Unleash the VanGorder, Part 2: Roles for the rest of the Incoming Defensive Freshman Class

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

How will the rest of the Notre Dame freshman fit into Brian VanGorder's 4-3 scheme?

You can read Part 1 here.

Linebacker - Nile Sykes

Position in high school: Outside linebacker

Position fit at Notre Dame: Sykes played as a defensive end as a junior before moving to outside linebacker as a senior. He played mostly as an out-of-the-box player who blitzed a lot from the outside and would walk out towards the slot as well. If you based it just on what he did in high school, then Sam sounds like it would be a fit.

From what has been communicated to Sykes, it sounds like he will start out at Will. Based on him weighing in this summer at 235, I think that's a pretty good bet as to where he will stay throughout fall camp and the season. Considering that the two players who were prominent at Sam in the spring were converted safety John Turner and converted wide receiver James Onwualu, it's just further evidence that he won't play Sam.

Sykes has very good speed and plays with outstanding effort. The chances of him seeing any significant time in the base defense are pretty slim with Jaylon Smith set to play the same position, but he has a chance to compete to be in the two-deep immediately and if he does not redshirt, he will definitely be a player that has an opportunity to do some things on special teams.

Defensive end - Jonathan Bonner

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: Bonner is someone who should benefit greatly from the VanGorder defense as opposed to Diaco's. I don't know if he was ever a fit to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 and I think he'll be a much better player with his hand in the dirt.

Bonner is not an explosive pass rusher. He gets most of his sacks based on hustle and has some work to do to improve his hands in order to get to the quarterback. I don't think he'll be a candidate to be a third down pass rusher early in his career.

He's a much better player versus the run right now and has a good understanding of fighting against pressure and beating blocks to get to the football. Knowing the lack of depth at the position and the players currently slated to start at end, Bonner might have a better chance to play as freshman than many may think based on his ranking. It all depends on what weight he comes in at and how strong he is by the time camp starts.

Defensive end - Grant Blankenship

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: Blankenship has a ton of potential and is another player that is better suited to the change in scheme. You just have to take one look at his frame to understand why he could develop into an outstanding player. He has the length to help him excel as a pass rusher and versus the run.

Like most high school edge players, he won as a pass rusher with his athleticism and didn't have to worry about the other parts of his game because of his physical superiority. He's not going to be able to get away with just that when he gets to Notre Dame.

He's another player that will need to develop physically and add weight to his frame. How fast he can develop will determine how much he plays early in his career, but when he does develop and mature, he could end up making a significant impact.

Linebacker - Drue Tranquill

Position in high school: Pretty much every position, but mostly safety

Position fit at Notre Dame: Tranquill was definitely not a fit for Diaco's defense and that was a big reason why he didn't get an offer a lot sooner in the process. Brian Kelly shared his thoughts on why they decided to offer Tranquill even though they didn't have a scholarship slotted for a safety:

"We offered him a scholarship and we really didn't have a position for him because we just loved the way he played the game. People have asked, "Does he play safety? Is he going to play running back?" I don't know where he plays, but he's going to play somewhere here at Notre Dame."

All signs are pointing to him starting out a linebacker and most likely Sam, where he fits in athletically with the other players already slotted there. In terms of contributing early, I don't think he'll be thrown into the fire unless he can show he is a lot better than Turner and Onwualu. In saying that, he can tackle well in space, should be comfortable in coverage, and should eventually excel in a role as a blitzer. His future is bright at the position, in my opinion.

It's always tough to judge how a freshman will adjust to a new position when he gets to college. Keivarae Russell is the exception and not the rule. Time will tell if Tranquill can beat the odds and make a smooth transition immediately at Notre Dame.

I do expect him to be a contributor on special teams from day one though. Anyone who has followed Notre Dame the last few years knows that help on special teams is badly needed.

Defensive end - Andrew Trumbetti

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: Everyone got a look at Trumbetti in the spring and he even turned some heads getting some first teams reps at times.

I don't think it's necessary to go into detail to explain why Trumbetti is very likely to play this season. Enrolling early gives him a huge advantage over the other freshman defensive lineman and he already saw the benefit of it this spring.

Cornerback - Nick Watkins

Position in high school: Cornerback

Position fit at Notre Dame: Watkins may actually be the most physically ready to play out of all of the freshman on defense, but may never get the opportunity because of the competition at the position. He's not going to beat out Russell and is in tough to beat out Florida transfer Cody Riggs, Cole Luke, and Devin Butler. This sounds crazy, but if you throw Watkins and Matthias Farley in the mix, Notre Dame could actually be considered deep at corner. I repeat, Notre Dame could be considered deep at corner!

That is what is going to make it difficult for Watkins to play significant snaps this season. It has nothing to do with his talent. He has the size and length and looks very good in press coverage. He has excellent ball skills as well. He is even a solid tackler that will fight through a block to make a play.

A player with his kind of skill can play in just about any defense, but he is a perfect example of someone who should eventually shine playing man coverage in Brian VanGorder's defense.

Defensive end - Jhonathan Williams

Position in high school: Defensive end

Position fit at Notre Dame: Williams would have been a Cat linebacker in the previous scheme and now will stay at defensive end.

He's the most inexperienced player out of all of the newcomers, but that's what also makes him the most intriguing. He's got the frame to grow into a beast and is so naturally explosive off the edge. He has a lot to learn, but if he can pick it up fast, he may get the opportunity to see the field early in pass rush situations.

What would probably be best for him is to sit a year while getting bigger, stronger, and developing his technique. It worked well for Justin Tuck to do that and he eventually became the most prolific pass rusher in the history of Notre Dame football. I realize that's a big name to compare Williams to, but Tuck was also a raw athlete when he came to South Bend. Williams will have a better chance to reach the heights that Tuck achieved in this defense where he can concentrate on rushing the passer the majority of the time.

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