At the time, it seemed to be a bit of a head-scratcher.
Now it makes sense.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder – although admitting to cross-training Jaylon Smith at outside linebacker earlier in spring drills – remained steadfast on keeping Smith at Will linebacker, thus creating a logjam at inside linebacker while entrusting the Sam (outside) position to undersized but agile James Onwualu and former inside linebacker Greer Martini.
That didn’t seem to be the best use of talent, nor did it adhere to the common notion that you put your best football players on the field.
There was a method to their – if not madness – unorthodox-sounding decision. It was in fact an opportunity to a) get Smith settled back at the Will, where he’s had just one year of experience, b) make sure Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace were indeed on their way to a full recovery, and thus, ready for action this fall, and c) take advantage of the pass-coverage skills offered by the uniquely-talented Onwualu with Martini establishing himself at a new position where his physicality can help.
“Today, Jaylon Smith played that (Sam) position all day today,” said Kelly following Wednesday’s practice inside Loftus Sports Center, the 10th of the allotted 15 this spring. “Jaylon played that position for us as a true freshman in Coach (Bob) Diaco’s defense, that drop Sam position.
“So Jaylon has now played the Sam and he’s playing the Will. We feel like now that he has his reads down and has a comfort level playing inside, we can look to a bigger, physical presence on the perimeter, along with a James Onwualu. If you want to put a tight end in there and you want to play more physical, we’ve got a guy like Jaylon who could step up and play there.”
In the process, it loosens up that logjam at inside (Mike and Will) linebacker where it appeared there might not be enough snaps for the talent deserving a shot.
Grace, who’s been on a long road to recovery since suffering a nasty leg injury in October of 2013, continues to flash indications that he’ll be ready to play a high level of football come fall.
“He’s been very, very productive for us,” said Kelly of Grace. “What we were all looking for was to see if there would be a big drop-off in that Friday-Saturday-Monday (set of practices), and there hasn’t been. He’s been sore, but he’s continued to progress each and every day.”
Schmidt, himself on the mend from a broken ankle last November, has further to go. He left the field Wednesday, presumably for more rehabilitative treatment, as the rest of the squad conducted the final 90 minutes of practice.
Nyles Morgan, the talented freshman forced into the lineup when Schmidt suffered his season-ending injury, is in a better spot to earn playing time if Smith slides outside.
Make no mistake: Smith remains a Will linebacker. But by cross-training him and putting him on the perimeter in certain situations, the Irish are better equipped to match up, and that includes Onwualu, who continues to show he’s a button worthy of being pushed against more wide-open offenses.
“(Onwualu has) the ability in spread offenses to cover down on the perimeter, so when he’s asked to play out in space and (with) his ability to play in coverage, if the ball gets thrown out on the perimeter, he can handle that slot receiver, protect the ball being thrown out there, and do a very good job of coverage,” Kelly explained.
“Now, if you put a tight end on the field and you want to play physical football, that’s not what (Onwualu’s) role is. We would make a situational substitution.”
Enter Smith or Martini or perhaps even incoming freshman Josh Barajas down the road. Barajas is perhaps the most physically prepared of the incoming freshmen (this side of early-entry Jerry Tillery). Barajas probably could play any of the linebacker positions, but he's more accustomed – at least at this stage of his career -- to working off the edge.
Kelly and VanGorder were looking for position/situation flexibility and the ability to take greater advantage of the inside linebacker talent.
“We’ve all talked about how with Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan, we’ve got to find a place for all these guys,” Kelly said. “(Early-entry freshman) Te’von Coney, too. Those guys are inside guys, so we’ve got to be able to get all these guys on the field.
“If we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon, we can now do that. We have to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time.”