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OFD Films: Explaining the Notre Dame Linebackers in Brian VanGorder's Defense

Confused about what the MIKE, WILL, and SAM linebackers do for Notre Dame. We try to explain!

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

Someone asked on the @OneFootDown twitter feed to explain the responsibilities of the MIKE, WILL, and SAM linebackers in Brian VanGorder's defense. So we're going to do that today. If you missed the series of posts prior to the 2014 season touching a little bit on this topic you should read those for some more background and understanding:

Iso Cam: Jaylon Smith Inside

Finding a Nickel Package Built Around Jaylon Smith

Mixed Gap Responsibilities with the 4-3 Defense

Investigating Notre Dame's Multiple Front Defense, Part 2

Investigating Notre Dame's Multiple Front Defense, Part 1


In the post on mixing gap responsibilities I made a diagram that focused on the defensive linemen. I've edited this diagram to show Notre Dame's initial 2014 starting defense. This will provide a basis for the responsibilities of the linebackers.

4-3 2014

Keep in mind that for now these are very, very basic explanations of the linebacker positions.

SAM (Strong-Side)- The linebacker who lines up on the strong-side of the formation as declared (for many schemes) by the opponent's tight end, or whichever side of the field has the most bodies for the offense. The SAM can have varying responsibilities. If your defense is focused on stopping the run he'll be a bigger linebacker and more often lined up near the line of scrimmage. If you like a little more flexibility in coverage he'll be lighter and spend more time away from the line. Notre Dame uses James Onwualu (6-1, 220) because defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder likes his combo of speed and physicality. Taking on blockers at the line, running with tight ends or receivers in coverage, and blitzing ability off the edge are this player's primary responsibilities. The SAM typically comes off the field when the defense substitutes a fifth defensive back, aka the nickel corner.

MIKE (Middle)- The most well-rounded linebacker of the group who is the field general of the defense. He is primarily responsible for making audibles and getting the defense lined up properly in their gaps. The MIKE should be a little heavier and able to run down-hill, take on linemen, and shoot gaps but also mobile enough to drop back into coverage and take away the middle of the field in the pass game. Notre Dame uses Joe Schmidt (6-0, 235), who is undersized but rates highly in most MIKE linebacker categories including instincts, leadership, tackling ability, and quickness.

WILL (Weak-Side)- The most athletic of the three linebackers. Speed, athleticism, range, and tackling ability are all coveted characteristics of the WILL position. This position takes on fewer blocks than the other linebackers and is able to flow sideline to sideline while keying on the ball carrier. This player will also have to hold his own in pass coverage. Notre Dame uses Jaylon Smith (6-2, 235), who is ideally suited for the role.


Prior to last season, Irish head coach Brian Kelly talked about why the team was moving rising sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith to the WILL position in newly hired Brian VanGorder's 4-3 defense. His reasons were:

  1. Moving Smith in the middle of the field where he could work inside-out using his speed and also be closer to the football.

  2. Smith would be harder to scheme against from the middle of the field.

  3. They wanted to keep Smith on the field all game and be able to move him around.

But wait, if they were determined to move Smith around what's the big deal about him moving positions?

First, remember Notre Dame was moving from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3 defense and while the MIKE and WILL linebacker positions aren't drastically different in each system the outside linebacker positions in the 3-4 don't translate well to VanGorder 4-3 defense. So, Jaylon had to move somewhere and really no matter where he ended up it was going to be a significant change from his freshman year.

Secondly, the three linebacker positions in the 4-3 are similar enough where cross-training and positional flexibility are possible. Maybe not always ideal from a coach's perspective but certainly possible--especially when you are working with an athlete the caliber of Jaylon Smith. In contrast, Notre Dame wasn't ever going to move 250 pound Carlo Calabrese to the outside linebacker DOG position in the 3-4 defense and have him running around with slot receivers.


For the purposes of trying to show the linebackers' positioning we're going to look at the Stanford game from this past fall. Here are the snap counts for the players involved (66 total plays, 2 plays were missing from the film):

  • Smith- 66
  • Schmidt- 64
  • Onwualu- 14
  • Farley- 36
  • Tranquill- 8
  • Councell- 5

The first thing that jumps out is that Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt are the primary linebackers. Jaylon never came off the field and Schmidt only missed a couple of snaps.

The other thing that is evident is the lack of snaps by the ‘starting' SAM linebacker James Onwualu. In this game, and basically for the whole season, Notre Dame used a 4-2-5 scheme most often when you factor in total snaps. This is how Onwualu--nominally a starter at the SAM position--finished the season with just 24 tackles behind the likes of teammates Greer Martini and Drue Tranquill.

Since we want to keep things simple we're not going to spend much time on Joe Schmidt. For the most part, his role on the defense remains fairly steady, especially compared to Smith. As the MIKE he's placed almost always in between the WILL and SAM/Nickel and somewhere between the tackles--most often lined up over a guard. His responsibilities are not all that different than the middle linebackers at programs all across the country.

4-3 Basic

VanGorder's linebackers are very active so you'll frequently see Schmidt move up to the line of scrimmage to blitz or fake a blitz, but 95% of the time he's in between his two teammate linebackers and the opposing team's tackles. The above screen shot is a picture perfect example of a very basic 4-3 alignment. Schmidt is manning the middle, Onwualu is pressed against the line across from the tight end and Smith is anchored next to Schmidt on the weak-side.

Recently, our own Larz wrote a piece on why Joe Schmidt is such a good linebacker and while we're not going to spend as much time talking about him it's important to remember that Schmidt is the rock of the defense. His role in the middle as a trusted linebacker by BVG allows someone like Jaylon Smith to be more of an impact playmaker.

Now, back to Jaylon and that WILL position. For the vast majority of Jaylon's freshman season he was a linebacker playing on the perimeter. If the opponent stacked the box Smith would often get close to the line on the edge and bump and run with a pass catcher. If the opponent spread their offense out Smith would move way outside the box on a receiver.

Jaylon Perimeter

This wasn't a terrible idea. Smith is athletic and fast enough to cover in pass defense and was a reasonably effective playmaker when he was called upon to get into the backfield off the edge. He also wasn't ideally heavy enough to be a middle linebacker in Diaco's defense nor physical enough to stop the run and set the edge as the CAT linebacker. Therefore, Smith naturally played at DOG as a freshman.

However, a major problem in 2013 were opponents easily running and/or throwing away from Smith and taking him out of the game. And while Jaylon is good in coverage the hyperbolic notion that he's a shut down defender (or even worse, he shuts down the entire side of his field) was a bit ridiculous. For a 235 linebacker Smith is good in coverage but he's not Patrick Peterson.

No doubt, Brian VanGorder surveyed the situation last spring and decided it wasn't the best for Jaylon's skill set to continue being a glorified corner who occasionally blitzed off the edge.

Hence, the decision to move Smith to WILL linebacker closer to the middle of the field but also to move him around so that he's more difficult to gameplan against on Saturday.

Wall of Jaylon

Above are screen shots of some of the various places Notre Dame placed Smith against Stanford. Out of his 66 snaps a total of 54 came from in between the tackles, 7 as an edge player, 4 as the middle linebacker, and 1 covering a slot receiver. Further, Smith blitzed 13 times from various spots while Schmidt, Onwualu, Farley, Tranquill, and Councell combined for 14 blitzes.

At this point it's imperative to remind the reader that in many ways Smith's position defies a label, and if you were going to pick something it would simply be PLAYMAKER. For example, here are Jaylon's snaps broken up by which side of the field he lined up on:

Jaylon Strong-Side Snaps: 36

Jaylon Weak-Side Snaps: 25

For someone who is supposed to be the weak-side linebacker that's a lot of snaps from the strong side. Additionally, here are Smith's snaps broken up into strong side and weak side plus the field side or boundary side designation:

Jaylon Boundary Weak-Side Snaps: 24

Jaylon Boundary Strong-Side Snaps: 26

Jaylon Field Weak-Side Snaps: 1

Jaylon Field Strong-Side Snaps: 10

What are we to make of this? The answer is we really don't know unless we're privy to VanGorder's gameplans. Some defenses don't bother with a SAM vs. WILL designation and simply keep it left vs. right. Some stick to scouting and deploy a strategy for an entire game. Others will scout tendencies and make moves on a per play basis. Some teams even have different designations for what the strong and weak sides of the fields are--which in turn can be based on formation and down.

It's typical for the WILL linebacker to be on the boundary side of the field so 75% of Smith's snaps there is normal. However, I denoted the strong side of the field the typical way using Stanford's tight end (and if that wasn't possible then the side with the most players) which means Smith was on the tight end side more often than he was not. Why? The most likely answer is that VanGorder felt better with 235 pound Smith against the run versus 220 pound Onwualu. Plus, Stanford spent 44 out of the 66 analyzed plays with 3 or more receivers on the field which brought Farley as a nickel corner on the field a lot.


So what about the SAM linebacker position in VanGorder's defense? The blunt assessment is that it's the least used and therefore least important position on the defense among the starters.




Onwualu occasionally plays in the same areas as Jaylon so if you were to look at a few plays you might think their positions are doing a lot of the same things--and sometimes they are. Like I said above, there is a lot of similarities between the SAM and WILL linebackers. Yet, the difference with Onwualu is that he's on the field far less, and when he is on the field Onwualu is holding the point of attack near the line more than anything else, and almost never lined up across from an offensive guard closer to the middle of the field.

For example, on Onwualu's 14 snaps against Stanford he was lined up on the edge (as seen in the last screen shot above) 8 times versus 2 plays lined up against a slot receiver and 4 plays back away from the line with the other linebackers.

Onwualu's position in VanGorder's defense in 2014 was not flashy. He's doing a lot of grunt work, a lot of things that largely go unnoticed while other players, namely Jaylon Smith, are put into position to make plays.


On this snap Onwualu is tight against the line on the two tight end side at the top of the screen. It's not his best effort getting off the block from the tight end but the H-back aimlessly blocks no one allowing corner Cody Riggs to make the tackle for a short gain.


Here is Onwualu covering the slot receiver on a rare snap where he stayed on the field against a 3 receiver set. He briefly runs with the receiver before settling into zone coverage and then coming in on a sliding Hogan.


This play shows Onwualu playing the traditional WILL role as he's on the weak-side on the boundary. The Irish send a blitz from Jaylon and Shumate with the latter safety just missing the tackle. However, Onwualu is able to flow to the ball unblocked and shut down the run with his biggest hit of the season.


In contrast, the nickel corner manned by Matthias Farley that replaces Onwualu at SAM is a more dynamic position. Obviously, from a playing time standpoint more snaps equals more tackles.


On this snap Stanford motions their tight end to the field side to show a 4-receiver look. Farley is way outside the box with his right toe on the 38-yard line at the top of the screen on Ty Montgomery as Jaylon and Schmidt patrol the middle. It's a screen pass to Montgomery which could be big trouble for Notre Dame. However, Farley immediately recognizes the play, uses his quickness to avoid the block from Devon Cajuste (such is life when you trot out a 230 pound receiver), and makes a nice tackle.


This 3-receiver set finds Farley covering the slot man as Schmidt and Smith drop back in coverage. It's a quick out and Farley comes up and limits the play for a measly 2-yard gain. You can bet VanGorder is perfectly fine with this matchup if the receiver isn't dynamic and the quarterback doesn't have a very strong arm.


This snap highlights why you don't want your nickel corner on the field in certain situations. The Cardinal have two tight ends to the field side, plus a fullback, and they motion Ty Montgomery into the backfield. Farley is in trouble if they run at him. Which is exactly what happens as the left guard pulls and pancakes Farley.


Since around the end of the 2014 season there has been a lot of internet chatter about moving Jaylon Smith to SAM linebacker. As best I can tell these are the reasons:

  • Nyles Morgan emerging as a starter late in 2014.
  • Nyles Morgan is more physical than Jaylon Smith.
  • Smith is bound to play outside linebacker in the NFL.
  • Smith's athleticism needs to be used on the edge and in space.
  • The defense needs to get more pressure in the backfield.
  • Onwualu wasn't very effective last year.

I don't agree with moving Jaylon nor do I think the coaching staff will move him. Here's why:

One, there was nothing about Morgan's play from last season that has me believing he's ready to be a day one starter who's so good that you have to move Jaylon Smith to accommodate him. That feels like a lot of empty hype to me.

Two, it's difficult to say what position Smith will play in the NFL and even so Notre Dame should be maximizing his potential for the program at the college level anyway. Let the pro team worry about where he fits best.

Three, I think there's a big misnomer about how Jaylon was used last year in regards to utilizing his athleticism, speed, and range between playing WILL and being a SAM making a living on the perimeter. More on this below.

Four, the Irish defense doesn't even use the SAM all that much. Why go through another position change for Smith at a spot that's rarely used in an era when offenses are more fast-paced and spread out then ever?

Now, it may be true that Onwualu really wasn't that good last year. I won't dispute that. But switching Jaylon Smith to SAM would signal a fairly major change in philosophy for VanGorder and force a bunch of changes on defense that seem unnecessary and overly complicated. For example, if Smith moves to SAM does the defense neglect using a nickel corner as much? With Schmidt missing spring due to injury does the staff want to practice with Morgan and Martini (presumably) on the inside and forego Smith's leadership there? At this point, is Morgan really worth cutting the snaps of Onwualu and Farley?

I think there's always been this belief that Jaylon Smith is an outside linebacker solely because he's freakishly athletic and it's become a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to stick to that stance. This has led to dreams of Smith turning into equal parts edge rushing Jarvis Jones and cyborg cover linebacker creating Jaylon Island. Smith is talented enough to be effective pretty much anywhere as a linebacker but I think his abilities as SAM linebacker are a little overrated and his skill-set at WILL linebacker vastly underrated.

Let's take a look at some plays from the Stanford game to show you what I mean. When Jaylon Smith is working from the middle of the field and flowing to the ball I believe he's approaching his ceiling as a college football player. No one on the defense can be this productive and disruptive.


Here's a good example of Smith using good block destruction and shutting down a run for a minimal gain. The center fires off the ball and gets to the second level, but Jaylon uses violent hands, shrugs off the lineman, and makes an athletic tackle. If Smith can keep improving in this area he'll be unstoppable at times.


Normally you wouldn't highlight a 12-yard gain but this is a good example of Notre Dame being able to benefit from Smith playing inside-out. Remember last April when I highlighted a screen by Purdue that went to the house as Jaylon helplessly covered a receiver on the other side of the field? Now, he's able to stalk the ball carrier and prevent the play from being more than a 12-yard gain.


You don't have to get Smith on the edge to be an effective blitzer and VanGorder did a good job in 2014 of putting Jaylon in a position to succeed as a pass rusher from the WILL position. Here, Smith penetrates the A-gap, nearly puts the center on his butt, and along with the safety blitz, forces an early poor throw and interception by Hogan.


This is textbook weak-side gap shooting. Notice how the tackle double teams Trumbetti (#98) and tries to get to the second level to block. However, by the time the tackle has turned his head around Smith is already past him and attacking the ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage.


Here Smith actually misses the tackle but his ability to be in position to pick up a TFL in the first place is what makes him so special. Jaylon reads the play, uses his speed to flow to the ball, shrugs off the fullback, and barely misses the big play.


Just another example of Smith being a dynamic playmaker in the backfield. He did lead the team in sacks and tackles for loss, after all.


Yet another example of firing through the gap as an unblocked defender to shut the play down. Notice how Stanford doubles the Notre Dame defensive tackles? When the line can eat blocks and let an athlete like Smith run free good things can happen.


Stanford pulls their right guard on this play and he's going right at Smith. The sophomore takes on the block and still corrals the running back. This is a linebacker's linebacker play.


Jaylon's ability to play in space and use his speed is typically associated with outside linebacker qualities. However, he's actually the inside linebacker on this play and you can see his athleticism is almost comically too much on this designed quarterback keeper.


The last video was something that caught my eye that I had forgotten at the end of the game. If Smith isn't in the middle of the field does he make an impact on this play? Does the runner get out bounds? Does Stanford get to run an extra play and use their timeout to set up a game-tying field goal?


To be fair, this was Jaylon Smith's best game of his young career: 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack and that Stanford rushing attack was held to a season low 47 yards on 32 carries. But this performance shows off Jaylon's potential and impact when he's working in the middle of the field and also that he's a scary combination of speed and power. Jaylon's been criticized for not being strong enough to hold up when opponents run right at him. It's definitely his weakness, yet this game against Stanford is a prime example of the devastation Smith can inflict when he's not surrounded by a bunch of second and third team players who are playing because of injuries.

No doubt, Jaylon would be very good at SAM linebacker. But he's such a multi-faceted weapon who can use his speed from sideline to sideline from the middle of the field. Plus, I'd be very surprised if sophomore Nyles Morgan can give you sophomore 2014 Jaylon Smith playmaking at WILL next year.

If I'm coaching I'm not messing with the inside linebacker combo of Schmidt and Smith. Doing so seems really risky heading into a pressure packed 2015. There's been a lot of consternation about a lack of a pass rush, but remember, Brian VanGorder's expertise is dialing up pressure from all over the field and I'd argue when the defense was healthy in 2014 things were going well on this front, especially from the linebackers.

For his part, Jaylon Smith finished with 111 tackles, 9 TFL, 3.5 sacks, and 7 QBH last year. After the conclusion of Manti Te'o's sophomore year he had 129 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 1 sack, and 3 QBH. Different players playing in different schemes but that's an enormously encouraging sign for Smith.

If you want to look for improvement in a pass rush a healthy defensive line will do wonders. So would someone like Sheldon Day (surprisingly only 16.5 TFL in 35 career games) finally putting everything together and meeting expectations as a NFL-bound lineman. I'd keep Jaylon Smith at WILL and watch him grow.