The unit lost from its room a former team MVP turned team captain. It lost a second team captain, one who happened to double as the most athletic linebacker – and perhaps defensive player – in program history.
It lost leadership, playmaking ability, consistency, and innate knowledge of football coupled with learned ability to thrive in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.
Why then, is the feeling around the program that Notre Dame’s new-look linebacker corps may be more productive this fall than last?
“We dedicate ourselves to being the sharpest tool in the shed,” said the new man in the middle, Nyles Morgan. “We’re the ones who have to lead the pack as far as communication, lining guys up, especially at the Mike linebacker position.”
Thrust into action as a true freshman two years ago, Morgan was not ready for prime time. Not in VanGorder’s complicated scheme. He made plays (43 tackles in what amounted to 4.5 games played), but he made them for the opposing offenses as well. According to team captain James Onwualu, that’s in the distant past.
“He’s been so invested in the game. Even when he wasn’t playing or wasn’t getting game reps, he was very involved in each week’s game plan, in watching film,” said Onwualu of Morgan. “He never took a step back. He was expecting to play and that helps him coming into this season.”
Onwualu has been in the mix since VanGorder took over in the spring of 2014. Then a sophomore-to-be, Onwualu moved from wide receiver (his three starts at the position as a freshman still rank No.1 on the squad entering 2016) to the defensive side of the ball. He dabbled at strong safety in the spring then settled in at Sam (strong side) linebacker where he’s started 21 of the last 26 contests played since including 17 consecutive.
“I think I’ve expanded my game,” said Onwualu. “I started out just trying to do my job, hold my leverage. But now I’m moving into a couple different positions. More coverage, more pass rush. Doing some of what safeties do; doing some of what a D-Lineman does.”
WHAT WAS LOST
Departed starters Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt won 16 of the 19 contests in which they started and finished together over the last two seasons.
Combined Tackles 2014-15: 369 (226 by Smith). Of note, Schmidt registered only 13 fewer tackles over his 8.5-game MVP season of 2014 than he did in 13 starts last fall.
QB Hurries 2014-15: 22 (13 by Smith)
*Stuffs 2014-15: A combined 81.5 (55.5 for Smith). *Indicates tackles-for-loss plus stops made after gains of 0, 1, or 2 yards that do not result in a first down.
*Third-Down Wins 2015: 33 (20.5 by Smith). *Indicates the player made a winning play on third down, e.g., a tackle short of the marker, QB pressure, pass defended, etc.
WHAT’S BEEN FOUND?
Where Irish fans find frustration in VanGorder’s oft-referenced complicated scheme, Onwualu finds opportunity. The more you can do, the more roles you receive. The senior Sam ‘backer believes that a third season in the system will make a major difference.
“It’s partly experience over the years. We (Schmidt and Smith) had it last year, but still, we were continuously learning stuff. I feel like Nyles and I have a pretty good grasp on it now, and just making people around us better. We can improve their games intellectually.”
Add to the pair junior Will linebacker Greer Martini, aka, “The Plumber,” dubbed as such by Morgan because of his ability to play everywhere.
“Sam, Mike, Will, Rush. Greer can do it all,” said Morgan. “He’s pretty amazing.”
A jack-of-all-trades to date, Martini finished sixth on the squad in Stuffs last season (12.5) – second to Isaac Rochell’s 27 among returning players. (Smith posted a team-best 27.5.)
He enters the season with six career starts – none at his current Will position.
“He can do anything,” said Onwualu of Martini. “He’s a guy you can trust anywhere. He might not know (Mike) as well as Nyles or (Sam) like I do but he can get the job done.”
The threesome is expected to get the job done not only in the base defense, but also in VanGorder’s myriad sub packages. Considering Martini’s versatility, Morgan’s dual pass coverage and pass rushing acumen, and Onwualu’s entire body of work (including 11 Stuffs and 9 third-down wins last season) it appears each will earn a role in either the Nickel, Dime, or specific triple-option defenses this fall.
“It’s a system that’s complex, but when you get guys that understand it, you can really move your pieces around,” said Onwualu. “So you put your best players on the field and you let them play. It’s fun when you’re playing with guys like (Shaun) Crawford and (Drue) Tranquill and all these guys that know the game, because you can start moving the pieces around and making plays.”