How Notre Dame Will Replace Jaylon Smith

Replacing Jaylon Smith
Photo: Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Earlier this week Jaylon Smith surprised few when he declared for the NFL Draft.  Had the 2015 Butkus Award winner not injured himself in the Fiesta Bowl, his declaration likely would have occurred much sooner.  While his departure is no surprise, the task of replacing him in the Notre Dame defense will be one of the most daunting tasks facing Brian Kelly and his staff this off-season.

Since Smith isn’t the only linebacker Notre Dame has to replace in 2016 – Joe Schmidt has played his final snap for the Irish as well – it’s possible that replacing Smith won’t be as simple as just plugging in a replacement.  Instead, the linebacker corps in general could be shifted around in an attempt to get the best three linebackers on the field at the same time.

One thing, however seems certain and that is that James Onwualu will be a SAM linebacker in 2016.  Whether or not the senior to be starts is another story, but the fact remains that with his size, the SAM position is the only position he fits at.  Outside of Onwualu though, most of Notre Dame’s linebackers have some varied skillets that could allow them to play multiple positions.

Let’s start off with Onwualu’s backup in 2015 when he was healthy – Greer Martini.  By the end of the season Martini started to find a niche in the Notre Dame defense given the playing time he received against option teams and in place of Onwualu against Boston College and Stanford.  While Martini is not a candidate to play Smith’s open WILL spot, he does possess the size to fill in at the MIKE position for Schmidt where he started against USC in 2014 when Morgan missed the first half because of a targeting call against Louisville.   At the very least, Martini should challenge Onwualu for the SAM position in 2016.

But what about Nyles Morgan then?  The former 5-star recruit racked up a lot of tackles in 2014 filling in for Schmidt but tallied nearly as many mental errors as well.  The general consensus on Morgan has been that while he has much greater athleticism than Schmidt, he doesn’t have nearly the defensive quarterbacking skills as Schmidt which are needed to man the MIKE position.  If Martini were to move over the MIKE position though, Morgan could potentially slide over to the WILL where can could be unleashed to just make plays.  In an ideal world however, the light will come on for Morgan this spring and he will lock down the MIKE position.

The most likely replacement for Smith then would seem to be his understudy in 2015, rishing sophomore Tevon Coney. The former early enrollee spent the entire 2015 season directly behind Smith on the depth chart and was sent in to replace Smith in the Fiesta Bowl before being knocked out with his own shoulder injury.  That injury will slow him down in the off-season and could impact him this spring.  If it does, the door will be open for other linebackers to stake their claim to the position.

Daelin Hayes could be one of those linebackers.  Hayes is coming off a shoulder injury of his own, but enrolled at Notre Dame this week checking in at 6’3″, 239 lbs according to his official bio from Notre Dame.  Hayes could eventually grow into a defensive end – possibly becoming the edge rusher Notre Dame has been missing – but in 2016, his quickest path to the field could be at linebacker where his athleticism could make him a candidate for early playing time.  Missing most of his senior season, however, would make stepping right in for Smith a tall order even with Hayes’s talent and potential.

If Coney is limited at all this spring, the greatest beneficiary could be classmate Josh Barajas.  Projected as a WILL linebacker, Barajas spent the 2015 “redshirtting” while he adjusted to the college game and reportedly got his conditioning in order.  By the end of the season though he was receiving some praise from Kelly and as will likely battle with Coney for the WILL spot.  Barajas’s size, however, gives him the versatility to also potentially play the MIKE.

The last linebacker either on the roster or committed currently that could potentially replace Smith is rising sophomore Asmar Bilal.  The Indianapolis native is more likely to push Onwaulu in 2016 given his size and athleticism but he could also potentially play the WILL if he packs on enough weight this off-season.  Still, the likelihood of Bilal bulking up that much remains low.  It would not, however, be surprising if he was able to seriously challenge Onwualu.

Now, the wild card in this equation here is recruiting.  Notre Dame is still heavily recruiting Caleb Kelly and Ben Davis – both 5-star talents in addition to 4-star LB Jeffrey McCulloch.  While it’s unclear where Notre Dame stands with Davis, things look much better for Notre Dame with Kelly now than they did a month ago.  Should the Irish be able to pull off the upset here and land Kelly, he is the kind of rare talent who could play from day one even though his weight is listed at just 215 lbs currently.  A signature from Kelly on Signing Day though could put the wheels in motion of Martini to MIKE and Morgan to WILL as well.

Notre Dame will also know more about where they stand with Davis this weekend following his official visit.

While a lot remains unclear as to just how Notre Dame will replace Smith – and Schmidt – one this abundantly clear: the Irish have a lot of options.  The days of hoping and praying that a lone backup can step in and fill the shoes of a superstar are gone.  Even just a few years ago when Notre Dame had to replace Manti Te’o, it was Jarrett Grace or bust essentially and when he went down to that nasty leg injury the Irish defense suffered.  That’s not the case this time around.

Notre Dame won’t be able to completely replace Jaylon Smith.  He was a once in a generation type talent for Notre Dame that you simply can’t just replace.   What they can end up with in 2016, however, is a linebacking unit that is a stronger overall group than what we saw in 2015 despite the loss of Smith’s freakish abilities.  The athletes and talent are there.  Whether or not those athletes play up to there potential and we see a strong overall linebacking corps in 2016 will be up to the defensive coaching staff.


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  1. Morgan is a beast! Sure he made some coverage mistakes but everyone on that defense did as well! Morgan is athletic & can run sideline to sideline to make plays.Coney,Morgan & Onawalu has the potential to be a lights out LB corp! Throw in the quality depth behind them ND could go 2 deep easy at each LB position! It has been a long time since the Irish have been able to do that! You don’t replace Jaylon with 1 player you replace him with a better LB corp! That’s what ND has the chance to do in 2016! Schmidt knowledge will be missed however the athletic ability can make up for a lot of mistakes in the learning process! Just my thoughts.

  2. I think it will all start with the Mike linebacker: Option #1 Morgan is ready and is an instant upgrade from Schmidt. Option #2 Martini takes the start, he has the right size and he looked OK in his short stint in 2014. Option #3 Onawalu gains 10 more pounds bringing him up to the 240 lb. range. As a senior he would fit the leadership that position demands, he seems highly intelligent, and very athletic. Is he
    aggressive enough though?
    You can’t lose a Jaylon Smith and expect similar results from his replacement. A solid 95 tackle season from both the Will and the Mike linebacker positions would go a long way to stopping the run next year. Jones returning to form at nose tackle next year would also improve our front seven immensely.Year three for VanGorder is the last year I am willing to give him a pass. From the juniors on down, the kids are all his recruits now. The starting seniors in his front seven, Rochelle, Jones, and Onawalu all look to be competent to good. Health being key of course, we better see some results next year.
    Go Irish

  3. I think it’s a little early to call Morgan a bust. He made several freshman All America teams in 2014, and clearly his ceiling is much higher than Schmidt’s. Think for the future and get Morgan some experience. Or Coney for that matter. It’s not like the defense could have gotten any worse, especially towards the end of the season and at the LB position. Oh well, it’s all water under the bridge now.

  4. @ George…the delusional Kelly and VanNo-d-er…i don’t usually come to either coach’s defense, but the reality was, they had nobody to put in behind Schmidt. As pathetic as he was, Schmidt was the better of whoever ND put in as a replacement. Morgan was a bust in the last 5 games of 2014 and a no-show in 2015. Coney was just slightly better, but really not. But with him, there is hope. Speaks volumes for VanNo’s inability to bring a 5 star and 4 star recruit up to speed. VanNo must GO! My great hope is that he gets an ‘out of the blue’ offer away from ND that he just can’t refuse. That said, I love what I saw of the 5 early 2016 enrolled recruits, especially on D. Might as well play ’em, if they are any good they’ll move on in 2 years anyway.

  5. I look forward to moving on from Schmidt a lot more than I worry about how to replace Jaylon. It’s hard to believe Schmidt played the entire year ONLY because of his “defensive quarterbacking skills.” My guess is that BK and/or BVG were quite delusional, at least on some level, as to how inept Schmidt was.

  6. When Smith would be on the other side of where the play was going and would beat Schmidt to the tackle still, that is scary…scary that Jaylon is that freakin fast and also scary that Schmidt simply got the defense in the right spots and didn’t offer much more. While we may never see a player on defense like Smith again, I do agree that we have the potential to have an overall stronger LB corp this year. That is a very good thing to hopefully get this defense working right. Lord knows we have to change something. I’m hoping for more press coverage this year and defending the first down line on 3rd down instead of dropping back into soft coverage. If you get beat on 3rd down deep, you get beat, but at least make them convert a harder play than a curl at 5 yards. Man that was frustrating to see teams continually move the chains on us like that.

  7. You shouldn’t have to be Bobby Fisher to play defense at Notre Dame. I hope BVG can figure that out. Everyone else seems to understand.

  8. You don’t replace a talent like Smith and whoever takes his place at linebacker will have very very large shoes to fill. As far as Schmidt goes he left everything on the field and you don’t find many players today that will do that! Two big question marks for the Irish, but I’m sure they will find someone to do the job, maybe not as efficiently as the previous standouts but effective enough to keep the Irish in the hunt! Go Irish!

  9. Jaylon was truly once in a generation…. I think he was the best ND player for his position since, maybe Samardija at WR, and possibly the best defensive player in 30 years (better than T’eo)…

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