Of Cats, Dogs, Sams, and Rush Ends

The fifth edition in our Best of the Best series ranking the top position groups of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend.

#5 – Outside ‘Backers and Rush Ends

The two defenses featured during the Brian Kelly era in South Bend have featured disparate schemes, but for our purposes, the outside linebackers include the Cat and the Dog/Drop from 2010-2013, plus the Sam linebacker and “Rush End” from last year’s 4-3 front. The Cat ‘backer often played with his hand on the ground, shifting former coordinator Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front to a four-down alignment, and is not dissimilar to Rush End.

The Elite: None – Prince Shembo’s 2012 campaign at Cat linebacker certainly qualifies among the Elite class, but his continual struggles in 2011 as a miscast dog linebacker have to count as well. “None” is a bit of a harsh grade, but all the games matter.

Standouts/Difference Makers: Prince Shembo (Cat), Darius Fleming (Cat), Danny Spond (Dog/Drop), and Jaylon Smith (Dog/Drop) – As noted above, Shembo put forth one season at an elite level while struggling the season prior trying to track and defend skill position players to the short side. He earned the team’s Defensive MVP Award as a 2013 senior but was not close to the impact player he was for an outstanding 2012 defense…

Jaylon Smith played outside as a drop linebacker in his freshman season and was outstanding over the final two months; just intermittently good prior…Fleming was tremendous as a Cat linebacker senior in 2011 but admittedly struggled for the first eight games of 2010, his first crack at the position…Spond was a godsend for the 2012 defense, rarely coming off the field as a stout Dog/Drop ‘backer who was adept at zone coverage.

Quality Starter: Kerry Neal (Dog/Drop) – Was a bit of a square peg in a round hole as the drop linebacker as a 2010 senior, but Neal brought toughness to the position that Kelly sought (he unexpectedly beat out classmate Brian Smith because Neal, as Kelly noted, “plays more physical.”)

Aided the Cause: Ishaq Williams (Cat), Brian Smith (Dog/Drop), James Onwualu (Sam LB), Romeo Okwara (Rush End), Andrew Trumbetti (Rush End) – Williams was a promising player as a 2012 sophomore but his career spiraled thereafter…Smith was far better inside at the tail end of his senior season than in his drop ‘backer rotation with classmate Kerry Neal…

Onwualu was solid in his transition from wide receiver to starting outside linebacker (try finding more than a handful of those!) but shared time with nickel Matthias Farley for much of the season. Onwualu has a shot to blossom at the Sam ‘backer position over the next two seasons….

Okwara and Trumbetti shared the starting Rush End role last season, Brian VanGorder’s equivalent of Diaco’s 3-4 Cat linebacker, sans the myriad short zone coverage responsibilities to the boundary…As an aside, Shembo could have been a dominant Rush End in the current scheme.

Couldn’t/Has Yet to Carve A Niche: Jhonny Williams – Mired as the No. 3 Rush End at present and might not have the current frame to play special teams, a standard third-stringer’s best chance to see the field as a redshirt-freshman. Barring an outstanding summer in which he reshapes his body, it won’t be until spring 2016 in which Williams could accelerate his development.

On Deck for 2015: Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship – Bonner impressed Kelly as a backup to Isaac Rochell this spring (Rochell was reviewed with the interior linemen) at the team’s “Big End” position. He could provide a pass-rushing punch, but will first have to recover and rehab from late-April turf toe surgery…

Blankenship earned ample playing time as a true freshman last fall but fell behind Bonner in the spring’s pecking order. He ended on a high note and the pair will compete through August Camp and likely the bulk of the season for playing time.

Finding a Foothold this Fall? Kolin Hill, Doug Randolph – One of the two is likely to emerge as the Dime package pass rusher -- that is if they can hold off Andrew Trumbetti, who’s also a regular in the base defense.

On the Horizon: The loss of 2015 pledge and four-star prospect Bo Wallace to academics robbed Notre Dame of its only Rush End prospect in the current class. The 2016 class currently includes a pledge from four-star prospect Julian Okwara (Romeo’s younger brother).

Why They’re No. 5: I considered the group for the No. 4 spot (ahead of the offensive line), but that would requite ignoring two seasons of trouble at Drop linebacker (2010 and 2011) and some growing pains at Cat in ’10 as well.

Both Onwualu (Sam) and the Okwara/Trumbetti Rush End tandem project for serious improvement for 2015.

Regardless, a ranking of the Outside Linebackers/Rush Ends season-by-season shows:

1.) 2012: Shembo and Spond as Cat/Dog bookends in the 3-4 are the Diaco-era gold standard…

2.) 2013: Shembo and true freshman Jaylon Smith shined late after a slow start. Smith would, at present, be the best outside linebacker had he remained on the perimeter…

3.) 2014: Onwualu was a part-time starter transitioning from wide receiver and thus ceded time to Nickel Matthias Farley. Okwara and Trumbetti shared the Rush End role in the first 4-3 front of the Kelly era. Okwara and Trumbetti combined to post 9.5 tackles for loss, 5 QB Hurries, 1 PD, 2 FF, and 60 total tackles, more than half of which resulted in gains of 0, 1, or 2 yards (“Stuffs”).

4.) 2011: Fleming was outstanding as the 3-4 Cat, but Shembo struggled mightily out of position at Dog/Drop…

5.) 2010: Fleming struggled early at the Cat (then took a major leap forward in November) and both Neal and Smith seemed out of position at the Dog spot.

On Tap: The sixth-best overall position group of the Kelly era…





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