Apr 11, 2014, 3:48 PM EST
Craig Chval, the official 2013 football beat writer for the Strong & True blog, is currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Over the course of the year Craig will bring you insight from within the student section, interviews with Fighting Irish players and previews of each game. You can follow Craig (and the rest of the Notre Dame student beat writing staff) on twitter at @JrNDBloggers.
The annual Blue-Gold Game is tomorrow, and I’m sure Irish fans are eager to get the first glimpse of football since December 28th. The spring game can be informative, entertaining, and sometimes even grossly misleading. For every 2012 Everett Golson performance, there’s a 2007 Junior Jabbie one. My advice is not to get too high or low on the game – just use it as an opportunity to see how new players and schemes look.
Of course, the defense is going to have plenty to watch then. A new coordinator and players to replace Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo, and Bennett Jackson offer a lot of unknowns for the 2014 Notre Dame team. Here’s a breakdown of each unit and what to watch for tomorrow.
* – indicates an incoming freshman not on the current roster for Blue-Gold
#91 – Sheldon Day – Junior
#11 – Ishaq Williams – Senior^
#45 – Romeo Okwara – Junior^
#94 – Jarron Jones – Junior
#69 – Tony Springmann – Senior
#90 – Isaac Rochell – Sophomore
#53 – Justin Utupo – Graduate Student
#56 – Anthony Rabasa – Senior^
#50 – Chase Hounshell – Senior
#89 – Jacob Matuska – Sophomore
#98 – Andrew Trumbetti – Freshman
#73 – Scott Kingsley – Senior
#95 – Marquis Dickerson – Sophomore
#97 – Patrick Mazza – Sophomore
*Jay Hayes – Freshman
*Daniel Cage – Freshman
*Grant Blankenship – Freshman
*Jonathan Bonner – Freshman
*Jhonathon Williams – Freshman
*Pete Mokwuah – Freshman
^ – Listed as outside linebacker
Like many position groups for the Irish, the defensive line has a great deal of depth. That’s not to say they’re lacking in talent, though. Among the upperclassmen, Ishaq Williams, Sheldon Day, and Jarron Jones were heralded four- and five-star pickups.
Similar to the wide receivers, there isn’t a lot of returning production – Only Day (56), Williams (45), and Okwara (26) have more than 20 career tackles – but there is certainly the potential for any number of guys to step up.
A huge factor in the defensive line will be how much the team plays in 4-3, which is expected under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Guys like Okwara and Williams will move from the “cat” linebacker position to a full-fledged defensive end in the 4-3 set. While Williams has spent most of his Notre Dame career as a third-down pass rusher, a starting spot at defensive end could bring out his talent.
Most people expected the 2012 defense to be good, but I’m not sure anyone foresaw the unit becoming one of the best in the country. One of the most overlooked components of that jump was the unexpected production of the second-team defensive line.
Everyone knew about Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix, and Stephon Tuitt, but the surprise was how good Tony Springmann, Kona Schwenke, and Sheldon Day were. With the talent and experience among the depth line guys, this year finding a combo like that again would be huge – and very possible.
Player to watch at Blue-Gold:
I’m going to cheat a bit here and say both defensive ends: Ishaq Williams and Romeo Okwara. How adept is the pair at their new position and what will happen when Notre Dame switches between defensive schemes? Can Williams’ complement his proven pass-rushing abilities with an all-around game?
#9 – Jaylon Smith – Sophomore
#59 – Jarrett Grace – Senior
#30 – Ben Councell – Senior
#38 – Joe Schmidt – Senior
#8 – Kendall Moore – Graduate Student
#31 – John Turner – Junior
#44 – Doug Randolph – Sophomore
#17 – James Onwualu – Sophomore^
#42 – Michael Deeb – Sophomore
#52 – Austin Larkin – Sophomore
*Nyles Morgan – Freshman
*Nile Sykes – Freshman
*Kolin Hill – Freshman
*Greer Martini – Freshman
^ – Listed as safety
Well, the linebacking corps has Jaylon Smith, the best player on the defense and possibly the entire team. Despite only having one year of experience, he has the most tackles of the group with 67. But outside of Smith, linebackers might be the biggest question mark of the team.
With Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell recovering from injuries, it’s tough to tell who will be where tomorrow besides Smith. Walk-on Joe Schmidt saw time in all 13 games last year and collected 15 tackles, and Kendall Moore is returning for a fifth season. His 39 games are by far the most time seen by any of the linebackers, but he has gotten most of it on special teams.
John Turner is a converted defensive back and James Onwualu is a receiver-turned safety-turned linebacker. Randolph was a highly regarded recruit who sat out his freshman year, so he has the potential to make an impact. Basically what I’m saying is I have no idea what the linebackers will look like tomorrow.
And speaking of big recruits, don’t be surprised to see some freshman fill in holes during the season. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to for Blue-Gold.
Once Councell and Grace are 100 percent, the linebackers will look a lot more polished, but for now watch the talent of the youngsters, who dominate the makeup of this group.
Player to watch at Blue-Gold:
So I’m going to go with Doug Randolph. We know how good Smith is, but we’ve never seen Randolph in action. The coaches have raved about his mix of size and athleticism, and with Grace and Councell out, he should have plenty of chances to show off his talent tomorrow.
#6 – KeiVarae Russell – Junior
#3 – Cole Luke – Sophomore
#41 – Matthias Farley – Senior
#21 – Jalen Brown – Senior
#12 – Devin Butler – Sophomore
#24 – Josh Atkinson – Senior
#47 – Connor Cavalaris – Senior
#34 – Jesse Bongiovi – Sophomore
*Nick Watkins – Freshman
I think cornerback will be a real strength of this defense. KeiVarae Russell is entering his third year as a starter and has shown tremendous ability and athleticism over the last two years. Since he is a converted running back, expect his growth to continue as he becomes more comfortable in the defensive backfield.
Cole Luke saw significant time as a freshman last year, playing in all 13 games while recording 15 tackles and two pass deflections. With VanGorder’s aggressive defensive scheme, expect these two to be involved in a lot of exciting packages. With their speed on the edge, opposing defenses might get some headaches while trying to deal with them.
And of course, there is converted safety Matthias Farley, who has started the last two years in the defensive backfield. And Devin Butler will continue to get on the field after playing in 12 games as a freshman last season. Jalen Brown and Josh Atkinson should also prove capable backups as seniors.
The defensive backfield is usually the position where you can see freshmen in occasional scenarios, so don’t forget about talented newcomer Nick Watkins when he arrives in the fall.
VanGorder’s defense is likely to be more complicated than Bob Diaco’s usual two-deep sets, so expect a lot more man-to-man coverage. I have a feeling the coaches will expect more from the corners than years past, both in athletic ability and on-field IQ. As a strength of the team, they might be relied upon to mix things up in scheme.
Player to watch at Blue-Gold:
Even though he got on the field at times last year, I’m excited to see how Cole Luke handles his likely upgrade in playing time in 2014. Watch how he does in man-to-man, how he covers the edge, and even if VanGorder throws a few blitzes his way.
#28 – Austin Collinsworth – Graduate Student
#10 – Max Redfield – Sophomore
#22 – Elijah Shumate – Junior
#4 – Eilar Hardy – Senior
#29 – Nicky Baratti – Junior
#37 – Ernie Soto – Senior
#46 – Eamon McOsker – Junior
#17 – Tyler Price – Sophomore
#39 – Drew Recker – Sophomore
*Drue Tranquill – Freshman
Thanks to an unfortunate slew of injuries last season, there is a good number of safeties on the depth chart who have seen significant minutes for the Irish. After playing in all 13 games his freshman year, Nicky Baratti missed all of 2013 with an injury, and there are four other guys who last season.
Collinsworth is the leader of the pack with 68 tackles, including 43 last season. Max Redfield has apparently seen a lot of first-team reps this spring, which is a good sign with his exceptional talent. A five-star recruit in high school, Redfield was one of the jewels of the 2013 class.
Another big-time talent, Elijah Shumate missed a couple games last year with an injury, but he has seemingly always been in the safety mix the last couple seasons, especially in nickel packages.
And Eilar Hardy came seemingly out of nowhere last year. Hampered by a knee injury early in his career, Hardy filled in the depleted defensive backfield admirably in 2013, recording 26 tackles on the season. Now healthy and with a year of experience on the field, look for him to continue to contribute.
Like the cornerbacks, expect the safeties to have a lot more varying responsibilities this year than last. Between blitzes, man coverage, and working in different packages, it’s a lot more to take in than the safeties have been used to. In the spring game, watch how all the safeties deal with these challenges and if there are any breakdowns.
Player to watch at Blue-Gold:
This one’s a no-brainer with Max Redfield hopefully seeing a lot of time in the defense. Most of his experience last season came on special teams, so see how he especially takes in VanGorder’s defense. If he can get the hang of the system, watch out for him to be a game-changer for this unit in 2014.
Remember, to get an early outlook into the 2014 season, come to the Blue-Gold Game tomorrow, Saturday, April 12 at 12:30 p.m., or tune in to NBC Sports.
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