee of players that will help and give us great depth at that position."

Cross-training will likely take place among the linebackers with weak side linebacker Jaylon Smith seeing some time on the strong side (James Onwualu starts there) and Schmidt perhaps sliding from the middle to the weak side upon his return.

Morgan and Grace are, at present, anchored in the middle.

"His physical traits say he's more of a mike linebacker than he is an outside linebacker," said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder of Morgan. "We'd like to get him a comfort level (at mike). We'd like to be able to cross-train linebackers. He's still in the learning process. We may experiment with that later when he gets comfortable playing mike, completely comfortable there.

"He's a great competitor, he works hard at it, it's important to him. He's a much better football player right now and he'll just continue to grow in the system."

Too many good players at one position is the type of problem a defensive staff can embrace.

"I think it's all going to work itself out," said Kelly. "Joe can play Mike and some Will, too.  Not that he's going to supplant Jaylon at the Will position. I'm not suggesting that either. I'm not trying to give you a bunch of hypotheticals."

Much more appealing hypotheticals than at any point in the calendar year 2014.


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