Notre Dame, Kelly Open to Change

A look at position changes during the Brian Kelly era, past and present

Most prep players that pledge to the Fighting Irish football program rank among the best at their positions, both in their home-state and nationally.

What happens when they're later asked to move for the betterment of the team or their football futures?

Accepting that minor tweaks among young offensive linemen, or technical changes such as nose guard to nose tackle, etc., are not included, below is a list of position changes at Notre Dame under head coach Brian Kelly, now entering his sixth season at the helm in South Bend.

2010 -- TINKERING WITH THE INHERITANCE
The only certainty in the changeover from the Charlie Weis era to the Kelly regime was the status quo would not exist:

-- Theo Riddick: Among a quintet of potential running back starters in the spring of 2010, Riddick was moved to slot receiver in order to augment a passing attack that would include one true freshman starter (early enrollee T.J. Jones) and future NFL standouts Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph. Riddick broke out for a four-game stretch near mid-season (33 receptions, 3 TD, more than 343 yards) before injuring his ankle against Western Michigan in Game Seven.

He moved back to running back for the 2012 national runner-up Irish and was named the team's Offensive MVP at season's end. Riddick caught 34 passes with four touchdowns last season as a third-down 'back for the Detroit Lions.

-- Harrison Smith: Was benched midway through 2009 after a rough go at safety under the former regime and moved to a sam linebacker/nickel position. The fan base's unexpected whipping boy during the latter stages of the Charlie Weis/Jon Tenuta/Corwin Brown train wreck, Smith moved back to safety and shined for two seasons under defensive backs coach Chuck Martin, becoming a team captain and first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings.

Said Kelly in his 2010 spring address of Smith and his move back to safety: "He has to play safety for us. If he can't play safety, he won't play."

Smith and Riddick rank among the three most important position switches of the Kelly era to date.

-- Brian Smith: Moved from middle linebacker in Tenuta's 4-3 front to "Dog" linebacker in Bob Diaco's 3-4 alignment. Smith then served as a reserve behind classmate Kerry Neal before moving back inside to the "Will" position in place of injured Carlo Calabrese in late October. From there Smith shined, becoming Notre Dame's best defensive player in the month of November as the Irish roared to a 3-0 finish after a 4-5 start.

It's fair to note that Smith's initial move outside was far less successful than his move back in next to Manti Te'o in the middle.

Kerry Neal: Moved from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 drop linebacker and surprised most when he won the job over Smith (above). Neal started 12 games as a senior in 2010.

-- Jamoris Slaughter: Moved from 2009 backup cornerback to starting safety under the Kelly regime, a position from which Slaughter later starred in 2011 and at the outset of 2012 before losing his final (fifth) season to a torn Achilles in mid-September. (Slaughter also missed a large part of 2010 due to injury, returning late to help the Irish to a 4-1 finish.)

-- Dan Fox: Moved from outside linebacker under the previous regime to the will linebacker position under Kelly and Diaco. Fox went on to start 30 games and was named the team's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013. He spent 2014 as a member of the New York Giants.

-- Steve Paskorz: Moved from linebacker to fullback and back to linebacker but any progress was stalled by a persistent back injury. Similarly, Bobby Burger was moved from blocking tight end (2009) to fullback (2010) but the position was not utilized by Kelly during his initial season.

-- Of note: 2009 sophomore defensive end Darius Fleming made the natural move to 3-4 cat linebacker under Kelly/Diaco in 2010. Prep quarterback and late-cycle signee Derek Roback was moved to linebacker, a change the elicited an August camp transfer.

Danny Spond, a quarterback and safety in high school, moved to drop linebacker upon arrival and made an immediate camp impact. He was recruited to play the position by the Kelly regime.

2011 -- FLIPPING SCRIMMAGE
A notable quartet of changes in that each not only benefited the team, but the individual's respective career arc.

-- Bennett Jackson: Earned Special Teams Player of the Year honors as a freshman wide receiver in 2010 and was moved to cornerback for 2011. Started his final two seasons (2012-13) and was selected by the New York Giants in the sixth round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

-- Austin Collinsworth: Played with Jackson as a special teams stalwart as a true freshman in 2010 and like Jackson, moved to the defensive backfield (safety) in 2011 where he followed in Jackson's footsteps as Notre Dame's Special Teams Player of the Year award winner. Became a team captain as a fifth-year senior (2014) though his 2012 and 2014 seasons were lost and/or truncated by injuries.

-- Kona Schwenke: Began his career as a 240-pound pass-rushing end in 2010 -- activated after eight games, no less, before gaining more than 65 pounds en route to a future starting nose tackle job in November of 2013. Schwenke's "lost redshirt" as a sophomore in 2011 greatly impacted his Irish career. (Consider the impact he could have made as a fifth-year player for the depleted Irish defensive line last fall.)

-- Luke Massa: Moved from backup quarterback to wide receiver (and holder), maintaining a starting role in the latter over the next three seasons. Massa's decision not to return for a fifth year last fall was an unforeseen negative -- the 2014 Irish may go down as the only squad in program history to flounder due in large part to the inability to hold for field goals and extra points.

2012 -- THE MIDAS TOUCH
It's difficult to imagine a college program coming up with more valuable changes -- including three in which players flipped sides of scrimmage -- than Kelly's Irish in 2012.

-- Matthias Farley: Moved from scout team receiver in 2011 to backup safety in spring 2012, to starting safety for the bulk of the 2012 season for the resurgent Irish. (Farley moved two seasons later to nickel as described below.)

-- KeiVarae Russell: Entered Kelly's office prior to the 2012 season and was asked to move from running back -- his prep position -- to cornerback to aid the sparse unit prior to August camp. Thanks in part to a injury suffered by projected starter Lo Wood, Russell went on to start the next 26 games and is expected to return to the fray following a 2014 suspension as one of the team's best players next fall.

-- Troy Niklas: Moved from an ill-advised role at drop linebacker early in 2011 to an intriguing pass-rushing linebacker position during his freshman season, but it was a switch to tight end prior to spring ball 2012 that caught most observers off guard. Those observers were wrong: Niklas capitalized on the move to become a go-to pass catcher in 2013 and second round pick (as a true junior) by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2014 NFL Draft -- one season earlier than Kelly had envisioned.

-- Prince Shembo: Another miscast square-peg/round-hole drop linebacker in 2011, Shembo put his hand down as the cat linebacker in 2012 and starred there through the end of 2013 culminating with a Defensive Player of the Year award from the program. A fourth-round pick by the Atlanta Falcons thereafter, Shembo started three games as an inside linebacker as a rookie last fall.

-- Theo Riddick: As noted above, moved back from the slot (2010-11) to a lead runner role (in which he likewise operated from the slot) and not only triggered Notre Dame's offensive attack, but made a good deal of money for himself thereafter in the process.

-- Cam McDaniel: Was moved from running back following his freshman season of 2011 to cornerback in spring and during the summer of 2012. Moved back to running back in early August after the aforementioned Russell proved his wares during camp. Deadpanned McDaniel of the comparison between himself and Russell as corners: "Yeah, that wasn't much of a decision."

McDaniel later revealed his move from RB to CB was an agreed-upon one year deal between he and Kelly as the team needed defensive backfield help.

2013 -- IN SEARCH OF STABILITY…AND A PLAYMAKER
More tweaks than outright changes, though one future playmaker was unearthed in an off-season scrimmage flip:

-- C.J. Prosise: Moved from scout team safety as a 2012 freshman to slot receiver for BCS Championship preparations and into the 2013 spring session. One year later, Prosise started six games for the 2014 Irish, securing 29 receptions including 10 in excess of 20 yards. He's currently cross-training at running back.

-- Christian Lombard: Started all of 2012 at right tackle for the 12-1 Irish but moved to right guard for his senior season of 2013. Lost the final six contests of that season to a back injury before moving out to tackle in spring/summer 2014….and back to guard by the end of September where he started through the conclusion of the regular season.

-- Nick Martin: Moved from the team's "sixth-man" and chief backup role at G/T in 2012 to starting center for 2013. Martin moved back to guard last fall due to torn ligaments in his thumb but is back at home in the pivot entering the 2015 season.

-- Elijah Shumate: Served as the team's nickel as a true freshman in 2012 and technically trained with the cornerbacks as a result of that niche role. His move to safety in 2013 was a no-brainer decision, one planned from the outset of his career.

-- Will Mahone: Moved from running back to slot receiver prior to the season and appeared in two games while battling a persistent ankle injury suffered in August camp. Mahone was dismissed from the squad in the 2014 off-season for an incident and subsequent arrest near his hometown in Austintown, Ohio.

-- Matt Hegarty: Moved from backup guard to starting center at the tail end of the 2013 season to replace an injured Nick Martin (knee). Hegarty went back to guard for the 2014 season before switching back to center in mid-September -- again to aid an injured Martin. He has since decided to transfer from the program, largely because of spring 2015 decision to move him back to guard.

Hegarty was a four-star offensive tackle prospect per Scout.com entering college.

-- Josh Atkinson: Moved from cornerback to wide receiver for the 2013 season before moving back to the corner prior to 2014 -- a season lost due to an August hip injury.

2014 -- REBIRTH
A pair of projected 2015 fifth-year seniors found new life thanks to drastic changes from their 2014 roles.

-- Matthias Farley: Moved from safety following a rough 2013 campaign and provided unexpected (by media) playmaking ability as the squad's nickel defender last season, a role he'll continue to man as a fifth-year senior next fall.

-- Amir Carlisle: Followed Theo Riddick's career path, moving from running back (2013) to slot receiver (2014) and shined early, winning the starting job and securing 11 of the first 12 passes thrown in his direction (with two touchdowns) before suffering a knee injury in Game Three against Purdue. Carlisle returned two weeks later but struggled before putting forth one of his best career efforts -- a full seven weeks after the injury -- catching three passes for 92 yards with a touchdown at Arizona State. Carlisle returns this season to assume slot and kick returner duties.

-- Jaylon Smith: Moved from dog (drop) linebacker in a 3-4 scheme as a true freshman in 2013 to sam linebacker in the first half of the 2014 spring session. Smith moved thereafter to will, a spot he occupies today and one in which he earned second-team All-America honors by the Associated Press last fall.

-- James Onwualu: Moved from wide receiver (three starts) as a freshman in 2013 to safety in spring ball 2014 before settling at sam linebacker late in the session. Went on to start eight games last fall and is the leader in the clubhouse for the starting role for 2015.

-- Justin Utupo: Entered college as a pass-rushing defensive end…moved to inside linebacker in 2011…served as a dime package (backup) pass rusher in 2012…backup defensive end in 2013…and later emerged in 2014 as a solid backup defensive tackle behind team captain Sheldon Day. Utupo became a late-November starter for the 2014 Irish, his final of many moves proved to be the best.

-- Sheldon Day: More of a position tweak due to the new scheme employed by first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, but Day moved from 3-4 defensive end to three-technique defensive tackle for the 2014 season and remains there entering his senior season this fall. Tied for second on the squad last fall with 7.5 tackles-for-loss.

-- Steve Elmer: Started three games at guard as a true freshman in 2013 but began the 2014 season as the squad's starting right tackle. Moved back to guard by mid-September, a spot he has owned since heading into his junior season of 2015.

-- Drue Tranquill: After operating (and faring well) as a dime package linebacker for the first two months of his college career, true freshman Drue Tranquill earned a starting free safety job against Northwestern and Louisville in mid-November. His season ended after suffering a torn ACL against the Cardinals and though ahead of any human schedule in terms of his rehab, Tranquill will not take contact this spring.

-- John Turner: Moved from safety to sam linebacker in spring ball 2014 but was buried on the depth chart since. Turner started on the four Irish "run teams" with the specialty units, a role that kept him heavily involved in the action last season. Has since moved back to safety for spring 2015.

-- Anthony Rabasa: Recruited as a cat linebacker, Rabasa moved inside as a freshman in 2011, then back to cat 'backer for 2012 and later to defensive end 2013. His final switch was to his natural rush end position last season. Rabasa's career highlight was a QB Hurry and pass defended at Florida State vs. former Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last October.

-- Isaac Rochell: Started 12 games at defensive end in 2014 before moving to nose tackle for the 2014 Music City Bowl. Earned Defensive MVP honors from our website for his efforts. Rochell will work at defensive end in the base defense and slide inside for sub packages in 2015 per VanGorder.

-- Sam Mustipher: Was moved to center early in his college career (August 2014) and serves as the No. 2 pivotman this spring behind Nick Martin.

Of note: Ronnie Stanley moved from starting right tackle in 2013 to left tackle in 2014 where he remains today. As well, 2013 outside linebacker Romeo Okwara moved to defensive end, a natural switch in the team's change from the 3-4 to a 4-3 front. Ishaq Williams moved from cat linebacker to defensive end to match the new scheme prior to his August suspension.

2015 -- TO BE DETERMINED
A familiar name, plus the oft-uttered name of spring ball 2015 top our list of position changes pending an end result next fall.

-- Jerry Tillery: Pledged to the Irish in July of 2013 as a four-star offensive tackle but has begun his career on the defensive line, earning first-team status as a semester enrollee while projected nose tackle starter Jarron Jones recovers from November foot surgery. Said associate head coach Mike Denbrock of Tillery's move from the offensive side of scrimmage which Denbrock oversees to the defensive line:

"Oh God. That was like, tears…I don't want to admit as a man that I cry, but that was a tough one for sure. We're all in it to do what's best for our football team but if he's doing the amazing things that he's doing on the defense you can imagine what he'd be as a left tackle."

-- C.J. Prosise: Has worked for the bulk of spring ball as a running back and is expected to operate as hybrid slot receiver/running back in the fall.

-- Chase Hounshell: Battled myriad shoulder injuries (and three surgeries) as a defensive end and defensive tackle from 2011 through 2014 and will attempt to earn a spot on the 2015 roster as a fifth-year player at tight end.

-- Doug Randolph: Began his Irish career in 2013 as an inside linebacker, then moved to a will linebacker role in the new scheme. He earned his first playing time last fall, largely on special teams. Randolph currently mans the "rush end" position, the role for which most felt he was ideally suited as a prep prospect.

-- Kolin Hill: Technically listed at sam linebacker after working as the team's dime package rush end last season, Hill remained in the rush end role during our practice viewing periods last weekend.

-- Greer Martini: Began his true freshman season of 2014 as Jaylon Smith's backup at will linebacker and later started in the middle after injury (Joe Schmidt) and suspension (Nyles Morgan) felled the team's starters at the mike. Works at sam linebacker this spring behind incumbent James Onwualu.

-- Mark Harrell: Moved from center/guard in 2013-14 to right tackle for spring ball 2015. Will likely serve as a utility man during his senior year next fall.

-- Jonathan Bonner: Moved from defensive tackle (2014) as a true freshman to strong side defensive end this spring, though Bonner was a recruited as a defensive end out of high school.


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