Notre Dame Football Post Spring Analysis: Linebackers Lead The Way

I really like to do rankings when evaluating a team. It helps me get a read on the type of team I’m going to be watching in the fall. Where are they strong? Where are they weak?

Soon I’ll be breaking down the schedule for the upcoming 2017 season, and it made sense to first evaluate what Notre Dame will be good at and they will be bad at. What are we going to see from these guys?

Some of the conclusions are great news. Some of them are bad news. Luckily, what we’ve seen is an incomplete picture. A lot can fluctuate over the summer with the changes in approach to strength training and the heavy emphasis on the basics, especially on defense. In other words, defensive linemen can make huge physical strides, and freshmen can alter the dynamic.

That being said, here is the 2017 football team, from weakest to strongest:

Safety

It hurts me to put my former–and favorite–position in the weakest spot, but I’m a straight shooter. I liked what I saw from Coleman and Elliott in the spring game–the two likeliest starters–I’m just weary of the upside at this position. It was refreshing to see some playmaking for once; Coleman broke on a crosser by Alize Mack that led to the Elliott pick, and Elliott was very active in the run game. But, how consistent can Coleman be as a playmaker when he hasn’t played the position and the times we did see him on the field, he was getting barbecued against Texas?

Also, there is a rather large elephant in the room in regards to their tackling. Elliott was aggressive in the spring contest, but he also missed Josh Adams one on one in the hole, leading to a 25 yard touchdown run that also left Coleman swinging and missing.

This is a position where mistakes lead to touchdowns and I continue to be concerned.

Defensive Line

The revelation that was Daelin Hayes and his three sacks in the spring game is what kept this group from the bottom spot. He looked quick, strong, and explosive. We need to see it in games that count, no question. But along with Morgan and Tranquill, he was one of the best players on the defense, if not the team, in the final scrimmage.

Beyond him, it’s a whole bunch of “we’ll have to see.” Jay Hayes looked good while making Mike McGlinchey look bad, but we saw these things last spring and then come fall, nothing. Tillery still appears to only want to be good sometimes, and it’s hard to know what the expect from Cage given his injury history.

I consider defensive line to be one of the three most important position groups on the field, along with offensive line and quarterback. Just like time is the key for any offense, lack of time is the key for any defense. When the offense lacks time–time to pass, time to set up blocks–it makes the defense as a whole much better.

As with the safeties, I remain concerned.

Tight End

Count me among the people who needs to see Alize Mack out there and performing before I decide this guy can be the centerpiece of an offense. He’s showed flashes as a freshman, which is nice, but he didn’t show in the red zone and hasn’t played a meaningful game in over a year. I like his talent, but I just haven’t seen the guy Brian Kelly describes as “uncoverable.” I feel similar regarding Durham Smythe, who looks great every spring, and then doesn’t show in the fall.

That being said, given the emphasis Chip Long places on tight ends, it’s easy to see improvement from a group that hadn’t seen the best coaching the last few years.

Cornerback

The gap between the remaining groups and the previous three groups is pretty vast, because I actually like the remaining units quite a bit. Between Nick Watkins, Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Troy Pride, and Shaun Crawford, Notre Dame has five guys that can play. Admittedly, my view of Pride and Crawford are more anecdotal since we haven’t seen them much due to injury (Crawford) and lack of time (Pride).

I do wonder what the drop off is between the top three–Love, Watkins, Vaughn–and the other two. Crawford is a total wild card coming off of a torn ACL and Achilles in back to back seasons. Pride has looked playable, but not necessarily someone who gives a lot of confidence. Lack of bodies is what holds this group back for me.

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Wide Receiver

Needed to see more out of Equanimeous St. Brown to put them higher, but I really like this group. My football crush on Chase Claypool is well documented, and the emergence of Miles Boykin was a very pleasant surprise.

I think the two most overlooked players at this position are CJ Sanders and Chris Finke. They are both very good with the ball in their hands, and a tough cover in the Chip Long RPO system. If the defense presents a matchup he likes, Brandon Wimbush can flip the ball out to his smaller receivers and let them work. If the Notre Dame offense is humming, chasing around these two jitterbugs is an unwelcome issue for the defense to combat. Tired legs lead to missed tackles.

The wildcard here is the status of Kevin Stepherson, whose presence would push the group higher in the rankings.

Running Back

Notre Dame can, and will, play three backs a lot in 2017. This is going to happen. Josh Adams is a no brainer, the staff loves the skill set of Tony Jones Jr., and it is Dexter Williams’ time. Everything about the makeup of this team screams running game with an emphasis on play action creating big plays for their receivers.

This projection also doesn’t change with an injury to any of the top three. Freshman CJ Holmes provides the type of versatility that excels in a Chip Long offense and can fill in as the third back if needed.

This group can hit the home run, go between the tackles, and catch the ball. Pretty much all the things we want running backs to do.

Offensive Line

I hope I’m wrong. I want them to be the top group. I really do. I just can’t do it.

There is no reason for them not to be very good to great. They are loaded with talent and experience. They might have two first rounders playing on the left side. They should dominate. But, it’s just not what I saw. Not last season, and not in the spring.

McGlinchey should not be lunging to save his quarterback in the spring of his fifth season. Quarterbacks should not be sacked eleven times, even if some of those are inflated.

I realize I’m talking about the third ranked group with disappointment, but this group is the season. It is the season. If they are great, given the weapons Notre Dame has, this team is a real problem. If not, they’ll just be a team who flashes every now and then. 8-4, program purgatory.

Quarterback

I believe Wimbush to be the goods, but Ian Book is what puts them in this spot. I used to think Brian Kelly was a Wimbush injury away from being out the door.

This is no longer my belief.

Book can do what the offense needs, in totality, just without the electricity of Wimbush. Which is fine, that’s what makes Wimbush great, or potentially great.

Perhaps most importantly, there is a clear pecking order, and none of the quarterback competition mumbo jumbo that plagued the team last season. Each player should feel comfortable within their role. And that feels pretty nice.

Linebacker

Just to make things crystal clear, I’m putting Tranquill and the Rovers with this group.

It all comes together for this unit. It’s a perfect blend of talent, experience, and leadership. Morgan may be the most talented player on the defense, playing arguably the most important position, as a two time captain.

Tranquill, also a captain, found his football soul mate at Rover, where he can emphasize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. No more deep half. No more getting over top of the deep post. He can attack, he can thump, he can disrupt. It’s his destiny.

Overlooked is Greer Martini, who dropped weight and had his best spring. Also a senior, Martini will tag team with Te’Von Coney at the Buck next to Morgan.

When your fifth linebacker is an athlete the caliber of Asmar Bilal, your unit is in a good place.

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12 comments

  1. Rich M 2 months ago

    Seemingly lots of question marks. Let’s just hope the question marks can be filled by the likes of Wimbush.
    I really don’t see them missing Kizer to Zaire that much, neither had very good seasons. Wimbush doesn’t have to do much, except win, to
    and we will easily forget both. Go Irish!!

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  2. duranko 3 months ago

    Greg, thanks not just for the rankings, but for the internal justification. It is grist for the offseason mill of all of us.

    From the peanut gallery, I would flip the rankings of safety and defensive lines, and while it may be tedious I’ll share my
    reasoning, however flawed.

    First, Coleman. ND has a history of taking players who suboptimized at one position and not merely survived but
    prospered at another position. Jack Snow, Tom Schoen, Pete Duranko his own self, Frank Stams, Jeff Burris, Pat Terrell,
    Todd Lyght, Harrison Smith, Andy Heck and many, many more. Coleman was a failure at cornerback. Completely
    accurate, completely irrelevant. The staff has glowed about him at safety, making noises like their predecessors did when they saw Burris, Terrell and Smith in the secondary. And remember, Jalen Elliott has an obsession about Sean Taylor, whence he took the #21. That’s a pretty good role model. Some say that Sean Taylor was the greatest college safety of all time, better than even Ronnie Lott and Jack Tatum. It’s a tenable hypothesis.

    Studstill has a lot of experience. He’s a solid third option. Fertita is soybean filler, but can be spotted. And Isaiah
    Robertson is as ready to play as Studstill was a year ago. But depth is not as important at safety as it is at defensive
    tackle. The “nickelization” will come from the bountiful harvest at cornerback.

    As far as Adams making people miss, well, let’s just wait and see this Fall, and see how many opponents Josh Adams,
    Chase Claypool, Dexter Williams and Equanimeous St. Brown make miss.

    On Defensive Line, my premise, and many may be outraged, is that if you are not two deep you ain’t spit.
    One, not the only, but ONE of the fulcrums of the National Championship game was that Clemson was more successful in playing multiple defensive linemen than Bama was. Nick played his starters too long, because he didn’t trust his subs.

    We have no depth, right now that is visible at defensive tackle. Warren Sapp used to say that his Tampa Bay Defense was solid (Bo Brooks/John Lynch/Barber) up to 55-60 snaps and then got weak as they got tired. Remember the Super Bowl.
    Atlanta got weary. Our new offensive coordinator has a goal of 100 plays per game. Clemson ran 99 plays against Bama!

    DTS get tired after 60 snaps. Who will play the other 20-40 snaps. So, based on the APPARENT need for a true deep at Defensive line, I would rate DL as the weakest link, well behind safety. Of course, reasonable minds may differ!

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  3. George 3 months ago

    Coleman got barbecued in multiple games, not just against Texas.

    So much talk about “talent” as it pertains to this four win team.

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    1. Greg Flammang 3 months ago

      Michigan 2014= 5-7

      Michigan 2015-2016= 20-6 (14 draft picks)

      A lot of talent on a previously bad football team

      I think the same situation exists here

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      1. George 2 months ago

        You just keep telling yourself that.
        ND has proven it can get guys drafted on given years, but they will never lose only six games in two consecutive seasons.

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  4. ChrisJ 3 months ago

    Really!? Editing comments!? C’mon guys…this is football, who cares!?

    I agree with Greg here and was about to write about the same thing Bob did before reading his comments below. If Tranquill is clearly successful in this rover spot, how and why couldn’t BVG adapt to things like this instead of just trying to put players in positions where they might not be successful just because that is the defense he runs? It’s mind blowing how bad coaches are sometimes. Just like last year throwing the ball 30 times in the monsoon. Are you kidding me!? I really hope Elko does adjust quickly both in general scheme and “in game” if something isn’t working. That is what this team needs and I actually praise Kelly for realizing these things after last season and cleaning house.

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  5. jimbasil 3 months ago

    Good job

    Thanks

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  6. Michael the Archangel 3 months ago

    Great analysis, Greg.
    And any writer could use help from an editor.
    Two of your comments stand out as most significant and most troubling.

    “I consider defensive line to be one of the three most important position groups on the field, along with offensive line and quarterback. Just like time is the key for any offense, lack of time is the key for any defense. When the offense lacks time–time to pass, time to set up blocks–it makes the defense as a whole much better.”
    AND
    re: OL : “They should dominate. But, it’s just not what I saw. Not last season, and not in the spring.”

    At any level, dominance along the LOS is critical. Now if the new staff can manufacture D’ pressure from somewhere other than the line, which is unlikely coming from this group, then the apparent D’ shortcomings at safety might not be too damaging. Too many ‘what ifs’ along both lines to expect a return to an elite status, especially with the suspected challenging schedule.
    The new coaching staff will certainly deserve recognition if D’ pressure happens, but no big surprise if it doesn’t.

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  7. Mike 3 months ago

    Interesting article. I think the OL isn’t as good as the article implies. I think it’s OK. It’s neither a strength nor a weakness. And I think the DL is thin. But I was very impressed with the QBs and I thought the others did a good job.

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  8. Chris in Dallas 3 months ago

    I agree with your assessment, for the most part. However, you could use an editor. Furthermore, “weary” means tired. I think you mean “wary,” when addressing the safety position, which means feeling cautious or concerned about. Aside from that I wholeheartedly share your opinion of the offensive line. I know that Harry Hiestand is highly regarded and that he has turned out excellent, NFL-caliber talent, but I’ve yet to see a Notre Dame offense coached by him that pushes opponents off the line of scrimmage.

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    1. Greg Flammang 3 months ago

      I agree with your assessment that I need an editor.

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  9. Bob Rodes 3 months ago

    Nice summary, Greg. I don’t see anything I disagree with here. If either the DL becomes more disruptive or the safeties turn into major playmakers, then we won’t be giving up more than our fair share of big plays. If both happen, this will be a top defense.
    Elko appears to have a flexibility that BVG didn’t when it comes to players and schemes. If Elliott and Coleman are having trouble stopping big plays, he’ll find ways to get cornerbacks to help out (or something). If the DL can’t get enough pressure on the passer, he’ll find ways to get the LB’s involved.
    My biggest concern is with single points of failure. A lot is riding on Wimbush and Morgan. My other biggest concern is with the OL. The OL has to be like a finely tuned machine, and if it’s out of tune it will be exactly as you say.

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