Notre Dame Football: Who Will Man Middle of Irish Linebacking Corps?
It has begun abundantly clear that Brian VanGorder's defense will look very different than the one Bob Diaco played. But for all the schematic tweaks and pressure packages, there remains one universal truth: The Irish need a building block in the middle of their defense.
As spring reveals new contenders for starting jobs and emerging players make their cases for a rebuilt coaching staff, the inside linebacker position still seems to be the one most in flux. After having Manti Te'o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese essentially lock down the position for the Brian Kelly era, the Irish head coach is taking a wait and see approach as the contenders for playing time sort themselves out.
"I really think it is really too early to tell where we are at that position," Kelly said last week. "I think to use the spring to determine who the middle linebacker is with a lot of new things going in is not something that we’re concerned with at this point.
"It’ll take time to round itself out. That includes dipping into freshmen that will come in in the fall as well. I think this is a question that is not going to be answered until we move ourselves into the preseason."
Let's try to make some sense out of a position that remains one of the biggest question marks on the Irish roster.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.
That Schmidt has emerged as the most consistent option for the Irish at inside linebacker, has to be one of the biggest surprises of spring practice. The former walk-on is now a scholarship contributor for the Irish and may be just the guy that starts in the middle of the defense when the Irish play Rice on August 30.
On second glance, maybe Schmidt's ascent shouldn't be that surprising. In a system that doesn't rely as much on bulk and strength from its inside linebackers, Schmidt's speed, athleticism and high football IQ make up for his not ideal 6'0.5" height and 230-pound frame.
He's quickly become one of Brian VanGorder's most trusted linebackers as the first to fill the shoes of the injured Jarrett Grace. While he might not be a three-down linebacker, Grace has established himself as someone who is going to play early and often.
When Moore was announced for a fifth year, many thought he was a front runner for a position now clear of a logjam. The 6'1" North Carolina native has shown flashes during his four years in South Bend, but has mostly been stuck on the sidelines, playing behind Manti Te'o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
But Moore hasn't been one of the names to emerge during spring football. Yet as sub-packages and coverage schemes get most of our attention, the 251-pound thumper was never going to be the type of player to thrive in coverage or working in open spaces.
That said, the Irish are going to need an inside linebacker that can mix it up in the trenches. And Moore has shown an ability to do that. While most have focused on James Onwualu and John Turner dropping into the box to infuse the position with speed, there'll be a time and a place for a bruiser like Moore as well.
Brian VanGorder has promised to utilize his personnel by putting them in positions to succeed. For Moore, that means playing downhill against a running game, likely in short yardage situations.
Deeb takes off his redshirt and jumps right into an open position battle. A prototype for Bob Diaco's 3-4 system, it's still too early to tell if he's ready to make an impact on the field.
During his recruitment, the Irish coaching staff wanted to see Deeb improve his sideline to sideline athleticism during his senior season. That type of movement skill will only be more important in Brian VanGorder's 4-3. Deeb looks the part of a veteran college player, physically developed in the weight room. We'll see if he's up to that standard athletically.
One place where Deeb will certainly help is special teams. After running out of bodies on coverage teams, a 6'1.75", 242-pound wrecking ball will certainly be a welcome addition.
Grace had additional surgery to help heal a serious leg injury, inserting a rod into his right fibula last week. After breaking the bone in four places against Arizona State last season in the Shamrock Series, the Irish coaching staff will wait six weeks before making any proclamations about Grace's availability next season.
At his best, Grace is the team's top inside linebacker, a rare blend of speed and power that the staff believed could step capably into Manti Te'o's sizeable shoes. All of that has to be in doubt now, with a slow, difficult rehab still mostly in front of the Ohio native.
Getting anything out of Grace next season has to be considered a bonus. It won't stop the senior linebacker and medical staff from desperately trying, but the Irish will have to be ready to go on without one of their team's key pieces.
When Brian Kelly mentioned freshman contributors, he was likely pointing directly at Nyles Morgan. The Chicago native, one of the top prep inside linebackers in the country, will join the Irish this June for summer school and workouts. The Army All-American will likely add another playmaker to the mix.
Morgan has a steep hill to climb, especially after missing 15 practices of installation this spring. But he's been hailed as a quick study, and the Irish staff believes they signed one of the best players in the country when they won Morgan's signature after a long, grueling recruitment.
Bob Diaco wasn't a fan of playing freshmen on defense. We'll see how quickly Brian VanGorder trusts them with Morgan, who enters a position battle with fellow incoming freshman Nile Sykes looking to see immediate playing time.