Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Kelly’s Best Recruits: Linebackers

Jaylon Smith lived up to his No. 3 overall ranking, recording 284 tackles (168 solo) in three seasons before turning pro after a catastrophic knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl.

SCOUT LINEBACKERS

1 5* OLB-Jaylon Smith (2013) – No. 3 overall; No. 1 OLB
2. 5* MLB-Nyles Morgan (2014) – No. 34 overall; No. 3 MLB
3. 4* OLB-Josh Barajas (2015) – No. 51 overall; No. 5 OLB
4. 4* OLB-Asmar Bilal (2015) – No. 87 overall; No. 8 OLB
5. 4* ILB-David Adams (2017) – No. 88 overall; No. 4 ILB

6. 4* OLB-Drue Tranquill (2014) – No. 171 overall; No. 14 OLB
7. 4* OLB-Jarrett Grace (2011) – No. 235 overall; No. 14 OLB
8. 4* OLB-Daelin Hayes (2016) – No. 240 overall; No. 12 OLB
9. 4* OLB-Greer Martini (2014) – NR; No. 31 OLB
10. 3* MLB-Danny Spond (2010) – NR; No. 14 MLB

11. 3* MLB-Te’von Coney (2015) – NR; No. 17 MLB
12. 3* ILB-Jonathan Jones (2016) – NR; No. 17 ILB
13. 3* MLB-Kendall Moore (2010) – NR; No. 18 MLB
14. 3* MLB-Michael Deeb (2013) – NR; No. 25 MLB
15. 3* OLB-Doug Randolph (2013) – NR; No. 31 OLB

16. 3* OLB-Ben Councell (2011) – NR; No. 32 OLB
17. 3* ILB-Drew White (2017) – NR; No. 38 ILB
18. 3* OLB-Jamir Jones (2016) – NR; No. 40 OLB
19. 3* OLB-Prince Shembo (2010) – NR; No. 42 OLB
20. 3* OLB-Nile Sykes (2014) – NR; No. 49 OLB
21. 3* OLB-Kolin Hill (2014) – NR; No. 64 OLB

THE STANDARD BEARER
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Jaylon Smith – He looked the part from the moment he arrived on campus, and then he played the part extremely well. The five-star prospect out of Fort Wayne, Ind. stepped into the starting lineup as a freshman in 2013 and never looked back, recording 284 tackles in three seasons, including an impressive 168 solo stops and 23½ tackles for loss. Had defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder used all of Smith’s dimensions, he would have done more damage as a pass rusher (4½ sacks).

Smith bypassed his final year of eligibility following a catastrophic knee injury versus Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. He was a second-round draft choice of the Dallas Cowboys, for whom he is expected to make his NFL debut this season.

ALL-UNDERRATED

Prince Shembo – Just the 19th-rated linebacker (out of 21) recruited during the Brian Kelly era, Shembo rose above, playing in 51 games for the Irish with 145 tackles, 24½ tackles for loss, and 19½ sacks – seven of which came during Notre Dame’s quest for the national title in 2012. He fit the part up front with linemen Kapron Lewis-Moore, Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix III.

INJURY INTERRUPTION

Danny Spond – In one of the most underrated performances of the 2012 season, Spond understood the nuances of the Sam (outside) linebacker position in Bob Diaco’s scheme, using positioning and leverage to anchor the strong side of the defense from the second rung. His 38 tackles in ’12 didn’t encapsulate his value. His play set up his teammates for stops within the No. 2 scoring defense in the country.

Jarrett Grace – The strapping Mike linebacker from Cincinnati entered the starting lineup during his junior season with the Irish (2013). In his sixth start – against Arizona State in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the home of the Dallas Cowboys – Grace suffered a gruesome injury. A broken leg required the better part of two years rehab before returning to brief action as a fifth-year senior in ’15.

Grace, the consummate team player, already had 40 tackles midway through the ’13 season before the injury. During his fifth year with the Irish, he remained a leader and positive influence on the program.

Michael Deeb – Undersized and limited to a Mike linebacker role due to a lack of mobility, Deeb figured to provide toughness for the Irish. But his career never launched, eventually coming to a close due to a back injury.

Doug Randolph – A narrowing of the spine, called spondylosis, forced Randolph out of football prior to the 2016 season. He remained with the team and played an active role on the sideline on game days.

SCOUT FORESIGHT
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Drue Tranquill – Scout listed Tranquill as a four-star outside linebacker prospect, which went against most projections. But the part safety-part linebacker is on the verge of living up to his No. 171 overall ranking in 2014 with two years of eligibility remaining.

After suffering season-ending knee injuries in 2014 and 2015, Tranquill returned to action at safety in ’16 where he struggled in the Brian VanGorder defense that often times put him on an island without the physical tools to be consistent.

Upon the arrival of defensive coordinator Mike Elko this spring, Tranquill was moved to the Rover position – a hybrid outside linebacker spot – where he should have success in 2017-18 if he can remain healthy.

In just 26 games, Tranquill has 121 tackles, including 79 in 2016, with 5½ tackles for loss. Tranquill is a prime candidate to lead the Irish in stops behind the line of scrimmage the next two seasons.

THE TRANSITION
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James Onwualu – The No. 296th overall prospect and No. 39 wide receiver coming out of Cretin Durham Hall (St. Paul, Minn.) in 2013, Onwualu started four games and caught two passes while making six unassisted tackles on special teams as a rookie.

After his freshman campaign, Onwualu moved to safety and then outside linebacker in the spring of ’14. He started eight games in ’14, making 24 tackles. Onwualu became a full-time starter in ’15 with 38 tackles and six stops for loss.

Onwualu emerged as a captain of the ’16 squad and was a true impact player for the Irish off the edge with 75 tackles, a team-leading 11½ tackles for loss, and a versatile five passes defensed.

FAILED EXPECTATIONS
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Josh Barajas – Few could argue with Barajas’ No. 51 overall ranking in the 2015 recruiting class. He was quick, explosive and strong as a projected outside linebacker with middle linebacker skills.

But Barajas arrived lacking conditioning in ’15, preserved a year of eligibility, and never threatened to take playing time away from Nyles Morgan, who had finally emerged as the starter in ’16.

After a nondescript spring of ’17, Barajas decided to transfer to FCS Illinois State.

CURRENT RANKING

  1. Jaylon Smith (see above)
  2. Prince Shembo (see above)
  3. James Onwualu (see above)
  4. Nyles Morgan – Until the ’16 season, Morgan’s “claim to fame” was his inability to get past Joe Schmidt at Mike linebacker in the VanGorder system. Making the most of the first of two seasons as a starter before running out of eligibility, Morgan paced the Irish in stops in ’16 with 94 to go along with a team-leading four sacks. Morgan started four games as a freshman when Schmidt went down with a season-ending injury in ’14, finishing with 47 tackles and 3½ tackles for loss.
  5. Drue Tranquill (see above)
  6. Greer Martini – Despite starting just six games in his first three seasons with the Irish, Martini was named a captain for the ’17 team. He first gained acclaim as Notre Dame’s designated triple-option weapon as a freshman in ’14 when he made nine tackles in his first career start against Navy. He added another nine tackles versus Navy in ’15 and 11 more in ’16. Of his 116 career tackles, 29 of his stops – exactly 25 percent – have come in his three games against Navy. He also had nine stops against Army last year. Two of his three career sacks came against Stanford in ‘16.
  7. Danny Spond (see above)
  8. Jarrett Grace (see above)
  9. Te’von Coney – Seldom viewed as a major asset moving forward for the Irish, Coney actually has more starts (7) than Martini. He remains an integral part of the 2917-18 defenses with 75 careers stops in 24 games.
  10. Asmar Bilal – A real wildcard for the Irish with three years of eligibility remaining after preserving a season as a freshman in ’15. Bilal worked his way onto the field at inside linebacker in ’16, finishing with 29 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack in limited action. He’ll team with Tranquill to form what could be a pretty dynamic one-two punch at the Rover position this fall.
  11. Daelin Hayes – Listed as an outside linebacker coming out of high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., Hayes has transitioned to defensive end in Mike Elko’s system, which will be a combination of a standup outside linebacker and end. In 12 games last year, he made 11 stops. His most memorable play was a downfield coverage assignment that resulted in a pass deflection and an Irish interception. He should shoot up this list over the next three seasons.
  12.  Kolin Hill – The lightly-regarded outside linebacker prospect emerged as a weapon early in his freshman year in ’14. He made 10 tackles and a pair of sacks as an off-the-edge pass rusher. But it was short-lived. He transferred to Texas Tech following his freshman season with the Irish.
  13. Ben Councell – Councell never could quite crack the Notre Dame lineup. A knee injury against Navy in ’13 effectively ended his pursuit for future playing time. Councell had 26 tackles during his Notre Dame career, including 15 in seven games in ’13.

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