In high school algebra we learned that the difficulty of solving an equation increases in relation to the number of unknowns in the equation. That lesson is applicable to the 2014 Irish Defense.
Here are the unknowns:
(1) New Coordinator
(2) New scheme
(3) shift to more aggressive, attacking philosophy
(4) more sophisticated third down substitution packages
(5) major “job description” changes in every position in the front seven
(6) huge injection of frosh talent on the front seven.
(7) more “new” opponents than usual: Rice, Syracuse, North Carolina, FSU, Northwestern
There is a wide “ambit of ignorance” in predicting the 2014 unit’s productivity and effectiveness. We’ll know a lot more at nightfall on August 30th, a good bit more when the sun sets over the Meadowlands on Sept. 27th and everything, perhaps more than we care to, when the moon shines over Tallahassee on October 18th.
We’ll start with the “parts” and use the 4-3 skeleton to analyze both pieces of the front 7.
The starting front four of Williams, Jones, Day and Okwara is solid, albeit not the dominating terrible swift sword of Tuitt, Nix and KLM of 2012. Sheldon Day flashed brilliance in 2012 but was sore vexed by the high ankle sprain in 2013. Jarron Jones was a huge question mark his first year and a quarter, but Jarron then blossomed when he accepted the bit at Nose tackle when Nix went down. Jones has continued his progress on and off the field. He is solid, not dominant. Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara have enough length, weight and quickness to prosper as DE’s. An annual rite of Spring is anointing Ishaq Williams as the “breakout player.” Williams must decide if he’s a gamer or an exhibit in the “overrated five star” analysis. Both he and Okwara, who showed spunk and versatility last Fall as a swing player, may benefit from the absence of Prince Shembo’s long shadow. Okwara was singled out for special praise for having “gotten it” as a DE in the second half of Spring Practice.
This Spring, a second team Defensive Line appears to have taken shape, with Andrew Trumbetti and Justin Utopu at end and Isaac Rochell and Craig Hounshell at the tackles. Utopu is “adequate” as a backup. Trumbetti needs more weight and time, but he’s a gamer. Rochell may be the best second stringer. Hounshell was effective as a frosh way back in 2011. He appears to have recovered from multiple injuries and he is a very physical player.
Bill Walsh once said that the key to winning football was being able to generate a pass rush in the fourth quarter. Walsh always cherished depth on the DL. Think about how he acquired, then used, Fred Dean to start his championship run. Great teams have a serviceable third string both for rotational depth and for injuries. As Spring began, Notre Dame’s cupboard appeared bare on the third line. But Anthony Rabasa evolved beyond a mere squadman, and he showed promise as a pass rusher. Tony Springmann was highly effective as a sub in the unbeaten run in 2012. If he returns from injury, he will be an asset and could push Hounshell or Rochell off the second line. Jake Matuska looks like he needs another year to get ready for prime time. Many frosh arrive in June, and some have the right frame already. Blankenship, Bonner and Williams will fill the cupboard at DE, while Cage, Hayes and Mokwuah will be slotted at DT. A couple of those six may see action and fill in the third DL..
The bottom line is that if the second line continues to coalesce the Irish will be solid, if not dominant, on DL. Only Williams and Utopu exhaust their eligibility in 2014, so this unit will be deep, and experienced, next Spring.
Yikes! The initial starting threesome of Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Kendall Moore could be summarized: !?? That is one exclamation point and two question marks.
A word about Jaylon Smith There is no ceiling to his game. Van Gorder has chosen to weaponize Jaylon, shifting him around. Offensive coordinators and youngish QBs will have nightmares trying to account for Jaylon. At Spring’s end, Van Gorder “announced” that he was not going to move Jaylon around. Yeah, right! Brian did everything but use a “neuralyzer” (as in “Men in Black”) to erase the thought of Smith’s weaponization. Don’t be fooled. Jaylon Smith can play football any way or any place you want. But he was born to attack.
Joe Schmidt is a great story and earned his scholarship with that big hit against USC. He mastered the defensive playbook first, but he and ND would both best be served if Schmidt was a backup. Odds are he will be starting in the middle against Rice.
Kendall Moore is a thumper, with limits, who could have been hidden in the middle. On the outside he was as exposed as Lady Godiva. But he began to fade as Spring unfolded.
As Spring went on, John Turner, freshly arrived from safety, held down one of the outside spots. Turner was backed up by James Onwualu, a wide receiver (and solid blocker and special teams tackler) in 2013. Turner was a tall and muscular safety but a tad undersized at linebacker, especially considering what we’re used to. Or, in fact, does our 4-3-4 have a recessive gene which has DNA strands of a 4-2-5? But Turner got a lot of mention from Kelly and Van Gorder. He picked it up quickly and is the starter in the clubhouse as we await Fall. Turner hinted that he is going to Longo on some bulk, so he may be thicker in the Fall. He seems to be targeting 235 lbs as his eventual weight. Onwualu made a slower transition, but the staff has hope for him. He’s considered a willng and absorbing student of the defense.
Jarrett Grace, sound last Fall, just had his second surgery. This is usually a portent of doom. But Kelly was surprisingly rosy about Grace’s chance for a return in the Fall. With the early schedule, if Grace were back, there’d be time to knock the barnacles off before the October Death March against Stanford, Carolina and FSU, all within 15 days!
What about Deeb and Randolph? One of Spring’s biggest disappointments was that neither of them took a great leap forward. Again, Fall is a long way away, so the light bulb for one or both could turn on.
You never want to count on freshman linebackers. That is the rule. For linebackers at ND, 2014 is the exception. It’s difficult to fashion a scenario in which Nyles Morgan doesn’t play a lot. Kelly was nearly redundant in talking about what a dedicated student of the game Morgan was, ever inquisitive about strategy and tactics. After Saturday’s visit, Morgan showed it again, eschewing the “gee whiz ain’t ND great” riff and talking specifically and cogently about the schemes deployed and their nuances. It would not be a shock if he is the starter by the October gauntlet. Nile Sykes, Kolin Hill and Greer Martini arrive in June. One of them might see some time.
Hallejuah!! At last!
KeiVarae Russell has reached another level, and is on his way to approaching the departed Diaco’s prophecy that Russell would be the best cornerback in the country when he was a senior. Russell, aggressive (or overaggressive) as a pup against Robert Woods as a frosh, should blossom evermore in the more aggressive coverage schemes. Cole Luke, a rising star, occupied the other corner. Luke has been labeled as being a ladder rung or two below Russell, but most are. Career squadmen Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson have battled for the backup roles, along with Matthias Farley, arrived from safety. Those of you who “enjoyed” Farley at safety last year should experience concomitant delight with his work at cornerback. Enough said.
Ah, Josh Atkinson. It’s sort of mellow and very Notre Dame that he remains, on a collision course for his degree, while brother George departs.
But wait, there’s more! Devin Butler’s minor surgery kept him from contact this Spring. Last Fall, Devin Butler was very much neck-and-neck with the more touted Cole Luke.
Cody Riggs arrives in June. While starting for the Gators, he battled the likes of Dorial Green-Beckham, Alshon Jeffrey, Odell Beckham and Kelvin Benjamin. 2014 will be neither the first nor most difficult rodeo for Riggs. The gunfight at the Loftus/Camp Shiloh corral between Riggs and Luke for the starting CB job could be Michiana’s most entertaining spectacle in August.
Nick Watkins comes in from Texas in June. Watkins was as acclaimed as Luke in high school. Watkins, a polished, soft-spoken kid, was identified by Kerry Cooks as having just the ”right amount of arrogance” You know, Goldilocks level, not too much in either direction, “just right.” Nick was recruited under Diaco’s old profile rules. He is 6’1″ and 189, already.
It would appear that our cornerback corps, that is the quintet of Russell, Riggs, Luke, Butler and Watkins, would be better than any regular season opponent, including FSU.
This unit has more drama, but could be an outstanding unit. Collinsworth, decoupled from Farley, appears to have blossomed, according to Van Gorder and Cooks. Remember, Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta took major leaps forward in their final year. Max Redfield will start opposite Collinsworth. Redfield is still learning the schematic nuances of the position. Apparently, safety at Notre Dame, under any regime, is the ”cold fusion” of college football, complex and mysterious. But Redfield was praised for having upped his grasp in the second half of Spring.
The Elijah Shumate situation is tricky. Infer what you will, but it seems inadvisable to have Shumate and Redfield manning the safety position at the same time. Shumate is a hitter, and he has surprising skill when the ball is in the air. Nicky Baratti, a successful role player as a frosh in 2012, is back from surgery. Nicky is tall and swift and is on the second unit with Shumate. Eilar Hardy was solid in relief last year and his late tackle against Navy may have forestalled a fifth loss.
That is a solid fivesome, though the ceiling of the safety group is not so lofty as that of the cornerback corps.
In June, Drue Tranquill treks northwest from Fort Wayne. His frame and speed will prompt comparisons with Harrison Smith, appropriate or not. There is also some possibility that Tranquill could move down to linebacker as Turner and Onwualu have done.
SO WHAT CAN WE EXPECT?
The Fulcrum of the 2014 Notre Dame TEAM is the linebacking corps. It’s an oreo defense, tough and crusty on both top and bottom and soft and too pliable in the center, at linebacker.
But there are possibilities:
(1) Jarrett Grace recovers fully from surgery.
(2) Nyles Morgan arrives ready, or gets ready by October.
(3) Deeb or Randolph figures it out.
(4) Councell’s speed and health return for the Fall.
(5) Turner’s blossoming is authentic.
If any two of those 5 come to pass, then the DL and secondary will not have to overcompensate for the linebackers. “If,” as in too many ifs make you “iffy.” (remember: we survived this in 2012 when the front 7 had to protect the secondary, so extreme that Danny Spond was the de facto nickel back.)
Don’t forget this: We have All-American candidates at all three levels, Sheldon Day at DL, the marvelous Jaylon Smith at LB and KeiVarae Russell at CB.
One other potential hole card: It is possible that Van Gorder may just be the right man with the right ideas, right enthusiasm at the right time. He is battle-tested and gutsy. There is no shame in his game.
For the last two years the Defense has had to carry the offense. This year that script should flip, and this would help the defense.
If the linebacking corps can merely become dependable, then it may be fun on that magical parcel where the St. Joe River takes a bend toward the South.
Dream big. PLAY BIGGER!