The Playmaker

The first of 20 predictions in our summer-long series first reviews the candidates, then settles upon the Irish defender who’ll serve as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s chief playmaker in 2015.

The moniker, “Playmaker” in football is often associated with the offensive side of scrimmage. For Notre Dame, the lead dog in that regard last fall was touchdown-maker Will Fuller, and in program history, it’s been the wide receivers, running backs, dual-threat triggermen, and of course, all-purpose returners that earn the enviable label.

But what about their defensive counterparts?

Not all big plays by a defender produce equal impact on a football game, but each considered in our defensive metric “Big Plays” tracked throughout 2014 and discussed in this column resulted in, at worst, no gain for the opposing offense on a given play.

Sacks, Tackles-for-Loss (TFL), Passes Defended (PD), Interceptions (INT), Fumble Recoveries (FR), Fumbles Forced (FF), Blocked Kicks (BLK) and Defensive or Special Teams Touchdowns (TD) comprise the category, and in 2014, Notre Dame’s big playmakers on defense ranked as follows:

-- Cole Luke (24): Claimed the team crown on the strength of a remarkable 15 PD to go with 2 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, and 2 FF
-- Matthias Farley (19): Stat-stuffing senior posted 6.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 5 PD and 4 INT in part-time duty at Nickel
-- Jaylon Smith (15.5): 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2.5 PD, 1 FF. Also led the team with 112 tackles
-- Isaac Rochell (15): Recorded 7.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 3 PD, 1 FR, and 1 blocked kick along with an unofficial 11 QB hurries (not included)
-- Jarron Jones (13): 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FF, and 2 blocked kicks.
-- Sheldon Day (12.5): Posted 7.5 TFL, 1 sack, 2 PD, and 2 FR over 10.5 games played.
-- Elijah Shumate (10.5): A little of everything en route to double digits including 2.5 TFL, a sack, an INT, 5 PD, and a FR, plus a memorable touchdown against Michigan that was negated by penalty.

Before breaking down the unit’s prospects for 2015, we’ll first take a look back at the program’s last 30 seasons of Playmakers, defensively.

THE NEW MILLENIUM

A trio of standouts up front, Stephon Tuitt, Justin Tuck and Anthony Weaver, serve as the only repeat season leaders in the 2000s to date, with Weaver posting an incredible 65 statistical big plays in a two-year span.

Tuck’s 37.5 big plays in the lost season of 2003 will be tough to top as an unofficial single-season record.

2014 – CB Cole Luke (24): 2 TFL, 1 Sack, 15 PD, 4 INT, 2 FF
2013 – DE Stephon Tuitt (21.5): 9 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 3 PD, 1 INT, and 1 FF
2012 – DE Stephon Tuitt (32): 13 TFL, 12 sacks, 1 PD, 1 FR, 3 FF, and one TD
-- Of note: Manti Te’o recorded 27 big plays by our metric in 2012 with 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 11 PD, 7 INT, and 2 FR
2011 – MLB Manti Te’o (21.5): 13.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 2 PD, 1 FF
2010 – Cat LB Darius Fleming (23): 11 TFL, 6 sacks, 5 PD, 1 INT
2009 – SS Kyle McCarthy (18): 3 TFL, 10 PD, 5 INT
2008 – FS David Bruton (19.5): 1.5 TFL, 4 INT, 6 PD, 2 FR, and 2 FF
2007 – 3-4 DE Trevor Laws (22): 8 TFL, 4 sacks, 5 PD, 2 FR, 3 blocked kicks
2006 – (Tie) 4-3 DE Victor Abiamiri (27.5): 15 TFL, 10.5 sacks, 2 FF. and 4-3 DT Derek Landri (27.5): 15.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 PD, and 4 blocked kicks.
2005 – MLB Brandon Hoyte (27.5): 16.5 TFL, 6 sacks, 3 PD, 2 FF
2004 – 4-3 DE Justin Tuck (20): 14 TFL and 6 sacks
2003 – 4-3 DE Justin Tuck (37.5): 19 TFL, 13.5 sacks (a single-season program record) 2 PD, and 3 FF. Holy Moses…
2002 – CB Shane Walton (23): 5 TFL, 7 INT, 7 PD, 1 FR, 1 FF, 2 TD
2001 – 4-3 DE Anthony Weaver (34): 28 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PD, 3 FF
-- As an aside: Weaver, 28 Tackles for Loss!
2000 – 3-4 DE Anthony Weaver (31): 13 TFL, 8 sacks, 2 INT, 5 PD, 1 FR, and 2 FF

THE 1990s: MINOR AND ZORICH POST HIGH MARKS

Our totals include bowl games even though the NCAA did not yet recognize those post-season outings among its season statistics. Kory Minor was the decades only repeat leader, though DT Bryant Young, would have turned the trick in 1991-92 if not for an incredible Cotton Bowl effort by OLB Devon McDonald (4 TFL) to steal the team lead.

1999 – FS A’Jani Sanders (19): 10 TFL, 3 INT, 4 PD, 1 FF, 1 TD (Incidentally, 10 TFL is impressive for a safety)
1998 -- 3-4 OLB Lamont Bryant (17): 7 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 PD, 3 FR, 1 TD
1997 – 3-4 OLB Kory Minor (19.5): 8 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 3 INT, 5 PD
1996 – 3-4 OLB Kory Minor (24): 7 TFL, 8 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PD, 3 FF
1995 – 3-4 ILB Lyron Cobbins (17): 3 TFL, 1 sack, 5 INT, 4 PD, 3 FR, 1 FF. Cobbins’ 5 INT was a modern record for a linebacker at the program prior to Manti Te’o’s remarkable 7 in 2012.
1994 – Rush End Bert Berry (14): 1 TFL, 6 sacks, 4 PD, 3 FF
1993 – CB Bobby Taylor (20): 2 TFL, 1 sack, 4 INT, 9 PD, 2 FR, 1 TD, 1 blocked kick.
-- Of note: 1993 FS Jeff Burris (2 sacks, 3 INT, 6 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 blocked kick, 1 PR TD) finished third with 16 big plays. He also scored 6 rushing touchdowns as a running, which should count for something at safety…
1992 – 4-3 DE Devon McDonald (18.8): 9.5 TFL, 8.3 sacks, 1 FF
1991 – (Tie) 4-3 DT Bryant Young (18): 9 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 PD, 2 FR, 1 FF and OLB Devon McDonald (18) on 12 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 FR, and 3 FF
1990 – 3-4 NT Chris Zorich (23): 14 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 PD, 2 FF, 1 FR

1985-1989: THE BEST, AND WORST, OF TIMES

A pair of defensive linemen, Franks Stams (1988 National Champions) and Eric Dorsey (a bright spot and first-round draft pick from the decade-worst 1985 squad) both put forth outstanding individual efforts under vastly different circumstances.

1989 – CB Todd Lyght (17.5): 2 TFL, 8 INT, 6.5 PD, 1 blocked kick. The late Jeff Alm finished second with 17 as a defensive tackle.
1988 – Rush End Frank Stams (24): 2 TFL, 9 sacks, 8 PD, 3 FF and 2 FR. ILB Michael Stonebreaker finished second with 21 (10 TFL, 1 sack, 5 PD, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD)
1987 – 3-4 OLB Cedric Figaro (14): 5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 PD, 1 INT, and 3 FF. CBS’s National Defensive Player of the Year, Irish inside ‘backer Ned Bolcar, finished second with 12
1986 – 3-4 OLD Cedric Figaro (*19.5): 3 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 4 PD, 2 FF, *7 FR – the latter serves as an unbreakable program record for the foreseeable future
1985 – 3-4 DT Eric Dorsey (23): 18 TFL, 3 sacks, 3 FF, and 2 FR for the Dead Man Walking Irish in Gerry Faust’s final season at the helm.

2015 -- THE CREAM RISES TO THE TOP


Notable in projections for the upcoming season is that each of the team’s top seven from 2014 listed above (Luke, Farley, Smith, Rochell, Jones, Day, and Shumate) return to mix it up again.

So too does Romeo Okwara (four sacks, two FF, PD), Joe Schmidt (2 INT, 3 PD, 2 FF), and Andrew Trumbetti (5.5 TFL as a part-timer last fall).

With the bulk of his defensive talent entering its collegiate prime, below is a breakdown of VanGorder’s troops and their chances to lead the 2015 squad in big plays:

Certain Contenders -- Smith, Luke, Rochell, Shumate, Day, and KeiVarae Russell :

-- Smith is the best player on the team and potentially the best linebacker in America…

-- Both Luke and Russell will pile up the PDs (the key to Luke’s 2014 Big Plays title) and it would be surprising if they don’t combine for a minimum seven interceptions with 10 not out of the question. Russell attacks scrimmage with aplomb…

-- Shumate registered 10 “Stuffs” (tackles for no gain, 1, or 2 yards) and 2.5 TFL last season to go with a sack, PD, INT, and FR -- and that was without full understanding of the proceedings. The senior is primed for an impact season…

-- Rochell and Day can live in opposing backfields – both have double-digit TFL potential and should register in excess of five sacks. Rochell is adept at breaking up passes at scrimmage…

On the Rise – Jones, Trumbetti, Max Redfield, Nyles Morgan

-- Jones quietly posted 7.5 TFL and 12 “Stuffs” last season and he’s a kick-blocking machine. In good health, he’ll contend for this crown…

-- Redfield is everyone’s pick to click this pre-season. His range and athleticism are second to none. The only thing holding him back is the likely dearth of tackles for loss/sacks as a free safety.

-- Morgan registered 10 “Stuffs” and 3.5 TFL in just 5.5 games played. If he wins the mike linebacker role, he’s a dark horse candidate for the “Big Plays” title.

-- Trumbetti is, in my purview, the team’s best pass rusher, and he’ll make plays vs. the run as well. (7 “Stuffs” and 5.5 TFL last fall as a rotational freshman.)

Don’t Overlook – Farley, Okwara, Joe Schmidt:

-- Farley was a revelation at Nickel last season. He might not excel in man-to-man coverage but his knack for making plays moving forward and parallel was on display throughout 2014.

-- Okwara finished with just four tackles for loss (all four were sacks) but he added two forced fumbles and a pass defended. More relevant, he finished with 15 “Stuffs.” Okwara was better at scrimmage than most realize last fall.

-- A healthy Schmidt is likely to pick off a pass or two, force and recover a fumble, and bat down a few balls. But penetration at scrimmage (only 0.5 TFL last fall) is key to his potential rise up these charts. Schmidt 19 “Stuffs” last season tied for the team lead (Jaylon Smith) but Schmidt appeared in only 8.5 games – an indicator he could greatly improve upon his TFL as a fifth-year senior.

Off the Radar – Drue Tranquill, Jay Hayes, James Onwualu

-- Onwualu’s roadblock is playing time – that is, he’s likely in a bit of a platoon at the sam linebacker position. But the former wide receiver’s second season on the defensive side of scrimmage should afford him to play more naturally, thus unleashing his trademark physical nature. Look for Onwualu to pile up the “Stuffs” vs. Georgia Tech and Navy…

-- A healthy Drue Tranquill would be an intriguing Nickel competitor and he’d certainly reprise his role as roving dime package linebacker.

-- Jay Hayes is one injury away from starting at defensive tackle in Sheldon Day’s stead…and that injury has occurred in both of the last two seasons. Hayes is a violent, active, aggressive lineman. He’d likely make more plays in penetration than holding the point.

The Final Verdict: Jaylon Smith – While the junior is capable of a few picks, fumble recoveries, forced fumbles, and/or passes defended, it’s his ability to attack scrimmage that gives him a leg up in this category. Look for Smith to lead the team in tackles for loss again in 2015 -- only this time by a wide margin – adding a full handful of sacks en route to the unofficial crown of “Big Plays” leader for the Irish defense.


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