We take a pre-Spring Practice look at the putative defensive starters. This may well change during Spring practice or in the Fall. The middle linebacker situation remains fluid, but suddently there are options, arguably including Nyles Morgan, Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, Tevon Coney and even Michael Deeb. If the names below seem familiar it is because only Cody Riggs departs from the starting lineup. Jarron Jones and KeiVarae Russell are not participating in contact in the Spring, and Russell will still be in Seattle, but we will slot them in.
1. Jaylon Smith (Linebacker) – Changed position but not his productivity. He led the team with 112 tackles and 9 Tackles for loss, along with 3 sacks. Last Spring it looked as if Smith would have KeiVarae Russell behind him, Joe Schmidt next to him and Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones in front of him. By November, he was the last man standing. After a year of adjustment to the new position and the Van Gorder defense, should be ready for a “legacy” season. Jaylon now knows the defense, and he will be surrounded by better, more experienced players. His knowledge base should catch up with his remarkable athleticism and his work ethic. Should be an awards candidate and a big playmaker.
2. KeiVarae Russell (Cornerback) – Forced to start as a frosh in the 2012 season, he progressed in 2013 and was poised for a breakout season in 2014, eager to unleash his athleticism and will in the agressive Van Gorder scheme. While he will not return, bigger and faster, from Seattle, until June, the starting cornerback position is his. A first round draft choice in next year’s NFL mock draft, Russell was the fifth leading tackler as a soph in 2013, and led the team in passes defended with 8 and passes broken up with 9. Russell is driven and goal-oriented. He had said last Spring that he wanted to win the Jim Thorpe award for the best NCAA defensive back, and Kelly was throwing a lot of gasoline on that blazing fire. “If a man’s reach does not exceed his grasp, then what are heavens for?” He and Cole Luke are the best pair of cornerbacks the Irish have had in recent memory.
3. Sheldon Day (Defensive Tackle) – The returning captain was on his way to a monster season before he was cut down by injuries against Northwestern. While he returned for LSU, he was not as healthy as normal, but should be ready by Fall. 8th in tackles with 40, but in a three way tie for second in tackle for loss (trailing Smith’s 9) with Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones with 7.5. A disruptor inside, a healthy Day can make things easier for the defensive ends. Some want to suggest that Day should be moved to end, but the Irish would be just fine with a (healthy?) Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day wreaking havoc in the middle, collapsing the pocket, setting the table for the DES and the other rush specialists.
4. Isaac Rochell (Defensive end) – An absolute oak. Sets the edge and holds the edge. Is all about the run, and not a skilled pass rusher. Plays stronger than his 6’3.5” 287, and should be ready for a monster year, even if he has to split time with Ishaq Williams. Though some suggest he move inside, he would help control the rushing games of Texas, Clemson, USC and Stanford from a defensive end position.
5. Cole Luke (Cornerback) – 6th leading tackler, led team in interceptions with 4 and broke up 11 passes, defending 15, both team highs. Except for his lapses against USC was by far the leading coverage specialist in the Irish secondary. He should benefit from the arrival of Lyght and the return of Russell. There will be few better cornerback tandems than Russell and Luke.
6. Jarron Jones (Defensive tackle) (provisional) – Out for the year after the Lisfranc sprain, it was compounded by a ligament tear that required surgery. Jones is expected to be inactive from 4-6 months from the time of the injury. The biggest cost of this is that he was poised to increase his quickness with some dedicated lower body work under Longo. This situation has eerie similarities (in timing and recovery) to Stephon Tuitt’s travail in 2013.
But a healthy Jones took a great leap forward in 2014. He was not just the “other” defensive tackle playing next to Day, and on some Saturdays had the greater impact. Played up to his size of 6’5.5” 315 and generated a good push collapsing the pass protection pocket. His 7.5 tackles for loss tied him with Day and Rochell for runnerup behind Smith’s 9. A healthy Jones can play. A healthy Jones and Day give the Irish one of the top 10 DT tandems in America.
7. Romeo Okwara (Defensive end) – Still only 19 years old, he moved out of the long shadow of Prince Shembo in 2014. Shared time with the able Trumbetti, finishing 10th on the team in tackles. While not a great pass rusher he led the team with 4 sacks. The Irish, suddenly, and even if Ishaq Williams does not return, have depth at DE, so the rest from Trumbetti and Blankenship will keep Rochell and Okwara fresh.
8. Max Redfield (Safety) – If he plays to his potential (that insidious word) he could help the Irish defensive massively improve, partly because it would give Van Gorder a playmaker at every level-Day at DT, Smith at LB, Russell at CB and Redfield at S. Had ups and downs, but finished second on the team in tackles. Less than compelling with the ball in the air, only had 2 passes broken up and 3 passes defended. That is too low for a free safety. Probably Todd Lyght’s primary player of focus.
9. Nyles Morgan (Middle Linebacker) As a true frosh he got a battlefield promotion when Joe Schmidt went out for the year in Tempe. Immediately exposed on two long running plays against Northwestern, but improved thereafter finishing with 11 tackes against USC, and 4 against LSU. A warrior, he is fast and a good tackler, This time last year he was preparing for graduation and the Crete Monee senior prom and should take a great leap forward in 2015. If Schmidt returns to full health, they would probably split the position.
10. James Onwualu (Outside Linebacker) – A year ago, Onwualu was still in his transition from wide receiver to defense and hadn’t yet dropped down from safety to linebacker. Tentative in September, he started to figure his position out as Fall unfolded. His best game was against LSU. Quick, athletic and a constantly improving tackler. It would not shock reason if he were 2015’s most improved defensive player.
11. Elijah Shumate (Safety) After showing promise and surprising cover skills as a nickel back in 2012, has had a bumpy run in 2013 and 2014. A bristling tackler, he was third on the team and was slightly more productive than Redfield with the ball in the air, with 4 pass breakups and 5 passes defended. Shumate has heart and racked up 13 tackles on a tough afternoon against USC in the Coliseum. Had only one interception but it was the stake he drove right into the heart of Michigan and sealed the shutout. Can Todd Lyght unlock Shumate’s potential?
SPECIAL MENTION-THE “TWELFTH STARTER”
Matthias Farley (Nickel/Utility Man). After showing promise in 2012, Farley played injured and badly in 2013. But Van Groder arrived and created another position for Farley, more in line with his capabilities and skill sets. Farley was a pleasant surprise, the defensive comeback player of the year. Matthias was fifth in tackles, tied with Cole Luke for the interception lead with four and had 3.5 sacks with 6.5 tackles for loss. He has found his niche and should ever more fully grow into it in 2015.
This is a veteran defense, with Morgan (if he holds off Schmidt) the only underclassman in the starting lineup.
2014 was a necessary transitional year, on several levels, but it should be significantly different in 2015 for the Irish defense.