With Jaylon Smith off to the NFL and Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace’s eligibility exhausted, junior James Onwualu will be both the most experienced and accomplished linebacker at Notre Dame’s disposal next season.
“Which is crazy,” Onwualu, a senior to be, said before the Fiesta Bowl.
Smith and Schmidt were Notre Dame’s two leading tacklers and combined for 22 percent of the team’s total tackles in 2015. Smith was a consensus All-American and Butkus Award winner; Schmidt, for all the Twitter and message board scorn he received, was the nerve center for the Irish defense. And this was a defense that gave up plenty of big plays — but how many more would it have allowed had Schmidt not been a constant presence at middle linebacker?
When coach Brian Kelly was asked in September why Nyles Morgan — more on him in a bit — wasn’t playing, he offered a simple response: “Joe Schmidt’s better.”
With that in mind, we don’t know a whole lot about the guys who will be in the mix to replace Smith and Schmidt beyond their four-star ratings as recruits.
Morgan seems like the heir apparent to Schmidt at middle linebacker, having filled in for the former captain for the final five games of the 2014 season. Morgan totaled 47 tackles as a true freshman, including back-to-back-to-back games with double digit tackles against Northwestern, Louisville and USC. He’s an athletic, intelligent player who’s had two years to learn Brian VanGorder’s defense in preparation for his shot at taking over a full-time starting role in 2016.
Schmidt said on his way out he’s tried to impart whatever knowledge he can of VanGorder’s scheme on the guys behind him, Morgan included.
“It comes down to how I see things and how I think try to about things,” Schmidt said. “That’s what I’ve tried to do and try to give that insight to the guys. That’s really what I’m looking at and what I’m trying to impart. It’s not something that comes overnight but it’s been great to work with a guy like Nyles for two years and try to give him everything I can possibly give him and prepare him the best I can so hopefully he can have a very successful year.”
Freshman Te’von Coney should slide into the Will as Smith’s replacement, but he suffered a shoulder injury in the Fiesta Bowl that Irish Illustrated's Pete Sampson reported could sideline him until preseason practice begins in August. Coney was the only freshman linebacker to play in 2015, and recorded 13 tackles and half a tackle for a loss in 12 games.
Freshman Asmar Bilal should push for least playing time as either Smith’s replacement at the Will or behind/pushing Onwualu at the Sam. Kelly said Bilal, who won Notre Dame’s scout team player of the year award, is able to play both positions, and said the Indianapolis native is highly mature for his age. Sophomore Greer Martini, who backed up Smith at the Will in 2014 and shifted outside to the Sam last year, should be in the mix at both positions as well.
[SHOP: Get your Notre Dame gear]
Josh Barajas, another four-star member of Notre Dame’s 2015 recruiting class, could push for playing time as well.
Notre Dame also signed five-star 2016 linebacker Daelin Hayes, who enrolled and began taking classes in South Bend this week. The Ann Arbor, Mich. native was injured in high school, though, which could affect if he plays as a true freshman or not this fall. Three-star linebacker Jamir Jones — the younger brother of Irish nose guard Jarron Jones — is a member of the 2016 recruiting class as well, and will likely begin his college career as a Sam linebacker with the possibility he’s eventually moved to defensive end.
So VanGorder and Mike Elston will have plenty of talent with which to work this coming fall to replace the stars it lost from 2015. Morgan, Barajas, Bilal and Coney are all former four-star recruits, while Onwualu and Martini both have plenty of experience. The challenge will be to figure out where these pieces fit the best, and develop them into a unit that can make up for the substantial departures of Smith and Schmidt.
"We got a lot of great players in that room," Schmidt said. "I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room quite like the one I’m in now. There’s really just quality individuals, everybody in that room has great traits, can play the position exceptionally well, but they all want to get better, they all want to learn. They care about the team, they care about winning, they care about each other and they do everything the right way."