To the Fore

To the Fore

Four scholarship inside linebackers will don pads for the Irish this spring. Help -- and recovery from injury -- is on the way, but one of the current session's main competitors has earned the right on the field to help lead the position into the next era.

Five crucial developments have shaped Notre Dame's inside linebacker position heading into the 2014 season:

The loss of Manti Te'o following 2012. The subsequent loss of his tandem in arms, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. The ongoing recovering of injured senior Jarrett Grace, and the National Letter of Intent signed by five-star freshman Nyles Morgan.

Even if you're glass is half-full, one out of four isn't ideal.

Irish scholarship inside linebackers -- all four of them -- are, and will continue to be, under a microscope this spring. The fans', the media's, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's, and head coach Brian Kelly's.

Asked what three positions are in most need of leadership this spring, Kelly singled out quarterback, the defensive line, and the inside 'backers. Examples #1 and #3 represent the traditional leaders of a football team. For #1, the quarterbacks, the team's presumed starter Everett Golson has already been through the battles. His ascent is expected.

For #3, the inside 'backers? None of this spring's quartet of scholarship players has started a collegiate contest. One, however, has played a crucial scrimmage role as a starter in a highly successful defensive package -- Notre Dame's dime defense of 2013.

"I think we have a lot of guys that can do a lot of different things," said senior Joe Schmidt, the lone linebacker to take the field in Notre Dame's six defensive backs set last fall. "We're athletic with players that can play a variety of positions. It's something we can build on this spring."

It's a concern for Kelly, the group's collective athleticism in which Schmidt takes great pride. 5th-year senior Kendall Moore is unproven despite 2010 enrollment. A former preferred walk-on who earned a scholarship prior to last season, Schmidt is undersized at 6'0" 230, while a pair of redshirt-freshmen, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, are getting their initial looks at varsity action.

And that's it, at least until Grace returns to health and Morgan enrolls in late June with a pair of other inside 'backer prospects to add depth to the ranks.

Schmidt, as a result of the dearth of bodies and his play from mid-October through season's end 2013, was running with the first unit in Notre Dame's first spring practice session.

"Obviously there's nothing set, but it's an opportunity to get reps and work," Schmidt admitted. "It's obviously exciting to get out there, run around, and make some plays. But it's (early). I'm excited about it.

"It was a lot of work for us today. It's good because we're doing a lot of different stuff," he added of new defensive installments. "The extra work helps learning some stuff. Great for everyone involved."

Add to the mix walk-on sophomore Austin Larkin (6'3" 240), and there are five bodies banging inside. Each will look to impress VanGorder -- a fresh slate that will prove crucial for the veteran Moore and the rookies alike.


Schmidt's textbook hit halted the Trojans' march

Schmidt is neither, he made one of Notre Dame's best plays of 2013, breaking up a 3rd and 8 pass from the Irish 41-yard line, the penultimate stop in the defense's final stand to conquer the Men of Troy.

(Click here for a full review of Notre Dame's dime package and Schmidt's key contributions to it from last year's win over the Trojans.)

"I like to think I can be a well-rounded player, to play in all scenarios," Schmidt offered. "That's what I have to continue to work on. However I can help the team."

That will include guidance. 2014 will be Schmidt's fourth season in the program, last year easily his best. But during his tenure, Te'o, Fox, Calabrese, and Grace have always taken the field first, through winter conditioning, spring practice, summer workouts, and on game days in the fall.

For now, Schmidt and Moore are the pair asked to rally the troops.

"As the inside linebacker you still have to be one of the leaders of the defense. Some things have changed but we're doing a lot of the same things," said Schmidt of the switch from former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco to VanGorder. "For the most part, the inside linebackers have to drive it.

"Learning to communicate inside a new system, learning to run different schemes. Obviously all of that is a transition, but it's for us to talk about inside our doors. There's a lot of transition to do and a lot of learning."

Five eager, untested pupils, one teacher.

"I think it's an awesome learning opportunity for us," said Schmidt of VanGorder's presence. "We have a lot to learn from him, he's a brilliant guy. I'm just really excited about it for a learning opportunity. A little bit different style (from Diaco) but I think everyone has their own style. We seemed to respond very well."

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