Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith Hold Key for Notre Dame D

Photo: Mike DiNovo // USA TODAY Sports
Photo: Mike DiNovo // USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the 2015 season, I wrote about this being a make or break year for Brian VanGorder as the Notre Dame defensive coordinator. He returned a litany of starters and coaches a unit that features three captains: linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and safety Matthias Farley. His unit last year finished 73rd in total defense and I thought the 2015 defense needed to finish at least in the top 30 to keep Notre Dame competitive in the national picture. As it currently stands Notre Dame is ranked 46th in total defense at 360 yards allowed per game–69th in rushing and 33rd in passing. The rushing numbers would seem to make sense; the Notre Dame defensive line was seen as something of a weak link and the Irish have played two option teams. But, the unit that appears to need the biggest uptick in production is a VanGorder specialty: the linebackers.

Before we get to the linebacker numbers let’s first focus on the defensive line. With the loss of Jarron Jones, one could surmise that poor defensive line play could lead to poor linebacker play; the linebackers are constantly having to deal with offensive linemen in their face and therefore are not free to flow to the ball. Looking at the numbers this does not appear to be the case. I’m going to list Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochelle’s projected stats versus two unnamed players that will be revealed in a second:

Sheldon Day - Notre Dame DE
Photo: Robin Alam // Icon Sportswire

2015 projected

Day: 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 15 QB hurries
Rochelle: 61 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 9 QB hurries

Player A: 45 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, 9 QB hurries
Player B: 40 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 9 QB hurries

Player A is Stephon Tuitt and Player B is Kapron-Lewis Moore, both in the 2012 season. In addition, the duo of Jerry Tillery and Daniel Cage are projected to finish with one less tackle per game than Louis Nix in 2012, the same number of sacks, and slightly more tackles for loss. To take it even further, Romeo Okwara is on pace to slightly eclipse the Prince Shembo tackles for loss total at 10.5. The point is, the Notre Dame defensive line is producing high quality numbers compared to 2012’s elite unit in every category except for sacks, and even in that case, the quarterback hurry numbers are also favorable to the 2015 unit.

So the question is, why is Notre Dame, a team that is receiving high quality production from its defensive line, only 69th in rushing defense? Yes, we could again point out that Notre Dame faced two option teams, whose sole purpose is to run the ball, but even if we removed those two teams that leaves Notre Dame 31st in rushing defense, which is good, but not great.

To even imply that Jaylon Smith needs to step his game up seems a little bit silly. His tackle numbers are on par with Manti Te’o during his magical 2012 season, and he has been Notre Dame’s best linebacker by far this year. To put it simply, he has not played anything that resembles a poor game. But, his season more resembles Te’o’s 2011 season, lots of tackles yes, but where are the impact plays?

Smith currently has 6 tackles for loss, on pace for about 9, which would likely leave him outside the top 100 players in the nation in that category. This is just mind-boggling for a player of his skillset. He’s an athletic marvel, he runs in the 4.5’s, weighs around 250, and is chiseled out of granite. Is it a scheme thing? Or is it an ability thing? I have a hard time believing it is ability, and it should be noted that he is playing in his less natural position, WILL linebacker, for the second year in a row.

If you watched the Showtime series “A Season With” on Tuesday, you saw VanGorder imploring Smith to lead in ways beyond by example. You get the sense that Smith has trouble imploring his teammates to do more when he has trouble doing more himself.

Which brings us to Joe Schmidt, who more than any other player is suffering from a lack of production in an extremely key position. He registered only two tackles against Temple, the third time in the last four games he has tallied four or less tackles in a contest. Those also happened to be four of Notre Dame’s best opponents. The team MVP last year is for lack of a better way to say it, really hurting this defensive unit.

The unsung players on the 2012 defense were the linebacking tandem of Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox, who split time at the same position and combined for 112 tackles, or one less than Heisman runner up Te’o. Schmidt, who takes every snap at middle linebacker for Notre Dame, is on pace to finish with 64 tackles, which would not reach Smith, who is currently at 66, and in 113 opportunities against Clemson and Temple, he registered three stops. This isn’t about calling for anyone’s position–who is to say another player would come in and play better–but the fact is Schmidt is not producing and it is keeping Notre Dame from reaching it’s potential on defense.

The linebackers will have plenty of chances to right the ship in the November part of the schedule, starting with the Pitt Panthers on Saturday. They are a physical team that loves to run between the tackles, Schmidt will again be challenged inside like he was against Clemson, hopefully he will be more up to the task this time around. Notre Dame could use a lot more creativity with Smith and Day; we have yet to see those two players rush on the same side, and incredibly we’ve seen both Day and Smith drop into coverage, which is at best mystifying for a team that has trouble rushing the passer.

For Notre Dame to realize its defensive potential, Smith needs to be turned loose and Schmidt needs to summon the play that earned him team MVP honors last season. The season may literally be riding on the shoulders of their two defensive captains in the middle. Hopefully they are up to the task.

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  1. Subway Alum,

    Coney isn’t playing Mike LB he’s playing behind Jaylon, so Jaylon is getting him ready to play his position. I think they should give Grace or Martini a try playing Mike. I think the game is still to fast for Morgan. Morgan and the Redfield remind me of Harrison Smith. Play like crap until junior and senior year when the light goes on.

    Also, the defense is horrible on the back end. If they don’t get that right that McCaffery kid will eat them alive and as the first poster stated it’s November and the defense looks more Big 12 than SEC and that can be a problem. The CB can’t play tight man to man and the safeties are out of position. Plus the tackling on the back end sucks. I didn’t catch much of the first half, but how as #41 playing safety as opposed to #22?

  2. Since i discovered it a few weeks ago, I’m liking this (UHND) site. Fewer trollers, more ND focused. I even like Shazam’s play on my posting name, pretty funny. But, unless I’m overlooking something, I don’t get an email alerting me to a follow-up to my comment(s). Must i keep every UHND posting forever to constantly check up to see if anyone picked up on my post? Anyway, today was clean-up time so out of curiosity i opened this before deleting. Happily surprised to see the follow-up comments.

    No Shaz..if you’ve watched any SHO episodes and were as cynical as i am you’d imagine Joe Rudy sitting on his stool thinking…’if they ever make a sequel to “Rudy”… hmmm who’s gonna play me’? His ‘fire up the troops’ speeches evoke yawns. But that would be ok with me if he just played his position. Seriously, lately I’m seeing Sheldon trailing a potential pass receiver in areas that Joe Rudy just vacated. Apparently he’s got BVG’s ear and blessing, which speaks volumes to me…BVG, ugh.

  3. Joe Schmidt is a great story but he is becoming a liability. Time to let the athletic ability of Niles etc take over.

  4. Schmidt being out of position from time to time is one thing, but it’s his numerous missed tackles that disturbs me. He just doesn’t have the size and strength to play division 1A college football. I just felt bad for him when I witnessed him simply bounce off a stationary Cody Kessler while trying to make what should have been an easy sack a few weeks ago. His number of tackles output is so low because he physically cannot perform the task.

  5. Yes. But “D’s” win chapionships. ND has to keep opponents points low in the remaining games. These cant be shootouts. Simply wont impress committee. I’ll be appreciative with wins. 11-1? Fantastic. Thanks.

  6. Sometimes Smith runs himself out of plays because he is trying to make an impact. A couple of times in the Temple game Smith charged into the wrong hole, leading to big running plays for the Owls. Schmidt, on the other hand, is just a step slow and a few inches short to always cover his zone against top flight talent. But let’s put this in perspective: The college game is structured by the rules to help the offense. Look at a couple of ridiculous calls against the defense last week. So you’re not going to shut down any offense with capability all the time. With the ND offense it should be enough for the defense to make some big stops on occasion.

  7. What causes the lapses in NDs D’?
    Coaches claim it’s too frequent breakdowns in execution; what else would you expect them to say after BK said pre-season this team has the talent to defeat anyone?
    And they have proven they do, even after 4TOs and numerous dropped passes @ #1 ranked Clemson, it came down to a failed two-point conversion; what’s been lacking is a consistency to excel to the level we had hoped to see, especially from the back seven. Greg points to LB play, which from other than anyone not named Jaylon Smith seems inconsistent and inadequate so far. But the DBs have been just as inconsistent, despite several game-saving plays, especially by K. Russell. They’d not have been necessary with better D’ leading up to those key INTs, but I’ll take the Ws anyway ND gets them.
    What’s encouraging is that adjustments during recent second halves have resulted in more stops and better D’ play. Without Shumate, ND needs to start strong and force Pitt out of their ball-control scheme.
    Next loss, especially if at Pitt or BC who will likely run often between the tackles, and Joe Schmidt will get time off. BK and BVG have decided to stick with what got them this far- with the same six DLs and Schmidt. What might have been better will never be known. Here’s hoping the coaches’ player choices are correct.
    I worry about the early KO time, the first back-to-back road games this season, the nothing-to-lose Pitt situation, and the history of Pitt staying close going on six consecutive matchups. With NDs recent slow starts, especially on D’,I’m concerned about what wrinkles Narduzzi will have in place exploiting the struggling LBs, and ND minus Shumate in the first half.
    Will NDs OL respond after a sub-par performance last week?
    Pitt plays to control the clock and keep their D’ off the field.
    Will Pitt be the game where the D’ plays its best most complete game since Texas?
    If they do, and they’re due, and ND avoids multiple TOs, ND will be headed home for Senior Day vs. Wake with a convincing victory.

  8. Seriously, though, it’s time to take Schmidt out of the starting line-up. I see posts that say BK sees him more than we do; as a head coach he knows more than we do. Therefore who are we to question. My response to that is he’s human and therefore capable of being wrong. He’s human and is therefore capable of having personal biases cloud his judgment. Therefore, just because Schmidt’s on the field does not automatically mean he’s the best player on the roster for that position.

  9. Schmidt was the MVP during the final five games of last year though. Nobody can ever take that away from him. Unfortunately, actually playing the game this year didn’t do him any favors.

  10. Excellent analysis, Greg. Backing out the triple option teams was a nice refinement.

    Maybe next week you can turn your focus to the red zone offense.

  11. As for as Joe Schmidt goes, I’m not sure if he is a liability as I have seen some folks comment, however Nyles Morgan is far physically gifted than he is. An argument could be made that he knows the defense better, but I have seen him make mistakes as well (not being in place, missing tackles, etc..)

  12. Love the “Joe Rudy” nickname. I think #38 was a better player prior to his injury. And he is a great kid. But he is a defensive liability. Is Tevon Coney an inside backer? I thought he plays the outside. If Morgan has any issues, they can’t be as bad as Joe Rudy’s. Morgan deserve more snaps, if only to learn and be ready.

  13. Wouldn’t “Joe Rudy” be a compliment? It’s interesting that he means it to be an insult of some kind, when Rudy is an absolute LEGEND at ND. You don’t like Joe Schmidt. We get it.

  14. I believe if there were someone on the roster better suited to play in place of Schmidt then Kelly would have already made the switch. Notre Dame has so many weapons on Offense as well as an above average offensive line that they should outscore there opponents despite not having a top tier defense. IMO the defense is good enough and the offense needs to be better.

  15. Subways Abum,

    Instead of Joe Rudy, Shouldn’t it at least be Joe Schmo? (as in.. a previously unknown walk on)

    I mean, much like yourself, Rudy was 5 foot nuthin, a hundred and nuthin. (Hardly the stuff of a Joe Schmidt)

  16. Greg is so right about Joe (Rudy) Schmidt. (So named because of his ‘golly-gee fellas, let’s do this’ polyanna-isms). But what do we have w/o him? Last year, after he went down, Kelly inserted No-no Morgan into that spot…we lost 4 of next 5. I’m thinking Te’von Coney might be next man in. After BVG implored Jaylon to be more proactive on the SHO episode, Jaylon started working on Coney not No-no. Jaylon probably believes Coney is capable of stepping in…hope he’s right.

    Besides so many missed tackles, i witness Joe Rudy out of position trailing the wrong player. Best example, in the closing seconds of the Temple game, after Temple’s QB broke past the LOS, Joe Rudy took up after a possible pass receiver. Just dumb.

  17. I asked Duranko a few months back: is it scheme, execution, players under-performing, BVG,…..what is the reason for ND’s defense not being up to par based on returning talent level? He said at the time, give him until Nov. for definitive answers because of the strange mix of triple option teams (GT and Navy) in the first half seasons schedule. Got any ideas yet Duranko…….

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