James Onwualu (Sam) – One of the squad’s best special teams players and one of the defense’s most experienced, dependable performers. Onwualu is a potential team captain for 2016 and the Irish could use a breakout season from the jack-of-all-trades on the strong side as well.
Nyles Morgan (Mike) – Put forth arguably the best spring performance among the squad’s myriad new starting candidates, Morgan is poised to upgrade the Mike position from its 2015 level of effeciency and could do so in comparison to Joe Schmidt’s outstanding 2014 campaign as well.
Greer Martini (All of them) – Missed spring practice while recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Martini is expected to backup the Sam and Mike positions and compete to start at the Will. He’ll also start and/or compete in both Nickel and Dime sub packages.
Te’Von Coney (Will) – Like Martini, Coney missed spring ball due to shoulder surgery, but the latter’s was suffered in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. Unlike Martini, who apparently had a “clean up” procedure on his shoulder, Coney purportedly had extensive damage (and successful surgery). In good health, Coney will compete with Martini for the staring Will role, and it’s likely a 1A/1B status would result, regardless of who wins the job.
Status: A step back. Coney needed valuable reps as a sophomore-to-be.
Asmar Bilal (Will) – Exited spring ball as the No. 1 weak side linebacker (Will) by default, as both Coney and Martini will provide a stiff challenge this summer and especially in training camp. Bilal proved this spring he can run, hit, and learn on the job. The last trait will be the key to future playing time from scrimmage, though Bilal is expected to make a special teams impact in 2016 regardless of his role in VanGorder’s defense.
Josh Barajas (Mike) – A complete non-factor upon reporting to the team in June 2015 because of weight gain and subsequent conditioning issues, Barajas began to emerge last October as a player the staff noticed in scout team action. His best chance for an impact season in 2016 is on special teams, and his future might be as the 2017 Sam ‘backer rather than remaining in the middle where he worked this spring.
Status: Ascending, relatively speaking
-- Note: Middle linebacker Jonathan Jones and projected Will linebacker Jamir Jones will join the fray this summer. (Position slottings per linebackers coach Mike Elston.)