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Defense takes center stage

| Thursday, March 20, 2014

The loudest and most constant voice was that of Brian VanGorder.

The new defensive coordinator’s presence was certainly felt during the media-viewing portion of Wednesday morning’s spring practice at the Loftus Sports Center. In the third of 14 spring practice sessions leading up to the Blue-Gold Game, Notre Dame focused on defensive sub packages and third-down work — uncharacteristically early in the spring for Irish head coach Brian Kelly.

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith zeroes in on the ballcarrier in the Oct. 26 game against Air Force.Michael Kramm
Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith zeroes in on the ballcarrier in the Oct. 26 game against Air Force.
So with a lot of moving parts, a lot of players being evaluated in different positions and a lot of roles to be determined, VanGorder’s booming voice of instruction typified the still-materializing process.

“We’re trying to find roles in a lot of sub packages,” Kelly said after practice. “Because we’re going to be using a lot of sub packages, we wanted to start to evaluate some of those players. That was today.”

Kelly said there’s roughly a half-dozen defensive players — the likes of senior Matthias Farley, sophomore Cole Luke, junior John Turner, graduate student Austin Collinsworth and senior Eilar Hardy — for whom roles are still being determined. Kelly noted how multiple players have the flexibility to move around to different positions defensively, which will be helpful when fast offenses tighten the substitution window.

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, for instance, lined up all over the defense — split out over inside receivers, positioned at his typical outside-linebacker post and aligned in the heart of nickel and dime packages. Smith, moreover, is being utilized as more of a defensive weapon too, according to Kelly.

“We’re overloading him, quite frankly, with a number of different looks,” Kelly said. “We don’t want offenses to know where he is. We’re going to play him in a number of different positions. He can be inside, outside, but we’re moving him all over the place.”

In certain sub packages, Smith lined up next to Turner as linebackers with the first defense. A former safety, Turner is listed as an outside linebacker this year.

Kelly said during the Indianapolis native’s recruitment, the Irish loved Turner’s skill set as a long, athletic player. For whatever reason, Kelly says, it didn’t translate. Turner didn’t play as a freshman and logged four tackles in 13 games as a sophomore on special teams.

“We think that with the position that we’re looking at him right now, it seems to be clicking a little bit for John,” Kelly said. “Coach VanGorder really likes what he’s doing right now and for whatever reason sometimes a change does a guy good. He may be the beneficiary of that change.

“But I think more the benefit is the position in the sub-package takes advantage of the long kid that’s almost a tweener. He’s almost a ‘backer. He’s that big [at 6-foot-0.5, 217 pounds].”


Carlisle stepping up in the slot

On the other side of the ball, senior Amir Carlisle was active and involved with the offense out of the slot position, whether he was making catches or motioning into the backfield and taking handoffs. Carlisle, who is listed as a receiver and running back this season after playing solely running back in 2013, rushed 47 times for 204 yards and caught seven balls for 30 yards last year. But all of Carlisle’s receptions and 73 percent of his rushing yards came in the first three games of the season.

“I don’t know that I would say that he lost his confidence [as a pass-catcher],” Kelly said. “His role diminished as the season went on as [sophomore running back Tarean] Folston kind of picked his game up. And he may have felt like he was less involved in the game plan, but he looks pretty confident right now.”


Offensive line update

Graduate student offensive lineman Christian Lombard suffered a sprained wrist during Wednesday’s practice, per Kelly. Senior Conor Hanratty filled in at right guard. The rest of the first-team offensive line, from left to right, was still junior Ronnie Stanley, sophomore Steve Elmer, senior Matt Hegarty and sophomore Mike McGlinchey.


Pro Day on Thursday

Sixteen former Irish players will participate, to varying degrees, in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and the Loftus Sports Center: George Atkinson, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Mike Golic Jr., Bennett Jackson, TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix, Tommy Rees, Kona Schwenke, Prince Shembo, Nick Tausch, Stephon Tuitt, Robby Toma and Chris Watt.

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike