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.