Linebackers healthy, ready to anchor Irish defense
Greg Hadley | Tuesday, March 24, 2015
After a 2014 campaign marred by injuries and inexperience, Notre Dame’s defense entered the offseason in need of leadership and stability.
Just a few days into spring practice, the Irish defense still features a heavy mix of underclassmen, but it has also found a solid veteran linebacking core to build around.
One of the leaders of that core group is graduate student Jarrett Grace, who missed all of last season due to a broken leg suffered in 2013. However, he used his time off the field well, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said.
“All he did was sit there and study, study, study,” VanGorder said. “He knows our defense. He’s way ahead of guys that have played because of that. He’s an amazing, amazing guy. There was a point in time that I didn’t know if he’d ever play football again. I had my doubts, so to see him out there says everything about who he is.”
Grace’s injury was severe enough to warrant multiple surgeries and cause him to limp for more than a year, but his return to the playing field has largely been a smooth one, VanGorder said.
“The most amazing thing is, he’s got no fear,” VanGorder said. “Most guys coming off something like that would go out there and be a little bit apprehensive. Not him. Not him. He’s been through the contact and hasn’t slowed down a bit.”
Irish linebackers coach Mike Elston agreed.
“Grace looks great. I see the Jarrett Grace of old, with how he’s moving,” Elston said. “A few instances here and there, you might catch a glimpse of something that resonates from the injury, but overall, very few issues with him.”
With the middle of the Irish defense finally getting back to full strength, junior All-American linebacker Jaylon Smith said the unit has massive potential.
“Aw man, it’s tremendous. We’ve got a great group of guys there,” Smith said. “When everyone gets back healthy, the core is gonna be — it’s gonna be tremendous, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Leading the defense
Graduate student linebacker Joe Schmidt and Grace have a combined 51 games played between them in their careers at Notre Dame. Since Manti Te’o’s final season in 2012, both have played at the center of Notre Dame’s defense, the “Mike” linebacker position. Now that both are healthy, VanGorder said he is eager to use both interchangeably in his defensive scheme.
“Between Joe and Jarrett, we’ve got great leadership that can manage and run a defense with both of them,” VanGorder said.
But beyond the most senior linebackers, Smith has also stepped up in practice after starting for his first two seasons, Elston said.
“Jaylon, a year ago, was really worried about himself — getting lined up, knowing the defense, knowing what coverage he was in,” Elston said. “Now he’s directing traffic, talking to the people in front of him, talking to the people behind him. Jaylon’s doing a really good job with that.”
Fighting for spots
The Irish also have three other linebackers who started games last season — sophomores Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini and junior James Onwualu — as well as early-enrollee freshman Te’von Coney, creating a logjam of players fighting for three spots.
“We show up here to compete every day. The best players play, and we’re going to get the best three linebackers on the field, however they line up,” VanGorder said. “That’s just the way we do it.”
With so many players having starting experience, both VanGorder and Elston said they hoped to cross-train Smith, Morgan and Schmidt to play different linebacker positions later on in the spring season or beyond. Smith could potentially move to the strong side, or “Sam” position, Morgan could move away from “Mike” to get more playing time, and the hope is Schmidt can play whatever position necessary, VanGorder said.
When Schmidt went down with an injury in the latter half of last season, Morgan filled in at “stuck,” thrust into a position he struggled to learn on the fly.
“I never imagined going into training camp that he’d be playing last year,” VanGorder said. “He just wasn’t ready. But he’s tough. It’s so important to him. He wanted to do right, but he had to suffer through that freshman year. There were some tough tough times for him, and he stayed right with it.”
Fast forward to this spring, and Morgan is once again below other players on the depth chart. But thanks to last year’s experience, VanGorder said he expects to use Morgan often this season.
“Going into his second year, we feel much better with him,” VanGorder said. “ … So I expect all three of them [Schmidt, Grace and Morgan] to play a lot. … He looks a lot better here in the spring.”
In addition to Morgan, the Irish also have another young linebacker developing quickly. The freshman Coney, who enrolled in the University a semester early, has impressed Elston in practice so far, he said.
“He’s added some good depth,” Elston said. “He’s a very instinctual player, and he’s doing a nice job. … He’s strong enough to compete, and he doesn’t get physically overwhelmed. He seems to be handling it mentally pretty well, so we’re excited to see where he’s taking his game.”
Smith said Coney’s performance has impressed him early on as well.
“I found out the first day, he truly is a Notre Dame guy,” Smith said. “He’s all about team and getting better, and he’s very coachable.”