The UHND 2017 Better Or Worse series rolls on with a look at the 2017 linebacker position.
One thing the revamped Mike Elko led charges seem to lack on their side of the ball is star power. The offense has Wimbush, St. Brown, McGlinchey, and Nelson. Familiar names, other than the quarterback (who doesn’t really need to be familiar at Notre Dame), who are expected to be standouts. In fact, St. Brown, McGlinchey, and Nelson made Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 players in college football list.
It’s understandable no Irish defenders made such a list; they were quite bad last season. Of course, there were reasons for that, some unrelated to talent, which have been discussed ad nauseam.
But, it’s a new day and if there are to be stars on the Notre Dame defense, it will likely come from the linebacker position. For clarity, I’m including the Rover in this, as usual, because the position is coached by the coach hired to coach linebackers. It makes sense.
The group has experience, they’ve been productive, they have pedigree, but they’ve yet to be what you’d call successful. Will that change in 2017? Let’s take a look.
The Potential Star Power Of Nyles Morgan
If we were listing players to be most excited about heading into the upcoming season, Morgan would be near or at the top of such a list. First, he’s in phenomenal shape. Second, he’s finally playing in a system that will highlight his athletic ability. The most common criticism of Morgan has been his lack of playmaking. He makes a lot of tackles, yes, but how many are for four or five yard gains? This was, somewhat a product of the system he was in. How many times did we see Morgan shuffle his feet at the snap while trying to diagnose the play and evade blockers? How many times did we see Morgan attacking the line of scrimmage at the snap?
For better or worse, Mike Elko will not be asking Morgan to be a wait and see player. His Mike linebacker last year tallied 20 tackles for loss, and he wasn’t a consensus top 50 recruit with offers from Florida, Alabama, Michigan, and Ohio State. It’s hard to predict numbers, so I won’t, but Morgan will be given the opportunity to be a star for this defense and that wasn’t the case last season.
He’s a senior, he’s been named captain, he’s in the best shape of his Notre Dame career, and his coach wants to marry his ability to the scheme. It’s all their for him.
The Duo Of Martini And Coney
A lot of people trash on the duo of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese due to their physical limitations (they are basically the Tommy Rees’s of the defense), but it should be noted in 2012 they combined for 112 tackles and five tackles for loss while sharing duties next to Manti Te’o. Which seems good.
Martini has been lauded for his play at the Buck since the spring and Coney has been cross-training at both the Buck and Mike. It’s pretty clear Coney will see the field plenty this year, probably splitting time with Martini and also backing up Morgan in the middle. The junior suffered through something of a lost season in 2016 after suffering a bad shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl. He played well at times, but was never physically where he wanted to be.
I’d expect solid play from these two, which we didn’t always get last season, especially from Martini. I’m not predicting greatness, mostly I think they will be a strength and not a liability.
The third linebacker in 2016 was James Onwualu, who brought in 77 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks. I would venture to guess that if Tranquill achieves those numbers, this season will be considered a success. We caught a glimpse of what they want Tranquill to be in the spring game, where we saw him darting into the backfield on runs, coming off the edge as a pass rusher, and also in coverage against slot receivers. The opportunities for plays will be there.
Tranquill has battled injuries and playing out of position his entire career and is finally healthy and playing where it seems he was predestined: in a hybrid linebacker/safety type role where he can play near the line of scrimmage, limit the times he has to turn and chase, and generally be as aggressive as he wants. At the very least, we are going to see the ceiling of what Tranquill can be.
All the signs point to a big season for the senior. If he stays healthy. If he’s ready to be consistently good. Teams can’t be good, and for Notre Dame “good” is 9-10 wins, if the players in key playmaking positions are inconsistent. Tranquill’s role is a big one. Hopefully he’s up for it.
The unit is dealing with the loss of Onwualu, which is significant, and little else. They add Tranquill, boast an improved Coney and Martini and a captain in Morgan who is making it his personal responsibility to make Notre Dame’s defense a force. Also Asmar Bilal is available as a swing player, who can play both the Buck and Rover. The idea of a talent like Bilal being the 5th guy is pretty appealing, although the drop off behind him appears to be significant. In total, this should be one of the best position groups on the team, and if it isn’t, there are some real problems.
I’m betting on Nyles Morgan.