Leadership gap remains on defense

Notre Dame’s defensive rebuild requires more than replacing Jaylon Smith’s athleticism and Sheldon Day’s pass rush. It means reconstructing leadership too. That job remains unfinished.

In this department Joe Schmidt was better than Jaylon Smith.

When Notre Dame needed leadership last season it relied less on one of the program’s all-time great athletes in favor of a former walk-on. So while Notre Dame must replace Smith’s absurd athleticism in the middle of the defense, it must also replace Schmidt’s voice. It must replace the personalities of Sheldon Day, KeiVarae Russell and Jarrett Grace too. And that’s been really hard.

Notre Dame knew it would be without a distinct voice on defense this spring after the roster turned over. On Wednesday morning the coaching staff got a reminder of that rebuild.

Linebackers coach Mike Elston said his position started strong during the penultimate practice before the Blue-Gold Game. And then it misfired. And then it lost its stride. And then the entire defense suffered. It was the kind of chain reaction the Irish didn’t tolerate last season in practices through the sheer force of personality.

“There’s times like that that still pop up,” Elston said. “The guys are trying. They’re working. They’re being more aggressive with their leadership. I see them working it.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight.”

It might not happen this summer either. But it better get traction when training camp opens in August as Isaac Rochell, James Onwualu and Cole Luke step forward within a defense that lacks a go-to voice. Rochell and Onwualu are mentioned most by the staff as able to fill the void, but Luke has even more experience. He’s the only defender on the roster to start every game of the Brian VanGorder era.

Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght has pleaded with the senior to do more than assimilate into drills this spring even if Luke doesn’t need the work. So far, Lyght said he likes what he sees as Notre Dame gears up for an opening day secondary that will include at least two players taking their first collegiate snaps.

“He’s great at leading, but Cole is kind of a laid back person,” Lyght said. “He likes to lead from the back. I told him I need him up front, leading the charge from the front. He’s done a really great job with his leadership role. I’m really proud of him for that.”

It will be a surprise if Rochell isn’t named a captain this fall considering he might be Notre Dame’s best player on defense. Onwualu is another candidate, even if he’s not a prototype middle linebacker captain. Luke would be the first cornerback to serve as captain since Bennett Jackson. Onwualu would be the fourth linebacker to get it in the past five seasons after Manti Te’o, Smith and Schmidt.

Elston said playing outside linebacker won’t affect Onwualu’s ability to lead even if he can’t play the traffic cop role Schmidt filled last year pre-snap.

What Onwualu has working in his favor from a leadership standpoint is his Type-A personality that helped him land an internship on Wall Street last summer. Elston said the senior takes notes at every position meeting, then reviews those points before every practice. He hopes the rest of the linebackers notice. The coaching staff has.

“James is very detail-oriented in what he does in his life,” Elston said. “When you’re professional like that you gain the respect of people who are seeing that.”

Beyond safety Drue Tranquill, who missed most of last season after his second ACL tear in as many years, the Irish may not have many other leadership options. There haven’t been others mentioned by the coaching staff this spring as Notre Dame’s leadership rebuild continues.

It was an expected process, which doesn’t mean it’s been any easier to balance against the scarcity of spring practices and the loss of so much experience.

“It’s hard for the players to buy in totally into a leadership role until he’s had success,” said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. “We just have a lot of guys that are working their game, they’re developing their game. I think there’s a lot of leadership potential.

“But until they’re comfortable on the field and they gain a consistency on the field, we just might not see it. It’s going to happen.”

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