What We Know...That if sophomore Jaylon Smith isn't the most important player on the team for 2014, he's 1B.
There are few irreplaceable players on head coach Brian Kelly's fifth-edition Irish, but if either Smith or junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day go down for an extended period, it's likely Notre Dame won't reach its potential next fall. Smith concluded the spring as the team's weak side inside linebacker, but he'll play all over the field.
Labeling his set position for the duration of 2014 is futile.
-- We know Joe Schmidt distanced himself early, then built on that lead, as the team's middle, or "mike" linebacker. Irisheyes.com (and Kelly, of course) pegged the former preferred walk-on as a future scholarship recipient early in Schmidt's sophomore season, but his subsequent ascent to a player that Notre Dame can't take off the field is astounding.
"Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense," said Kelly following the Blue Gold game. "You know, there's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now. Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing."
-- We likewise know that junior John Turner, a safety by moniker in 2013 but in truth a special teams player, has a major leg up for the third "starting" linebacker role, the sam (strong side) outside linebacker. If senior Ben Councell returns to form following November knee surgery, Turner will be used as intended by defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder: a package player that lends speed to the defense.
That would allow the 6'4" 258 pound Councell to line up on 1st and 10 over the tight end vs. power-oriented offenses. in other words, he could occupy Turner's spot in likely running situations.
-- We know no one else is currently close to those listed above, and we thus deduce incoming five-star freshman Nyles Morgan has a good chance to move into the two-deep in August camp
Smith ran down Tarean Folston in Saturday's Blue Gold game
What we think we know...That Smith is far ahead of schedule as a sophomore linebacker, and that he could be one of the nation's 50, perhaps 30-35, best defensive players -- not just best sophomores -- next fall.
Smith is the team's most talented player, perhaps its most versatile, and is blessed with an acute understanding of the game. A fast learner and faster player, Smith last season was the program's best defensive freshman since (at least) Kory Minor (1995).
-- We think the aforementioned Morgan can make a September impact, either spelling Schmidt in obvious running situations or perhaps taking similar snaps from Turner if Councell is not yet ready (just 10 months removed from surgery).
-- Myriad questions remain throughout the rest of the unit…
Lingering questions...-- Can Turner, coupled with perhaps converted wide receiver James Onwualu, impact the Irish sub packages with their speed, quickness, and aggression?
-- Can Schmidt come off the field for the true freshman Morgan in any situation that forces the rookie to read and react, rather than merely attack? Few freshmen, including 2009 frosh Manti Te'o, prove capable of competing at a high level as inside 'backers.
-- Can Schmidt hold up at 230 pounds over four months if none of the above can provide sufficient relief?
Schmidt's 3rd Down hit helped subdue USC in October
Spring Standout -- TurnerThere was no doubt Smith would emerge, and Schmidt was the odds-on favorite to win the mike linebacker role from the outset, but Turner's ascent from third-string safety to starting sam 'backer appeared out-of-nowhere, at least to those outside the program's walls.
A step slow at safety, the 217-pounder is now quicker than most strong side 'backers. Like Schmidt, he'll need aid over the 13-game slate (Turner's not playing 70 snaps per contest), but the staff is high on his potential in sub packages and on base downs (1st and 10, 2nd and 7) vs. spread offenses.
Step Back -- Kendall MooreA fifth-year senior, Moore toiled behind the Will linebacker tandem of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese for each of the last three seasons. It was assumed that he'd this spring challenge Schmidt for the starting middle linebacker role.
Instead, Moore is set behind Jaylon Smith as the weak side inside 'backer, and Smith won't come off the field.
Moore will have to have the best month of his Irish career next August to be in the staff's defensive plan entering September.