Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
All four starting linebackers that entered preseason camp last year are gone. Returning is one emerging star, one late bloomer and a whole lot of question marks.
The emerging star is Jaylon Smith. After a rock solid freshman season, Smith is the top playmaker on the Irish defense and an All-American caliber player. Brian Kelly talked about Smith's evolution, and how he wants to see Smith not only excel, but make the players around him better.
"That's the next thing that we'll be working with Jaylon is to bring some guys with him," Kelly said. "The Larry Bird rule that I use all the time is, make others around him better. He's not there yet, but that will be the next stage for him."
Also needing to take the leap forward is senior Ishaq Williams. Stuck behind Prince Shembo for the last three seasons, Williams has been mostly anonymous after heading to South Bend with massive expectations.
Williams will have the first shot at the Cat linebacker job, and at 271 pounds is capable of putting his hand on the ground as well.
"He's a different guy than he's ever been since I've been here," Kelly said, sounding confident in Williams' emergence. "I'm not saying that that's going to translate into 12 sacks and he's going to be an All‑American, but he's a different guy than at any time since I've been here.
"He's one athletic, big dude, and we've been waiting and waiting and waiting... We'll see. It's early. I'm going to be very cautious but I'm cautiously optimistic."
Behind that duo, not much is known. Perhaps that's why veteran assistant Bob Elliott is shifting to outside linebackers coach, helping with the position group as Brian VanGorder works with inside players while also coordinating the defense.
Competing at outside linebacker will be Romeo Okwara and Anthony Rabasa. Neither has made much of an impact thus far, though Okwara seems like a player on the verge of big things. Former safety John Turner will play the field side outside linebacker, supplying depth as Ben Councell recovers from a torn ACL.
How the Irish handle inside linebacker will be interesting. Jarrett Grace is still slowly recovering from a leg break suffered against Arizona State. He'll be ready for fall, but won't participate this spring. Fifth-year player Kendall Moore returns after four seasons as a backup, finally the next man in. Former walk-on Joe Schmidt will compete as well, with Doug Randolph adding another body at inside linebacker.
Rising sophomore Michael Deeb is looking like potential starting material after saving a year of eligibility last year. He's a good bet to slot into a starting job, at least until freshmen reinforcements hit campus this summer.