Part one of this series broke down the top five offensive storylines heading into the 2016 version of spring football, today the focus is on the defense. While the Notre Dame offense loses seven starters from last seasons unit, the defense retains seven starters, which is the good news for Brian VanGorder’s unit. The bad news, of course, is they lose two of the best players on the team in Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day, along with three year starter KeiVarae Russell, and captains Matthias Farley and Joe Schmidt. Many fans would say that worst news is no matter who is tasked to replace Smith and Day, they will still be lead by the polarizing VanGorder, who is easily the most divisive character within the Notre Dame football program.
Needless to say, this is a huge spring for a number of position groups and players who are going to be tasked to play major roles, players who spent most of 2015 on the sideline. Here are the top five storylines to follow when spring ball 2016 kicks off March 16th.
1. Can Nyles Morgan be the Man in the Middle?
The saying is very familiar, “be careful what you wish for”, and such could be the case for Morgan at middle linebacker. Fans called for the former five star, sophomore linebacker to enter the lineup in place of senior Joe Schmidt throughout last season, all the while the defensive coaches showed little interest in giving Morgan a role beyond special teams. Schmidt saw close to every snap, goal line work was given to the younger Tevon Coney, and when Smith and Coney went down in the Fiesta Bowl, coaches turned to fellow middle linebacker Jarrett Grace to fill in. With all of Morgan’s physical talent, clearly the coaches did not feel as though he could be counted on as a meaningful player on defense for Notre Dame.
With the departure of Schmidt, Morgan takes the reigns as the signal caller of a defense that Schmidt himself said could leave a player “paralyzed in thought”. Is Morgan ready for the responsibility? This is a player that has struggled to fill his own responsibility, it would seem the task of being in charge of the entire defense would be far too daunting. The good news for Morgan is he is of immense physical talent and, despite his struggles, Brian VanGorder has stated he expects Morgan to start in the middle. Should he succeed, Notre Dame will have a huge upgrade athletically in the middle of their defense, which would go a long way towards improving the achilles heal of the Notre Dame football team.
2. The Battle at Left Cornerback
Cole Luke returns for his senior season at right corner and KeiVarae Russell is off to the NFL and he takes with him 30+ career starts at left corner for the Fighting Irish defense. Fortunately, there are a number of good players that will battle it out for the starting spot, with the “loser” of the battle likely to see the field in nickel situations. In theory, two starters could emerge from this position group.
It’s difficult to name a favorite among the three players most likely to win the job in senior Devin Butler, junior Nick Watkins and redshirt freshman Shaun Crawford. All three bring something different to the table as far as skill set and experience. Butler is the veteran, who has started a few games at corner for Notre Dame and has notched an interception during his time on the field. He is thought to be the most physically limited of the three, brought in with Bob Diaco’s soft cover two scheme in mind. He has struggled some in the man and cover three schemes Brian VanGorder has employed. Expect to hear more speculation of Butler moving to safety, especially should he lose this corner battle.
Watkins may best fit the bill physically (6-1, 200), and he held up nicely against the size and speed of the Ohio State receivers in his first career start in the Fiesta Bowl. The word on him is he not the best practice player who may have struggled mentally adjusting to his backup role last season. He has now shown himself on a big stage against a big time team, the expectation is he will compete very highly this spring.
Crawford had the starting nickel spot in his grasp last fall before tearing his ACL in practice and losing his freshman season to injury. Crawford doesn’t have the size of Watkins, but he is a more explosive athlete who tore it up on offense for his state championship football team in Ohio. Given his pedigree, it’s hard to imagine Crawford won’t have a role somewhere on the 2016 defense, either at corner or in the nickel position.
3. How Are the Early Enrollees Adjusting?
Four of the five early entries from the 2016 recruiting class are on the defensive side of the ball: defensive end/linebacker Daelin Hayes, defensive end Khalid Kareem, safeties Spencer Perry and Devin Studstill. There is an excellent chance all four see the field in some capacity next season, even if it just as special teams players. However, each has the opportunity to state the case for much bigger roles on the Notre Dame defense next season, and they happen to be at positions of particular need for the Irish.
Many consider Hayes the prize of the 2016 class because of his athletic ability and skill set. Watching him on film, one can’t help but be reminded of a young Von Miller. Hayes has got the size, power and speed to come off the edge and get after the quarterback while also possessing the athletic ability to make plays in pass coverage. He’s had a troublesome shoulder that could limit him some in spring drills, but if he shows the ability to pick up the defensive schemes that might be good enough to give a path to the playing field due to his physical ability.
Kareem is probably a little undersized to play defensive end right away, but his skill level is what could make it hard for the coaches to not give him a shot in the fall. His ability is likened to that of current senior Isaac Rochell, who incidentally saw time as a freshman. It’ll be interesting to watch if he can hold up physically at this early stage because this is the lightest he’ll at any point in his Notre Dame career. If he can hang in there with the big boys now, no reason to think he can’t come the fall.
I’d bet dollars to donuts that Studstill and Perry both play special teams for Notre Dame next season. Studstill is an incredibly instinctual player who always finds himself around the ball, which lends itself to special teams prowess. Perry is 6’2 225, and pretty much just loves to hit people. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Perry move to linebacker at some point, if not as early as this spring due to the depth at linebacker being depleted because of injury. Yet, as is the case with Studstill at safety, the loss of Elijah Shumate leaves strong safety vacated, with no clear leader to fill the void with Drue Tranquill still recovering from his ACL tear. If either of the two players can stand out in spring ball it could lead to a direct line to a starting position at safety.
4. Who Draws the Buzz on the Defensive Line?
Notre Dame currently has 15 scholarship players on the defensive line, but only five that the staff could play with any kind of confidence. However, with those kinds of numbers someone outside of the Rochell, Jones, Trumbetti, Cage and Tillery group is going to do something that gets people excited. So who is it going to be?
The staff would most probably like for it to come from the Jay Hayes, Grant Blankenship duo, as the situation at defensive end behind Rochell and Trumbetti is a bit troublesome/alarming. If anything happens to one of the veterans, the defensive line is in a really bad spot, especially when it comes to generating a pass rush around the edge. There just isn’t anyone who is proven or has even played meaningful downs at all.
Hayes came with a lot of fanfare, but he created the wrong kind of buzz last season with some tweets that seemed to be aimed at the coaching staff and didn’t have to do with what a great job he thought they were doing. He was a transfer rumor for a lot of the year, but he’s still around and has a chance to live up to the potential everyone saw in him.
Blankenship was pressed into duty, like Hayes, way before he was physically ready to contribute as a freshman and the idea is now that he has had two years to fill out his body, he’ll be good to go.
I wrote an earlier column about the possibility of an emergence from the 2015 defensive line class, which would provide needed depth on the inside with the injury prone Jones and just the overall well being of a position group that often needs a steady rotation to keep players fresh. Luckily, coach Keith Gilmore is thought to be one of the very best defensive line coaches in the nation, so at least the group is in capable hands.
5. Who Emerges as the Leaders?
Notre Dame went with five captains last season, four of which came from the defense and none of which will be playing football for Notre Dame in 2016. So whoever is selected to be captain of this unit has some large shoes to fill to say the least. Regardless of who is actually named captain, there always needs to be a leader at each level of the defense; some levels are obvious, others not so much.
Isaac Rochell figures to be a pretty easy choice on the defensive line; he’s started a ton of games, is a senior and figures to be a steady player for the defensive line group. Not sure how vocal he is, but Sheldon Day wasn’t so vocal going into last season, and that turned out ok.
It’s hard to say who takes over the leadership role for the linebackers, but the most obvious choice is James Onwualu, who is entering his senior season as the starter at the SAM position. The issue with that is he might be supplanted at some point during the year, and it’s hard to lead from the bench. He also figures to be the one subbed out when Notre Dame goes nickel. Could the jack of all trades, Greer Martini fill this role?
Neither Cole Luke or Max Redfield screams out leader to anyone, especially Redfield who has had a tumultuous career to say the least. He was spotted without sleeves in the snowy, early morning hours of Camp Kelly, so there is something to be said for no sleeves in the snow, am I right? This should be an interesting plot to follow as Notre Dame moves through the month of spring ball that will tell us a lot about what to expect from this new but talented defensive group.