Notre Dame’s Linebacker Unit on the Brink of Elite Status

Nyles Morgan
Nyles Morgan (Photo: Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports)

Notre Dame possessing an elite linebacker corps?

The notion may seem laughable when examining last year’s depth chart and the lack of carryover into 2014. Notre Dame struggled in 2013 with the loss of its defensive heart and soul in linebacker Manti Te’o, and will lose mainstays Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox to graduation this spring. The depth chart hits mentioned don’t even take into consideration the retirement of linebacker Danny Spond due to health concerns, the devastating injury suffered to last season’s starter at the Mike position, Jarrett Grace, or the recruiting defections of elite one-time commitments Alex Anzalone or, most recently, Richard Yeargin III.

The truth is head coach Brian Kelly has been quietly building star power and depth at the position, and strengthening its foundation with each incoming recruiting class.

The star power began with the recruiting Class of 2013 when Notre Dame landed its most heralded defensive commitment of the Internet recruiting era in 5-star linebacker Jaylon Smith. Smith was listed by as the #1 outside linebacker in the nation and the 3rd highest player regardless of position. Smith was so highly regarded that he ranked nine spots ahead of where Manti Te’o was listed nationally coming out of high school, an impressive feat considering Te’o would eventually become the most decorated college football player in history.

The pattern was repeated in the Recruiting Class of 2014 when Notre Dame managed to sign Rivals 4-star Nyles Morgan. Morgan was rated by Rivals as the 5th best inside linebacker nationally and held offers from nearly every major program in America, from Alabama to USC and every letter in-between. Even more importantly, Smith and Morgan’s signings represented a major coup for Notre Dame.

In addition to battling all of the college powers for their signatures, Brian Kelly and staff had to overcome built-in advantages other programs enjoyed. Jaylon Smith, though an Indiana native, was familiar with the recruiting process having witnessed his older brother ultimately sign with Ohio State. Notre Dame’s ability to pluck away an elite recruit whose family was comfortable with another major program represented a major upset.

The “upset” label also accurately described Notre Dame’s underdog status throughout Nyles Morgan’s recruitment. A standout at Crete-Monee High School in Illinois, Morgan’s proximity to South Bend wasn’t as strong a positive as one would expect. The Ole Miss Rebels had developed a recruiting pipeline to Crete-Monee after signing Morgan’s high school teammates and friends, Laquon Treadwell and Anthony Standifer, both of whom were recruited by Notre Dame before signing with Ole Miss. Kelly never let up in his pursuit and managed to gain the upper hand after several campus visits with Morgan and his family.

The Fighting Irish are well on their way again for the Class of 2015 with linebacker recruit Justin Hilliard. Hilliard is currently listed as a Rivals 4-star, though his status as the #1 inside linebacker in his class, along with his 47th overall ranking, has him knocking on the door of achieving 5-star status. Kelly cemented Notre Dame’s position as a legitimate threat to land Hilliard’s signature after Hilliard cancelled his unofficial visit to Alabama last weekend in order to attend Notre Dame’s junior day, an event that allows up-and-coming high school football talent to showcase their skills to Notre Dame’s coaching staff.

Hilliard’s relationship with Notre Dame grew even stronger when the blue chip athlete from Ohio decided to spend an extra day on campus to get to know Notre Dame’s coaches and players, with Kelly having Hilliard spend his free time with emerging star, Jaylon Smith. The time spent will do nothing but reinforce an already strong connection, with Hilliard not only attending a high school in Cincinnati, a city where Brian Kelly made a name for himself as head coach of the Bearcats, but at St. Xavier, a high school that produced Notre Dame signees Matt James and Luke Massa.

Should Notre Dame manage to ward off other major college powers and eventually sign Justin Hilliard, Notre Dame would have the potential in 2015 to trot out three elite linebackers – should the Fighting Irish switch to a 4-3 defensive front, which is the current speculation – in Jaylon Smith, Nyles Morgan and Justin Hilliard, an array of linebacker talent the Fighting Irish have not possessed since the Lou Holtz era. Better yet, the depth at the position would rival that of any college power in the country.

In addition to the three elite linebackers mentioned, a bevy of extraordinary talent and potential would fill the two-deep roster. Jarrett Grace, Notre Dame’s starting Mike linebacker in 2013, would be entering his final year of eligibility, and heavily recruited high school talent such as Doug Randolph and Kolin Hill would be entering their prime and ready to contribute at a high level. The end result would be one of the most talented and deep linebacker units in the country.

While Notre Dame has endured losses at the linebacker spot due to graduation, injury and recruiting defection in recent years, Brian Kelly has quietly been assembling an arsenal of weaponry for new Irish defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, to execute his aggressive schemes.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. Gawd Almighty – I hope BVG can use him advanced (pro) experience and assemble ND’s top-notch talent to be a nasty, hongray bunch o’dawgs with the speed to catch, prevent, or bite any offense in the arse. Go Irish!

      1. Damn – please forgive the mis-spelling of your name. I should have checked. Spelling Ronny Romney is a dangerous, potentially ultimately defamatory mistake! (and I’m from MA, too!)

  2. Let’s not forget 2015 is the year of the Linebacker in Indiana.

    The Hoosier State is home to 3 of the top 8 ILB nationally per the 247Composite. Of those 3, ND is currently favored to land 2 in #5 ILB Josh Barajas and #8 ILB Asmar Bilal. Barajas is also the #1 player in IN and the #144 player nationally, while Bilal is #3 in IN and #222 nationally, according to the 247Composite. And in Justin Hilliard, and ND would have the #1 LB class for 2015 without question.

  3. joey, I’m “witcha” on Deeb. He has a lot of clear air in front of him this Spring. He came in fit, over 240 and ready. Of course, he will have to earn his way past Schmidt and Morre, but that’s feasible.

    I will write more later about 3-4/4-3. First reality check is that in the last four years, the BASE has been a 3-4 (therein the recruiting of guys like Josh Frazier and Matt Elam) but a 4-3 has been the de facto defense
    at least 40% of the time. Any change will be gradual not precipitous.

    It is MOST probably the base will migrate to the 4-3 with the 3-4, as the counterpoint to the Base, will be deployed about 30% or more of the time.

    The defense will be “multiple.”

    1. Ron,

      ND is running more of a hybrid. They don’t have the space eating NG anymore. They have a lot of guys that can play a hybrid DE/OLB. They can still play a 3-4 but will most of the time switch to a 4-3 with the personell they have. I like the fact they are flexible in that manner.

  4. You certainly have turned the common thinking on its head, Scott. Most observers would think that losing three of our starting four linebackers would have us closer to the brink of a big problem than to “elite” status. Coach Kelly has also said that linebacker is one of the position groups that he is most worried about this year. That’s why he has made it such an important target for the 2015 recruiting class.

    Morgan and Hilliard could indeed help a lot. But Morgan won’t even arrive on campus for more than three months, much less have played a down when he does. Yes, Notre Dame would like to land Hilliard. But the competition for him is fierce. Alabama and other top football schools will have an impact on what university he chooses.

    What we know for certain is that we are thin at linebacker — particularly at inside linebacker. So as you suggest, Scott, going to a 4-3 defense would make sense in that we would need only one inside linebacker instead of two. How well we will be able to deal with our current shortage of top flight linebackers and our lack of depth at linebacker will be an important key to our success this year. But “on the brink of elite status”? Unfortunately, a fair chance for it not to be a glaring weakness is more like it.

    1. Councell, Grace, Okwara, Rabasa, Schmidt, Williams, Deeb, Randolph, Smith, 5th year senior Kendal Moore, and incoming freshmen Morgan.

      That’s thin, no depth? Really?

      I liked Calibrese and Fox. Especially their leadership. But they were slow.

      The linebackers coming back this year are not.

      6 of the linebackers on that list will return with varing degrees of game experience.

      ND will adjust the defense depending on the offense they are facing. Against running teams like Michigan St and Stanford you will see two inside linebackers.
      Against spread offenses, we will be grateful for the upgrade in team speed at linebacker.

      The true glaring weakness would have been trying to play Florida State with Calibreese and fox!

  5. I share in Scott’s optimism,
    despite the many ‘what-ifs’ and ‘could bes’ presented.
    But I’m not pessimistic about this year’s LBs either-
    especially with this Fall’s return of Grace and Councell to join Jaylon,
    along with Morgan, and the new incoming recruits
    as well as the red-shirt Frosh already at Spring ball.

    I’m also more optimistic about Ishaq as a DE in the 4-3.
    About 25 years ago, I remember another 5th year DE, Frank Stams,
    emerging to improve a D’ that ended up helping bring the NC back to ND.
    Nor should we forget Kendall and Schmidt as two other 5th year potential LB contributors
    who could be this season’s Frank Stams.

    Ah! Pre-Season posts- while cold dirty slushy snow disappears,
    replaced by the warm hopes of Spring.

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