Loaded linebacking group leads Irish defense
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, April 17, 2015
Entering the 2015 season, Notre Dame finds itself in a refreshing situation: It might just have too many bodies at linebacker.
After a year in which graduate student linebackers Jarrett Grace and Joe Schmidt missed all or significant parts of the season with injuries, the Irish entered spring ball with three starting spots and seven potential bodies to fill them.
In the absence of Grace and Schmidt last season, junior linebacker Jaylon Smith was thrust into running the defense, while classmate James Onwualu and sophomores Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan all saw significant time on the field. The inexperience showed.
Over the final five games of the regular season — beginning with Navy, when Schmidt went down — Notre Dame allowed an average of 43.4 points per game and went 1-4. Until that point, the defense had surrendered only 19.1 points per game while leading the Irish to a shutout win over Michigan and a 6-0 start to the season before the loss at Florida State.
However, the younger players gained valuable experience on the field.
“Not really a bad taste, just a learning experience,” Smith said March 18 of last season. “We kind of had our defining moment, playing LSU and just understanding what the key was, and it’s everybody buying in and playing together, playing selfless.”
On the down side, in Notre Dame’s scheme, only three linebackers are on the field at once, and with the addition of freshman early enrollee Te’von Coney, the Irish are now two-deep plus one this spring, creating a log-jam particularly stuck at middle linebacker.
“I think that Nyles gained experience last year, so going into his second year, we feel much better with him,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said March 23. “ … I expect all three of them [Grace, Schmidt and Morgan] to play a lot.”
Although it’s year two playing in VanGorder’s defense, the linebacker group is now headed by Mike Elston, who is in his first year at the position after leading the defensive line since 2010. The transition to Elston from former Irish assistant Bob Elliott, who moved to an off-field role as special assistant to the head coach this year, has been a smooth one by all accounts.
“The exciting thing for me is that it allows me to focus more on the whole part of the defense, from run defense to coverage, and that’s exciting,” Elston said March 23. “I’m familiar with that, and I’ve played that, and I’ve coached that role before.
“ … We have a great group of guys to work with, so that transition has been pretty easy.”
Smith said he agreed from a player’s perspective.
“The comfort is definitely there,” Smith said of VanGorder’s defense. “We have experienced guys now. We’re getting healthy again. We still love the defense. There’s so many tools.
“ … [Elston] was my recruiting coordinator, so I always had that close relationship, but I’m happy for him being able to expand his role and try out something he hasn’t done since, I believe, Central Michigan.”
VanGorder began spring practices by working with Elston and the linebackers, the group he coached last season, to help smooth the transition.
However, as time has gone on he said he has started walking around to visit the other defensive groups as Elston settled in to his new position.
As to how to clear the gridlock inside, VanGorder has also discussed cross-training Smith and Schmidt beyond the middle linebacker position.
During last Saturday’s scrimmage, Morgan (Mike), Onwualu (Sam) and Smith (Will) took the first team reps, while Grace, Martini and Coney made up the second rotation, respectively. Schmidt, a natural Mike, was cleared for non-contact drills last Saturday, though it remains to be seen where VanGorder and Elston throw him into the mix as well.
“We’ll work Jaylon around. Of course, Joe Schmidt will cross-train. He knows all the positions of linebacker,” VanGorder said. “Probably midway through [spring], three-quarters of the way through, we’ll cross-train Jaylon a little bit.”