No position is stronger from top to bottom among Notre Dame and its 12 regular-season opponents in 2017 than the linebacker corps with 11 of 13 teams returning at least two starters on their three- or four-man units.
Notre Dame sits solidly in the upper pack of quality linebacker corps with proven performers (Nyles Morgan), perfect-fit imports (Drue Tranquill), a very productive part-time starter up to this point (Greer Martini), and proven/capable depth (Te'von Coney and Asmar Bilal).
13) Temple (ILB-Jared Folks)
No team on the Irish 2017 slate lost as much as the Owls did at linebacker, and it's not even close. Second-team all-AAC Avery Williams, Jarred Alwan and Stephaun Marshall combined for 181 tackles and 17 tackles for loss last year. With only one starter returning among the defensive front seven, none of which are linebackers, ILB-Folks is the "veteran" of the unit with five starts and 32 tackles in '16.
12) Wake Forest (OLB-Jaboree Williams)
All-ACC Marquel Lee – en route to a fifth-round NFL selection – had a team-high 105 tackles, 7½ sacks and 20 tackles for loss on a Demon Deacon unit that lived in the opponents' backfield. Also gone is No. 3 tackler (65 stops, 8½ TfLs) Thomas Brown. Senior OLB-Williams is an established presence off the edge, who should benefit from the attention given standout DE-Duke Ejiofor (10½ sacks, 17 TfLs).
11) Navy (OLB-D.J. Palmore/ILB-Micah Thomas/ILB-Hudson Sullivan)
Three of four starting linebackers return for the Midshipmen, who sport a notable inside-outside duo in ILB-Thomas (2nd-team all-AAC; 107 tackles) and OLB- Palmore (known as the Raider), who led Navy in sacks (6) and tackles for loss (11½). Thomas' running mate inside – Sullivan – had 46 tackles despite just four starts in '16.
10) Miami [Ohio] (ILB-Junior McMullen/OLB-Brad Koenig/OLB-De'Andre Montgomery)
The Redhawks lost T.J. Williams (37 tackles), but return a trio of juniors who have grown up together amidst Chuck Martin's rebuilding process in Oxford. Among ILB-McMullen and OLBs-Koenig and Montgomery, Miami (Ohio) has a combined 228 tackles and 19½ TfLs from '16. Koenig proved to be the most effective edge rusher (3 sacks) of the corps, but Montgomery is the most versatile (4 interceptions, 7 PBU).
9) North Carolina (ILB-Cole Holcomb/ILB-Andre Smith/OLB-Cayson Collins)
The Tar Heels' first- and second-team linebacker units return intact on a defense that desperately needs improvement in the open field open-field (4.5 yards allowed per carry). ILBs Holcomb (a former walk-on) and Smith are the top returning tackling linebackers on Notre Dame's schedule with 115 and 113 each in '16. Throw OLB-Collins into the mix and North Carolina has 15 tackles for loss from this unit last year. Holcomb and Collins are seniors with a combined 22 starts. Smith was a third-team all-ACC pick.
8) Boston College (ILB-Connor Strachan/ILB-Ty Schwab)
A significant presence is missing from the Boston College linebackers – fifth-round draft pick Matt Milano who was solid against the run (58 tackles, 11 TfLs) and as a pass-rusher (6½ sacks). Yet five of the top seven linebackers return, led by the Eagles' top returning tackler, ILB-Strachan Strachan (80 stops), who also had 3½ sacks and 11 TfLs. ILB-Schwab, also a senior, had 61 tackles and 5½ TfLs in '16 with 19 starts the last two seasons.
7) Michigan State (OLB-Chris Frey/OLB-Andrew Dowell)
Injuries hit the Spartan linebacker corps last year and added to the multitude of issues in their nine-loss '16 season. How effective can this unit can be with a patchwork defensive line in front of it, not to mention the loss of Riley Bullough (76 tackles, 6½ TfLs)? Overachieving OLB-Frey is a building block for improvement after totaling 96 tackles, four TfLs and seven QBH. OLB-Dowell had 67 tackles despite starting just eight games. Sophomore ILB-Joe Bachie enters the starting lineup.
6) USC (ILB-Cameron Smith/OLB-Ajene Harris)
You may find the Trojans' linebacker corps rated much higher on other lists. That's because we consider Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu to be defensive ends. That said, USC lost active Michael Hutchings (66 tackles, 3 sacks, 8 TfLs), but return veteran ILB-Smith (83 tackles in '16; 181 last two years), a 2nd-team all-Pac 12 as a sophomore. OLB/NB-Harris is capable against the run and pass.
5) N.C. State (ILB-Jerod Fernandez/ILB-Germaine Pratt/ILB-Airius Moore)
Granted, this unit will benefit greatly from one of the best defensive lines in the country. Davious Wright (64 tackles) is a loss on the perimeter. But ILB-Fernandez (88 tackles, 4½ TfLs) anchors this unit. ILB-Moore (86 tackles, 13½ TfLs) will share time with ILB-Pratt (32 tackles in '15), who missed all of '16 with an injury. Few teams boast a three-for-two group at inside linebacker quite like the Wolfpack.
4) Notre Dame (ILB-Nyles Morgan/OLB-Drue Tranquill/ ILB-Greer Martini/ILB-Te'von Coney)
On a defense desperately searching for answers on the front and back ends, the linebacker corps clearly is the centerpiece of the unit. The Irish lost a valuable piece in OLB-James Onwualu (75 tackles, 11½ TfLs), but ready to blossom into standouts are ILB-Morgan (94 tackles, 4 sacks) and Rover/OLB-Tranquill (79 tackles), who moves up from safety. Underrated ILB-Martini has started just 10 games in three years at Notre Dame, yet has 116 tackles and 11½ TfLs, including more stops behind the line of scrimmage in '16 than Morgan despite eight less starts. ILB-Coney (62 tackles) is a co-starter with Martini. Rover/OLB-Asmar Bilal should be a nice complement to Tranquill.
3) Miami (ILB-Shaq Quarterman/ILB-Michael Pinckney/OLB-Zach McCloud)
A trio of sophomores will be that much better after combining for 182 tackles and 21 TfLs in '16, led by Quarterman (84 tackles, 10 TfLs). This unit, despite all freshmen a year ago (a combined 37 starts), helped the Hurricanes shave off 10 points per game. With a quality defensive line still in front of it, look for this linebacker corps to continue its rise.
2) Stanford (ILB-Bobby Okereke/OLB-Peter Kalambayi/ILB-Kevin Palma/OLB-Mike Tyler)
The unit in the 3-4 front returns intact with productivity spread across the board. Don't be fooled by the mere 41 tackles by ILB-Okereke and 40 by ILB-Palma. Backup ILBs Sean Barton and Joey Alfieri combined for another 85 stops and 11 TfLs. (Alfieri also had nine QBH.) OLB-Kalambayi has been on The Farm forever with 21 career TfLs. One team on the Irish schedule has the best corps of linebacker starters (see below), but the Cardinal have the most proven starters/depth.
1) Georgia (ILB-Roquan Smith/OLB-Davin Bellamy/OLB-Lorenzo Carter/ILB-Natrez Patrick)
No one would laugh at the notion Georgia has the best linebacker corps on the Irish slate. The only question is whether there's anyone in the country with a better set of starting linebackers. Seniors OLBs-Bellamy and Carter and junior ILBs-Smith and Patrick clean up everything that one of the nation's best defensive lines doesn't get. Smith (95 tackles, 5 TfLs) and Patrick (59 tackles, 4½ TfLs) are the Bulldogs' top two returning tacklers. Bellamy and Carter each had five sacks in '16 and combined for an incredible 30 QBH (17 by Bellamy). Notre Dame's veteran offensive line better be ready to go in Week Two.
STANDINGS (6 OF 10 CATEGORIES)
1. USC (19 – QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR/TE 2nd, OL 2nd, DL 5th, LB 6th)
2. Georgia (21 – QB 2nd, RB 1st, WR/TE 6th, OL 8th, DL 3rd, LB 1st)
3. N.C. State (24 – QB 3rd, RB 8th, WR/TE 3rd, OL 4th, DL 1st, LB 5th)
4. Stanford (26 – QB 4th, RB 2nd, WR/TE 8th, OL 3rd, DL 7th, LB 2nd)
5. Notre Dame (27 – QB 7th, RB 5th, WR/TE 1st, OL 1st, DL 9th, LB 4th)
6. Miami (33 – QB 10th, RB 6th, WR/TE 5th, OL 7th, DL 2nd, LB 3rd)
7t. North Carolina (51 – QB 6th, RB 9th, WR/TE 11th, OL 5th, DL 11th, LB 9th)
7t. Boston College (51 -- QB 12th, RB 11th, WR/TE 10th, OL 6th, DL 4th, LB 8th)
9. Michigan State (53 – QB 9th, RB 4th, WR/TE 12th, OL 9th, DL 12th, LB 7th)
10. Temple (55 – QB 13th, RB 7th, WR/TE 4th, OL 10th, DL 8th, LB 13th)
11. Wake Forest (58 – QB 8th, RB 12th, WR/TE 7th, OL 13th, DL 6th, LB 12th)
12. Miami (Ohio) (59 – QB 5th, RB 13th, WR/TE 9th, OL 12th, DL 10th, LB 10th)
13. Navy (69 – QB 11th, RB 10th, WR/TE 13th, OL 11th, DL 13th, LB 11th)