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As spring winds down, defensive starters not set

| Thursday, April 14, 2016

Wednesday morning marked Notre Dame’s penultimate spring practice before the Blue-Gold game this Saturday.

And while across-the-board open competition has shed light on some areas of the team, others — notably defensive leadership — remain up in the air.

After practice Wednesday, Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder discussed the impact of losing leaders from last year like Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith, and he said the evolution of this year’s defensive leadership is ongoing.

Irish senior linebacker James Onwualu celebrates after a play during Notre Dame’s 24-20 win over Temple in Philadelphia on Oct. 31.Zachary Llorens | The Observer
Irish senior linebacker James Onwualu celebrates after a play during Notre Dame’s 24-20 win over Temple in Philadelphia on Oct. 31.

“I think [senior linebacker] James Onwualu is as solid of a guy we have relative to how he goes about his business daily, preparation, on-field effort,” VanGorder said. “He’s consistent, very knowledgeable. Not a real vocal guy though. [Senior defensive lineman] Isaac [Rochell] has gotta grow in that role up front. I think [senior defensive back] Cole Luke’s taken a good step in the leadership area.

“… A lot of players have a hard time leading when they’re developing and getting consistency in their game and confidence in their game. I think we got guys that are capable but again are caught in a development stage where they’re trying to establish themselves.”

One position group, in particular, looking to establish itself is the defensive line.

“It’s all kind of mixed up right now,” Irish defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “We got a great competition, a great rotation at the nose tackle with [graduate student] Jarron Jones and [junior] Daniel Cage. My hope is that the first and second guys don’t see too much difference there. If we can go two-deep across the board and be solid, I think that’s what we’re aiming for.”

Rochell is the only starter returning up front for the Irish and figures to be the key to the whole line. With relative uncertainties at the defensive tackle slot, there has been talk of moving Rochell to the inside or potentially to the right defensive end position.

“I think at this point, I want to try and keep him [at defensive end],” Gilmore said. “If things change, and we need a person somewhere else, an inside guy, maybe in a pass rush situation, that might be a possibility. Right now, I think he’s solid at the big end and just becoming an effective pass rusher out there and keep developing.”

Gilmore, like VanGorder, also said he sees Rochell as a strong candidate to take over the leadership mantle left vacant by Sheldon Day and said he’s encouraging the McDonough, Georgia, native to be more active in that role.

“I’m trying to give him more opportunities to be a leader,” Gilmore said. “He’s played enough football around here that he’s a leader by example by what he does on the field. But I want to get him a little bit more vocal and step up.”

Beyond Rochell, sophomore Jerry Tillery, junior Daniel Cage and graduate student Jarron Jones are competing for the two roles inside while junior Andrew Trumbetti has the inside line on the opposite end. Gilmore said that Tillery, especially, has improved and seems ready to play come the fall.

“I’m happy, the last two days I’ve been really happy,” Gilmore said of Tillery’s recent performance in practice. “Most of the spring, I’ve been battling. And it’s not just the learning part. We all forget sometimes that Jerry is a freshman and the expectation becomes really high. … I have to remember he’s a freshman and keep coaching him. He’ll be where we need him to be when the time comes.”

Satellite camps

A big topic in the college football world is the NCAA’s newly enacted rule that teams are no longer allowed to practice on satellite, or any other, campuses. While opinion is divided on the ruling, Irish recruiting coordinator and linebacker coach Mike Elston said the rule will not change how Notre Dame operates.

“We haven’t gotten into the satellites because we like to bring the kids to our campus,” Elston said. “We’re always striving to get more of our prospects here on campus so they know and understand what Notre Dame is about. As long as we can continue to that, we never really had an issue, a want or desire to do a satellite camp. We just try to get guys here to our campus to be coached by us in our camps but also to see Notre Dame. You have to experience Notre Dame to understand it. If we go out to California somewhere to camp, kids still don’t know what we’re about.”

Defensive player development

Elston also touched on some players he felt showed strong improvement over the course of spring practices and mentioned sophomore linebacker Asmar Bilal as a player who has a lot to offer down the road.

“He’s having a very good spring. He’s got great potential,” Elston said. “He works very hard. He’s a very aggressive physical football player. He learns really well. Is he Jaylon Smith? No. But Jaylon had to start somewhere, and that’s where Asmar is. He’s at the starting point of what we see as a very promising career.”

Bilal is currently getting reps at the weakside linebacker position, but Elston said the Indianapolis native could see some time playing behind junior Nyles Morgan at the middle linebacker slot.

“Asmar’s got all those traits that you’re looking for,” Elston said. “To run and hit and be strong. … I think Asmar has some really good things that he’s doing this spring that makes us very excited.”

Another player who has impressed coaches thus far is sophomore defensive back Shaun Crawford. Even if Crawford doesn’t get a starting cornerback role, Irish defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said the Lakewood, Illinois, native will see time at the nickelback position.

“I think when you’re looking at the nickel position, you’re looking for a guy with football intelligence and short-haired quickness,” Lyght said. “Understand two-three exchanges, understand where their help is and be able to make those quick movements in and out. Shaun has position versatility that we’re looking for at that position because of his short-haired quickness and burst.”

VanGorder echoed Lyght’s compliments and said Crawford gives the defense a boost in versatility.

“That’s a big position, it’s not easy to find those in-and-out corners like he is,” VanGorder said. “He opens the inventory up some, and he’s really intelligent.”

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About Marek Mazurek

Marek is a senior history major and is a former resident of Carroll Hall. He has lived in Mishawaka or South Bend for all 21 years of his life and covers Notre Dame football and men's basketball. He has loads of hand-eye coordination but lacks the height to be any good. Marek is also a proud esports supporter.

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