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Linebackers look to build on legacy

| Thursday, August 28, 2014

Two seasons ago, Notre Dame’s linebacker corps featured a Heisman-trophy runner-up in Manti Te’o, an aggressive pass rusher in Prince Shembo, a versatile defender in Danny Spond and a platoon of experienced seniors in Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. 

Now, the Irish linebacker position two-deep encompasses the team’s most highly-touted sophomore, a former walk-on, a duo of former secondary players and two true freshmen. 

If that change is not enough, the Irish linebackers also have picked up a new defensive scheme in the offseason, switching primarily from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. 

While such changes may seem daunting, Irish senior linebacker Joe Schmidt said they’ve put him and his fellow position players in a position to succeed. 

“You could put any player in [the new defense],” Schmidt said. “It provides excellent opportunities for player X. Whatever player we put in that situation is going to be successful, I think.”

Joe Schmidt, right, and Jaylon SmithWei Lin
Joe Schmidt, right, and Jaylon Smith

Schmidt is the former walk-on of the group, having earned a scholarship after his sophomore season. He appeared in all 13 games last year and after being described by head coach Brian Kelly as “the leader on our defense” in the spring, is expected to start at inside linebacker against Rice on Saturday. 

Schmidt said he relishes his role as the so-called leader of the linebackers. 

“It’s just kind of my personality to drive,” he said. “For me, it’s always been just natural, that, ‘Hey, this is what I’m seeing,’ and I just help direct traffic out there. I’m always screaming — I’ve got a really loud voice — and I’m always telling people what I see.”

Although Schmidt has received accolades from his coaches, much of the outside praise has gone to sophomore Jaylon Smith, who recorded 67 tackles and started every game at outside linebacker in his freshman season. Smith has been named to five national award watch lists, including the Bednarik Award, presented to the best defensive college football player in the country. 

“[Smith] has very good football intellect, and he’s a very natural player,” outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said at the team’s media day Aug. 19. “One thing that’s interesting about Jaylon is that he’s so flexible and athletic that he can get his body into a bad position and still get out of it and make a very good play.” 

Expected to play alongside Schmidt and Smith is sophomore James Onwualu, who made stops at receiver and safety before transitioning to the linebacker position. Onwualu’s projected backup is another convert, junior John Turner, who entered Notre Dame as a safety. 

“They’re willing to do anything,” Schmidt said of Onwualu and Turner. “They switched positions, which is a humbling experience. … It was pretty cool seeing the growth and the maturation process for both those players, and they’re guys who are going to have a great impact this year.”

Freshmen Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are also listed on the linebacker two-deep chart. Other potential starters at the position include seniors Jarrett Grace, who continues to recover from a broken leg suffered last season, and Ben Councell. 

Schmidt conceded that it will be tough to replace the leadership lost at the linebacker position. But he admitted that he and his teammates are ready to make their own impact. 

“Those guys in the past built an awesome foundation for us,” Schmidt said. “Those guys who were there with them, … we grew up in that system with those older guys, so we’re building on that and putting our own twist on it. It’s not replacing anything. It’s building everything on top of the foundation, a very solid rock.”

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About Brian Hartnett

Brian Hartnett is a senior marketing major and journalism, ethics and democracy minor. The Carroll Hall resident hails from Clark, New Jersey and covers Notre Dame football, as well as other University topics.

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