Best of the Best: Irish Inside ‘Backers

The second edition in our week-long series ranking the best position groups of the five-season Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

#2 – Inside Linebackers

The first four seasons of the Kelly era saw just five players earn starting nods: Manti Te’o (39 games), Dan Fox (31), Carlo Calabrese (26), Brian Smith (5) and Jarrett Grace (3).

Thereafter, four players started at inside ‘backer in November 2014 alone: Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, Greer Martini, and Nyles Morgan.

The Elite: Manti Te’o – If not for one of the sport’s most infamous face plants against Alabama, Te’o would have doubtless infiltrated the program’s Holy Trinity of Linebackers (the phrase coined by Blue and Gold Illustrated’s Lou Somogyi): Jim Lynch, Bob Golic, and Michael Stonebreaker.

Instead, the career pecking order at the position remains up for debate, but no player of any position can claim a better regular season effort than that of Te’o’s performance in 2012.

Inside Oddity:

Standouts/Difference Makers: Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt – Both have a chance to join “Elite” status by season’s end. A true junior, Smith has two seasons of eligibility remaining and he’d likely have to stay for both if he wants to rank among the program’s all-time legends.

Has the loss of any player more negatively, and directly, ruined an Irish football team than that of Schmidt’s after a November 1 ankle injury last season? From contender to incompetent is a long way down…

It’s a tall task considering a missed off-season and spring due to recovery and rehab, but if Schmidt repeats his 2014 season this fall -- only over a 12-to-13-game slate rather than eight -- his name will resonate with the best at the school since the turn of the century.

Quality Starters: Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Brian Smith – Grace’s full story has yet to be written, but its peaks and valleys to date are remarkable. Both Fox and Calabrese put forth solid, at times outstanding efforts while occasionally being exposed when forced to defend quality offenses in space.

Though he played eight games outside and just five inside under Kelly, linebacker Brian Smith should not be overlooked for his late-career efforts. The enigmatic Smith played – far and away – the best football of his career as it came to a close in November 2010 when he replaced the injured Calabrese as a starter next to Te’o.

It’s not a stretch to say Smith’s final four regular season games – Tulsa, Utah, Army, and USC – were better than any stretch put forth by the Calabrese, Fox, and Grace trio.

Aided the Cause: Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini – Neither was ready for full-time duty last November but both accepted the challenge in the wake of Schmidt’s injury. Morgan is a potential star and Martini will be a four-year contributor, in some capacity, in South Bend.

Couldn’t Carve A Niche: Kendall Moore, Nile Sykes – Moore technically did as a blocker on the kickoff team but his inability to crack the lineup from scrimmage proved vexing for Irish fans. Sykes ran into a depth chart he was not going to crack upon arrival last summer and transferred to Indiana.  

On Deck for 2015: Morgan and Martini

Finding a Foothold this Fall? Te’Von Coney – The 2015 early enrollee will play, but it will likely be on special teams as the Irish linebacking corps, when in good health, is stacked inside.

(Incoming freshman Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal will be included in the OLB review, though the former could work “inside” at the will.)

On the Horizon: None. ILB is not a position of need for the Irish staff in the 2016 recruiting cycle as Morgan and Martini will both have two seasons of eligibility remaining and Coney, Barajas, and Bilal three at season’s end.

As well, Jaylon Smith (choosing between senior year/NFL) and Jarrett Grace (a 6th-year is attainable) could also be in the fold next fall.

Why They’re No. 2: Though all three are solid players, Fox, Calabrese, and Grace aren’t on the same level as the team’s tight ends that rank as our top choice for Kelly’s best position groups.

Te’o’s three-year presence includes one season of utter dominance. Couple that with the Smith/Schmidt combo from last season and -- it is assumed -- this fall, and Kelly’s inside ‘backers deserve plaudits to date.

If Schmidt and/or Smith earn another MVP award at season’s end – and if the Irish win at least 10 games – the inside ‘backers could step to the fore after season No. 6 of the Kelly regime.

Note: The No. 3 position group of the Kelly era will be posted Tuesday. Top Stories