The expected return of senior nose tackle Jarron Jones (November foot surgery) will augment the defensive front during the summer session. Jones was not involved in contact during spring ball.
Defensive End ("Big End"): Isaac Rochell, Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner (inj.)
Notes: Rochell is on the short list as unofficial defensive MVP of the spring while Bonner’s early- and mid-spring ascent was waylaid by toe surgery (turf toe). A two-deep contributor throughout 2014, Blankenship stepped in for Bonner and looked the part of a legitimate No. 2 strong side defensive end – all that’s missing from his skill set is the necessary bulk.
The Irish are blessed with quality depth behind Rochell.
Nose Tackle: Jarron Jones (Inj.), Jerry Tillery, Pete Mokwuah, Daniel Cage, Micah Dew-Treadway
Notes: Tillery’s impact on the spring tapered as the session came to a close – not unexpected from a competitor that should be breezing through the second semester of his senior season at Evangel Christian Academy. He’s nonetheless in position to provide Notre Dame its best young relief option on the nose since Kona Schwenke emerged in 2012. (Schwenke was an established player thereafter.)
The listing of Mokwuah over Cage is due in part to the latter missing time late in spring ball with an apparent left elbow injury (he played in the Blue Gold Game and also had his right hand heavily wrapped), but also the result of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore signaling out – unprompted, it should be noted – Jacob Matuska (highlighted below) and Mokwuah for their late-spring improvement.
Defensive Tackle ("3-Technique"): Sheldon Day, Jay Hayes, Jacob Matuska, Micah Dew-Treadway
Notes: Hayes solidified a role as Day’s backup entering the summer months – a backup that will play often each week as he brings quickness, aggression, and a welcomed attitude to the equation. After missing time earlier in the spring recovering from a 2014 knee injury, Day returned to form late, much to the relief of Gilmore who admitted he needed to see Day in the fold to give a full evaluation of his defensive front at spring’s conclusion.
Matuska’s emergency playing time last fall seems to have afforded him the confidence to compete at a major college level. He made plays this spring. If Day and Hayes remain healthy, a defense could do a lot worse than having Matuska as a spot player. (A greater role would still likely be to his detriment.)
Defensive End (In the Base D, it's "Rush End"): Romeo Okwara, Andrew Trumbetti, Doug Randolph, Jhonny Williams
Notes: Trumbetti missed a chunk of spring with a virus but impressed Gilmore both early and late. He and Okwara will doubtless rotate often as they did last season.
Though accepted as a player with much work to do, Williams concluded the spring game with a quality effort as a pass-rusher, albeit vs. the third offensive line and quarterbacks in non-contact situations. Randolph’s best role
Nickel Pass-Rusher: Andrew Trumbetti, Kolin Hill OR Doug Randolph
Notes: Hill and Randolph are listed as linebackers, but for game day purposes, a pass-rushing role is their best chance to make an impact. Trumbetti is, in my opinion, the best pass-rushing option off the edge, but his sub package role will also be dictated by base defense playing time.
The unit is blessed with depth at each of the alignment’s three positions.
SAM: James Onwualu, (Jaylon Smith), Greer Martini, Kolin Hill
Notes: Onwualu wore a protective brace through most of spring ball, one he shed late. He might have also shed the label of “1A” at the position, because both head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder appeared high on the do-everything competitor’s efforts this spring. Martini will lend a hand against power running teams such as Stanford, while both will likely see time together against the option offenses of Georgia Tech and Navy. (The duo combined for 16 tackles and made our Top 10 player list post-film reviews.)
Smith is expected to play on the strong side in various sub packages featured by VanGorder. (As a starting sam and full-time special teams player, Onwualu will likely need the occasional relief Smith’s presence provides.)
Hill’s listing as a sam ‘backer is a case of semantics – he’s a sub package pass-rusher.
MIKE: Nyles Morgan OR Jarrett Grace OR Joe Schmidt (Inj.)
Notes: In good health, each of the Morgan, Schmidt, Grace triumvirate will play next fall. In good health, it is assumed one Schmidt (coming off November ankle surgery) will cross-train at the will 'backer spot as noted below.
Morgan began and ended spring ball as the No. 1 mike linebacker, but that was due primarily to the ongoing recovery of Grace (2013 leg surgery) and Schmidt’s non-contact status. Morgan received a chance for reps and clearly took advantage of the opportunity. Michael Deeb was medically disqualified from action in early August.
WILL: Jaylon Smith, Te'Von Coney, Joe Schmidt (Inj.) Austin Larkin (junior walk-on)
Notes: Coney did a great service to his career by enrolling early and from our purview, he’d challenge for a true two-deep role on Irish teams with less veteran depth inside. For 2015, should Schmidt cross-train at the position as expected, Coney’s playing time will be on special teams.
A trio of incoming freshmen is expected to compete at nickel in August while the safeties unit should have the services of Drue Tranquill (November knee surgery) and incoming fifth-year transfer Avery Sebastian, a California graduate. Suspended senior cornerback Keivarae Russell is also expected to be welcomed back to the fray.
The enigmatic Shumate has finally cemented a starting role and could have a breakout senior season.
Free Safety: Max Redfield, Drue Tranquill (Inj.), Nicky Baratti, Matthias Farley
Notes: Farley's part of a contingency plan at the position and will primarily compete at nickel (below). Tranquill is likely better suited for strong safety but the Irish will receive added depth in the form of Sebastian at the position.
Redfield was one of the top defensive players for the Irish this spring.
Baratti made it through spring ball with minimal contact which means his true test awaits. He’s had four major shoulder injuries over the last 28 months -- two surgeries to his left shoulder occurred post-season 2012 and during August camp 2013 while a lone surgery to his right shoulder was performed in late-September 2014 following action against Purdue. Baratti likewise dislocated that shoulder during the 2014 Blue Gold game but did not have surgery, playing instead with a harness.
He’ll be forced to encounter true contact in August in an effort to gauge his availability.
Left Cornerback: Cole Luke, Connor Cavalaris
Notes: Look for either Nick Watkins or Devin Butler to flip sides and work behind Luke in August Camp should KeiVarae Russell return as projected. Butler has been primarily a right cornerback dating back through last August camp.
Right Cornerback: Nick Watkins, Devin Butler
Notes: Watkins unofficially moved ahead of Butler late this spring. Either/both has a tough road to ho this summer and in August when it’s expected that potential All-American KeiVarae Russell will throw his hat in the ring.
Nickel: Matthias Farley, Connor Cavalaris
Notes: Farley intermittently starred in the role last season though he also struggled downfield in coverage vs. quality passing attacks. Cavalaris has filled many roles in the secondary since the outset of 2012 including working as a starter in kickoff coverage. The former walk-on is expected to be a fifth-year competitor for the Irish next fall, scholarship or otherwise.
A healthy Drue Tranquill could compete at nickel as well, as could Russell, shifting inside from his starting perimeter position as needed.