Notre Dame’s best units, quelle surprise, are on defense.
Two returning starters in Bennett Jackson, on a collision course with the 2014 NFL draft, and KeiVarae Russell, still several months away from his first anniversary of his conversion to cornerback. Jackson is rangy, with good speed and, providing his recovery goes well, positioned for an outstanding senior season.
Russell has added muscle to a solid 190 to go with his speed. He eagerly adapted to the cornerback role, and became a student of the postion, something of a film freak. Russell is confident, arguably cocky and did not back down from the Robert Woods/Marquise Lee challenge in the Coliseum. He is not a shy tackler, and the added bulk should help. Remember, Diaco, who doesn’t say much, but when he does it is a doozy, has suggested that Russell may be the best cornerback in the country by the time he’s done.
Returning to the fray is Lo Wood, trying to make a run at Russell’s starting spot. Ah, competition! Minimally, Wood can sub or be the primary nickel/dime option.
Depth? Here, it’s questionable. Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown are in their third year, but each looked lost at times last year, particularly Brown. This is the year for Josh and Jalen; they must produce or perish.
Three frosh arrive in June: Cole Luke (6’0″), Devin Butler (6′ 1 1/2″) and Rashad Kinlaw (5’11”) all with profile size. Luke was highly touted, and earned rave review at some camps with his coverage skills. Kinlaw, despite his injury history, is reputed to be an explosive athlete, and many thought he was underrated because of his injuries. Devin Butler may need more time and maturity than Luke and Kinlaw. Frosh playing time depends on Atkinson and Brown.
Even without Wood, and with Russell on OJT this unit ranked 18th in Pass Efficiency Defense. This was against some decent quarterbacks, in Landry Jones, Robinson, Tino Sunseri, and others. This unit can take a step up if the depth delivers and closes the gap with the solid top trio of Jackson, Russell and Wood.
Notre Dame nay not have this kind of returning depth in a multi-player position in the next decade. Nine of the top ten return, and other than Romeo Okwara, they have played significantly. There are veterans AT LEAST two deep at all four positions.
On the outside, Danny Spond made a great leap forward last year. He improved so much in his pass drops, that he almost played the nickel minutes. He is not as good as Fox in pass coverage, but he represents no game-planning weakness in that area. Ben Councell may have arrived this Spring, being noted by Kelly as having a higher level of commitment to being a football player. He has outstanding speed for the position and is now a stronger 248 pounds.
Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese seem to improve with each passing year. Fox is now superb in pass coverage. He will most probably not play in the NFL, but he has NFL-caliber pass coverage ability. Only concern here is that Rabasa did not draw any positive commentary this Spring. The Werewolf has been sighted. Jarrett Grace will start at Mike. Christ Watt already blurted out that Grace would be the surprise defensive player, and Kelly has been virtually in awe of Grace’s development. It’s all new to Watt and Kelly; Diaco knew he had a werewolf two years ago. Kendall Moore is a strong reserve, more of a hitter than a tactician, but that will do for a sub.
At Cat, the Prince will end his reign with a flourish in 2013. He has more sacks in him. Ishaq Williams will get 15-20 snaps at DE to keep him busy when he’s not backing up Prince Shembo. And just close your eyes for ten seconds then read this: Romeo Okwara, all 250 pounds, attitude and all, is the third string Cat. No, you’re still on a Notre Dame website. It’s different now!
The Freshmen: With this much depth, none of the three freshmen should play. UNLESS. One of them was a freakish athlete. And, UNLESS one of them was an accomplished linebacker, with play-making ability, with the ability, regardless of depth, to be a difference maker.
We bring you the Golden Child, Jaylon Smith!
The best thing that Diaco and Smith have going is that Jaylon doesn’t have to start. He can be spotted in situations, downs and positions designed to wreak havoc on opposing offense. As a sniper is to an infantry, Smith can be effective and terrifying. It will be fascinating to see how and when Diaco uses Smith.
Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph can spend the year in the incubator and being Longo’d. They’ll have to get good reps as they will be needed in 2014.
(1) DEFENSIVE LINE
You start with two first round draft choices, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt.
In 2012, Nix went from being a novelty to being a serious, impactful football player. He was there all year and did not disappear on January 7th. And he really wants to do the work to take his play to another level. It was not idly that he went out of his comfort zone to spend Spring Break working with Luke Neal, Davonte’s dad, for some heightened, desert conditioning. Big Louis indicated that he’s going back to Arizona in the Summer for some more voluntary hell. His weight is one thing, but he is making strides in the weight room.
Tuitt labeled himself with the TD romp against Navy. He was slowed by the sports hernia, but has the dedication and work ethic to be in tip top shape for the start of the sseason. Some players, like Spond, Nix and others, have defied convention and made their greatest strides between their 2d and third years, which is where Stephon is. He and Nix side-by-side will cause havoc for many offenses.
And don’t assume that Sheldon Day is a weak link on the DL. He was remarkably mature last year, playing with great technique. So far the weak spot in his game is sticking the landing after he leaps in the air in anguish over a missed interception, the source of his in season injury last year. Kelly cited Day as an example of players who have the natural gift of being able to shed blockers. Diaco has called Day an “old soul,” in deference to the fact that Sheldon plays with a sagacity beyond his years. And Elston praised him as a student of the game. Day’s weight has not increased but his muscle mass has, with less roly-poly layers. Yes, Virginia, the starting DL is even stronger than in 2012.
The depth is a question mark. For Spring, Tony Springmann, Justin Utopu and Kona Schwenke have held serve on the second string with Chase Hounshell out. They are capable, but not like the depth that some of the country’s best teams have. Jarron Jones has been paced in his progress, and while we might have thought he was a sure fire second-teamer, he is not yet there. But he may be by August.
Of the three freshmen, Vanderdoes is expected to play, and perhaps not just at nose guard. He is said to have the skill to play as a DE also. With the upperclassmen on the second string, Elston can use him out of desire, not desperation.
Rochell? The numbers suggest a redshirt, but if he is a potential starter next to VanderDoes and Day in 2014, the coaches may want him to experience some live fire.
Matuska is a perfect redshirt candidate, learning the ropes and being Longo’d.
And then there’s Ishaq. 15-20 snaps as a game as a DE can really take this unit to another level.
There is no better starting threesome in the country. The depth is capable of holding the line but it will be a year or two until we have reserves just bursting with NFL potential.
This defense will be much better in 2013. The secondary, simply, is no longer as vulnerable and no longer needs to be sheltered. However, because of the potential romps, the subs will get more snaps, and the stats may take a step backward. But this defense will be remarkable. In 2012, they were limited schematically by the lack of numbers and lack of experience at CB and S. That crisis has passed now, and they can do many more things.
Consider this. It’s evening in Ann Arbor on September 7th. Devin Gardner and the Blue face a 2d and 8 at their own 40. Notre Dame lines up Ishaq Williams, Stephon Tuitt, Louis Nix and Eddie Vanderdoes on the DL. There are just two linebackers, as Lo Wood nickels up the secondary. The linebackers are Jaylon Smith and Prince Shembo. Whacha gonna do, Devin?
So that’s our ranking, from bottom to top:
(9) Running Backs
(7) Offensive Line
(6) Wide receiver
(5) Tight End
(1) Defensive Line
As you contemplate 2013 remember three things:
(1) Kelly was effusive in praise of the team’s overall focus and work ethic and daily diligence in Spring practice. This is non-trivial. The team is still hungry and they may, just may, have created a solid culture and work ethic that may just perpetuate itself.
(2) Player development is what this coaching staff does. Last year we saw it with Eifert, Riddick, Jones, Spond, Fox, Motta, Shembo and Nix, among others. Fans tend to take a freeze frame of where a player was the prior year. That sells the team short. By the end of September there are some players who will have improved to a jaw-dropping extent. We just don’t know which ones yet.
(3) The recruiting to size profile/blended with Longo’s craft is producing a very long/large football team. We are inside the focal point and see it every day and grow numb to the sheer mass of our team. But our regular season opponents have to confront a Notre Dame team that is more massive and stronger than any other team they play.
The foundation was poured in ’10 and ’11. 2012 showed how good Notre Dame was in measure to the non-Sec universe and then the reality of measurement in the SEC universe. The team climbed another rung in the ladder this Spring.
Fall will be fun.