SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A few months ago, while Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace still patrolled the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, it would’ve been hard to imagine Mike Elston’s linebacker group to experience a dropoff in practice.
But that’s what happened during a practice last week, as Notre Dame search for its next group of defensive leaders was still in its early stages.
“It’s getting better. It’s not where it needs to be,” Elston said last Wednesday. “Like today, we had a very good first half of the practice. As a linebacker corps we fell off. It was a little disappointing with that part of it and it bled into the rest of the defense. There’s times like that still that pop up.”
It’s only natural that Notre Dame’s defense, without its four captains from last season, would have moments like the one Elston described. Gone are Schmidt and Smith, as well Sheldon Day (a two-time captain and Matthias Farley (one the team’s most universally-respected players). Non-captains like Grace, Romeo Okwara and KeiVarae Russell were a big part of the defensive leadership, too.
The list players looked to in rebuilding that defensive leadership begins with defensive end Isaac Rochell, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke, all of whom will be seniors and third-year starters this fall. But even if they’re next in line, it’s wasn’t a given that their leadership qualities would rapidly emerge during spring practice.
“When you don’t have anybody with that kind of experience, this is what it feels like,” coach Brian Kelly said. “You feel like you got a lot of work to do in that area, and I do. But we’ll get there. But it’s not something that I’m pushing right now. I’m trying to let it happen and then we’ll get our hands on it in June and we’ll get our hands on it in July and August and get to where we need to be.”
Leadership is one of those nebulous concepts that doesn’t show up on a box score, but that every coach and player will tell you is important. After all, Notre Dame’s defense had plenty of leaders last year, but allowed 5.57 yards per play (64th) and 24.1 points per game (39th). Having it doesn’t mean a defense will have success.
But not having it often means a defense isn’t in a position to succeed.
“At the end of the day, it’s the players that play the game, they’re on the field,” defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said. “Coaches, true enough, we give the directives and call plays and the preparation. But when the fire’s on and the heat’s on, those are the guys that gotta make the calls under pressure and get the guys to rally.
“So if you don’t have it, you’re fighting an uphill battle. It’s critical that we get those guys to do it.”
Kelly and his coaching staff won’t try to wring leadership out of those players, at least not yet. Junior linebacker Nyles Morgan may be the exception — he’s Schmidt’s replacement at Mike linebacker and has to command the Irish defense from his perch, which means not only does he have to develop as a leader, but he also has to consistently play and communicate well for his teammates to trust him.
“How can he demand something from Isaac Rochell in front of him when he doesn’t even know what he’s doing right now,” Elston asked, rhetorically. “So leadership is a process, especially at linebacker.”
The rest of the players who are being looked to in leadership roles similarly aren’t trying to force it. Rochell said it has to happen naturally, with summer workouts often the period in which those voices emerge.
“I think I’m inherently in a position where I have to assume that role, but it’s a work in progress,” Rochell said earlier during spring practice. “They always say it’s a marathon, not a sprint. This is a long process and we’re still far from the season. The focus now is to create a room in which guys trust each other.”
Rochell made another point regarding Day, who developed into one of Notre Dame’s best vocal leaders last year: “He was the best at what he did, and you kind of had no choice but to listen to him and to follow him.”
Day’s leadership didn’t emerge until last year, even when he was named a junior captain in 2014. Once he became the best player he could be, the leadership followed. That’s the path Rochell, Onwualu, Luke and anyone else who could have a ‘C’ on their jersey next year have to follow.
What’s clear is that players and coaches aren’t concerned about that leadership developing. It’s just figuring out who will take the baton from Day, Farley, Schmidt and Smith.
“I think it becomes a fluid situation,” Kelly said. “Those just happen naturally instead of pushing them. I’m not pushing anything right now. I’m just letting it happen naturally and then those leaders kind of select themselves to hold our players to the level of accountability. And then once we start to see that take place, then we start to work with those guys that have that natural ability.”
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