Five years ago, Irish Illustrated posted a film review of an undersized linebacker from Orange, Calif. by the name of Joe Schmidt. Schmidt had agreed to attend Notre Dame – his dream school – as a preferred walk-on.
It was clear on that film that Schmidt was a motivated, active, productive high school linebacker who attacked the game with gusto and set out to maximize every opportunity that confronted him on the football field. Schmidt played with a nasty streak and it showed in his productivity.
To summarize, the Irish Illustrated film review praised Schmidt for his love for the game and football prowess. It also suggested that the odds of him ever being a starter for the Irish were extreme, bordering on slim and none.
He could be a consistent contributor on special teams and a guy who could help create/increase the chemistry mix on the defensive side of the football. But a starter? At Notre Dame? Nope.
Schmidt, of course, would go on to become a two-year starter for the Irish, a couple of years after Irish head coach Brian Kelly declared during Schmidt’s freshman season that he’d ultimately “play a lot of football for us.”
It would have been difficult to project just how positive of an impact Schmidt would have on the Notre Dame program. There was a pied piper-like quality to his personality, and when Jarrett Grace suffered a catastrophic leg injury midway through the 2013 season, Schmidt’s path to a starting berth opened up like the Red Sea, particularly when Brian VanGorder was named defensive coordinator in 2014.
The purpose of this build up is not to say that 6-foot-0, 210-pound Jonathan Jonathan Jones – an inside linebacker out of Oak Ridge High School in Orlando, Fla. – is just like Schmidt. But there certainly are some talking points, including a scheme that is a better fit for Jones than the one Schmidt found in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 front when Schmidt arrived in the summer of 2011.
It’s a tough road for any undersized inside linebacker, let alone one playing in a 3-4. Those inside linebackers often find themselves in a one-on-one match-up with guards who out-weigh them by 80-plus pounds.
It was a big break in Schmidt’s favor when VanGorder implemented a four-man front/one-gap defense. A lack of size (and physical ailments) certainly played a role in Schmidt’s inconsistencies, but it wasn’t nearly as acute in VanGorder’s system as it was in Diaco’s.
Quite honestly, Schmidt was a more dynamic prospect from this viewpoint than Jones is. Schmidt blew ball carriers up. With Jones, it’s difficult to find distinguishing characteristics in his game.
His greatest assets are his intelligence, his high character and his team-player attitude. On the field, his pad level – due largely to his stature – is outstanding. He has another gear as a tackler, which allows him to accelerate immediately before contact on some if not most of his hits. He’ll stick his nose up into the action from his inside linebacker position. He does a good job of finding the football in the traffic of the line-of-scrimmage scrum. He cycles through the forest of bodies well.
But he lacks size and strength. He doesn’t show consistent physical pop. He absorbs more hits than he delivers. He swings ball carriers to the ground more often than he drives through them. His range, as it always is with undersized inside linebackers, is questionable. He doesn’t show great technique as a pass defender, allowing separation too easily. He needs to work on re-directing receivers.
That being said, it’s obvious he has the character traits that fit Notre Dame. The fact that Notre Dame and Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh have steadfastly remained on Jones’ tail tells you what a quality young man this is while likely indicating that we haven’t seen the best Jones’ film has to offer.
Michigan got the jump on Jones with defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin’s recruitment, first at Florida and then when he joined Harbaugh in Ann Arbor last year. But Notre Dame’s Autry Denson also impressed Jones, and when Durkin landed the Maryland job, the Irish shot to the forefront with the Wolverines.
A couple of years ago, an undersized, three-star linebacker out of Florida by the name of Michael Deeb came to Notre Dame. At the time, we didn’t see the range in Deeb, either, although we did see a masher, a kid who really lit up ball carriers.
Last year, Te’von Coney came to Notre Dame. Originally, he was thought to be way undersized, until we saw him on the Irish sideline before a game and, in fact, he was a bit taller than his listed height.
Make no mistake, Notre Dame needs bodies at inside linebacker, and when you factor in Jones’ obvious character assets and work ethic, over the course of five seasons, he’d have the time to grow into the position. Put another 25 pounds on that body and you’ll see a much more physically-equipped prospect at inside linebacker who can take great advantage of his ability to find run fits in an opposing offensive line.
Schmidt still has that less-than-flowery film review from a few years back in his possession, which he said during Fiesta Bowl week served as motivation to him shortly after his arrival to Notre Dame.
This may be one Jones wants to hold on to as well.