The Smith & Schmidt Quartet

Options abound for Notre Dame’s six battle-tested linebackers.

It’s a question/lament uttered often by fans and media outside a program’s walls:

“Why not just move (fill in the name) to (fill in the position)?”

And for Notre Dame football 2015, the name is generally a linebacker’s while the position is the weak side or “Will” spot. That’s Jaylon Smith’s domain, but with Smith likely to spend some time on the outside (the strong side, “Sam”), doesn’t it make sense to cross-train one of the team’s three valued middle (“Mike”) linebackers next door at the Will?

Who better to ask than the guy that knows the Mike – check that, the defense – better than any player alive:

“There's some nuance, but when you try to understand defense the way we try to learn, which is conceptual, it makes it easier to try to do changes from each position,” said fifth-year senior Joe Schmidt. “If you learn it from the ground up, that this is how the pieces need to fit together -- it's just a puzzle, really -- then it's okay if Jaylon and I get mixed up and he's at the Mike and I'm at the Will, it's not a big deal.

“But that comes with time, and you need to understand the concepts. That comes with reps. As long as you understand all the concepts you're good.  Then working through technique (issues) is a matter of reps at the position.”

In other words, it’s easy if you pay attention at all times, take copious notes, translate your classroom and film efforts to the field, hone and respect your craft, and endeavor to be professional in everything you do as a football player while attending class and experiencing college.

Easier said than done.

Jaylon Smith’s knowledge of the concepts of Brian VanGorder’s defense has grown since Irish fans last saw him tackling LSU Tigers in Nashville. And because of depth at each of the three linebacker positions and the group’s collective versatility, Smith should spend time outside this fall – his future position when he joins the professional ranks.

“It helps, having that year under your belt. I have a full understanding of the defense, and not only what the linebackers are doing, but the full concept of it,” Smith noted. “Me and a few of the other guys have an understanding of it.”

The Sam position, manned in the base defense by bulked up classmate James Onwualu (6’1” 232 lbs.), affords Smith (6’2” 240) the opportunity to showcase his athleticism.

“Being able to show your speed, being able to pass-rush,” said Smith when asked what he likes about the open space that comes with playing to the field side (Sam). “But there's perks to any LB position.

“Knowing these concepts, it allows me to be flexible, (to) move me around in different spots. It's a privilege. We have a lot of experience with Joe, JG (Jarrett Grace) and Nyles (Morgan). I look forward to see how they use us.

“We aren't selfish, we want to win.”

Onwualu and Smith at Sam. Schmidt, Morgan (6’1” 240), and Grace (6’2” 253) at Mike. Smith and Greer Martini at Will. Each has started at least two games – Smith 26 consecutive since the outset of his Irish career.

Options abound – only Martini (6’2” 245) is unlikely to start in 2015 and he’s the only member of the sextet to previously start at two positions in VanGorder’s defense.

Onwualu was a converted wide receiver last season, new to the nuances of defensive football much less VanGorder’s detailed schemes.

Schmidt (6’0” 235) was the guy that couldn’t leave the field, but did. Smith was the guy that didn’t (thankfully) and remained left to fend for himself while young, inexperienced, and not yet fully prepared rookies flailed around him.

Turn the page.

“We have guys that can do a lot of different things,” Schmidt offered. “I think it's confidence: guys growing in their game and their understanding of defense. We're so much better this time this year than last year. Several guys we have to get on the field. It makes my job easier and it makes it more exciting to play defense.

“We have a lot of guys that are very talented. I really, truly believe that at no point was I ever indispensable,” he continued. “I need the team more than the team needs me. I would never be egotistical enough to think I had that big of an impact. Really, you can take anybody in or out of the lineup (now) and we'll be the same.”

Ideally, that won’t be an issue. But in case calamity strikes twice, the Irish ‘backers aren’t expected to blink.

“We have a lot of experience, it's the first year we've had competition at every position,” said Smith. “It will elevate us, but it'll come back down to the little things.

“How do we come out and perform as a group? How do we keep each other accountable? Focus on the mission, which is to win the national championship, but first there are goals we need to accomplish each week.

“I know we want to win every single game this year and it starts now.” Top Stories