The cold, dark off-season is nearly over and in just 11 days Notre Dame will open fall camp to begin preparations for the 2015 football season. Although the defense welcomes back nearly everyone that doesn't mean we can't talk about some of the fierce competition coming in the month of August.
Today, I'm going to zero in on the juiciest positional battles.
Jonathan Bonner vs. Grant Blankenship (SDE)
If there's one position up for grabs more than any other among the two-deep at defensive line it's for the spot backing Rochell at strong-side defensive end. As a rising sophomore with playing time under his belt you'd think Blankenship would have the edge but that wasn't necessarily the case during the spring.
Remember, Bonner was the talk of the spring (well, behind Tillery) after taking a redshirt in 2014. There were some questions about which position he would settle at for the long-term (I thought 3-tech on the inside) and Kelly made it clear earlier this year that they love Bonner's size and quickness on the edge.
Kelly impressed with Jonathan Bonner in the past week, said measurables at NFL combine levels, football IQ now catching up.— Irish Illustrated (@PeteSampson_) March 28, 2015
Bonner's turf toe injury suffered in the middle of spring practice could complicate things but he's expected to be 100% for fall camp. If he is I'd expect him to win this battle, although Bonner will be one of the more intriguing players to watch simply because we've seen virtually nothing out of him except some brief glimpses in the spring. Even if we like to think there will be a nice rotation, the loser of this battle probably isn't playing much in 2015, which means Blankenship could see less time as a sophomore than as a freshman.
Romeo Okwara vs. Andrew Trumbetti (WDE)
From the fan perspective this may be the only true competition for a starting spot on defense. However, you get the feeling that things will be similar to last year with both Okwara and Trumbetti playing a lot.
There's a chance that Okwara blossoms and has a really nice senior season. He's shown some decent potential and has a lot of the attributes you want to see from a weak-side end.
The problem is that Trumbetti is more talented and is going to round into a starter sooner rather than later in terms of his level of play. He battled a bug during the spring before missing more time with a concussion so Trumbetti was never able to seriously challenge Okwara when Notre Dame last practiced. I still expect the senior to hold things down but as time goes on a 60/40 split in favor of Trumbetti sounds right to me.
Jerry Tillery vs. Daniel Cage (NT)
I think I'm legally obligated to mention that Tillery ‘hit a wall' towards the end of spring practice. Or so they say about every freshman making his first set of practices with the Irish.
This time last year we were a couple of weeks away from learning that a true freshman in Daniel Cage was the legit backup at the nose position. Turns out, he was just that although his snaps were limited for most of the season.
Now, Notre Dame welcomes what looks like a much, much more game ready version of what Cage brought last year, and someone who can be used as more of a weapon instead of just a space eater. With Jarron Jones sitting out spring practice recovering from injury it was the early enrollee Jerry Tillery quickly ascending to the first team.
Moving foward, Tillery has to stay focused while sliding back into a backup position while continuing to fend off Cage, as well as Jacob Matuska who also got a taste of playing last year. In terms of talent Tillery has the goods to make this an easy battle but things aren't usually that simple for first-year players.
Joe Schmidt vs. Nyles Morgan vs. Jarrett Grace (MLB)
Let the great middle linebacker competition begin!
Is there anything new that hasn't already been discussed over and over about what could play out this season? In one corner the former walk-on turned defensive MVP out to prove he's healthy from a late-season injury. In another corner a former starter coming back from an even more serious injury. In the final corner the young star recruit who got his feet wet last year.
Are you here for some #hottakes? My crystal ball says Grace won't seriously challenge for a starting spot. He's made huge strides overcoming a nasty injury but I still don't think he fits the new defensive coordinator's desires, even with a little bit of dropped weight. From what we last saw from Grace I can't see him with the agility and quickness to hold down a starting spot, and especially be used as a weapon in the blitz game.
Between Schmidt and Morgan I'll take the former. Unless he's not healthy I can't see someone with such control of the defense and playmaking ability losing his spot. I don't think these are scorching hot takes.
Nick Watkins vs. Devin Butler (CB)
My choice for the underrated and very important positional battle for the fall looks to figure out the third corner behind Russell and Luke. By the end of spring this one had been trending significantly in the direction of the younger Nick Watkins.
Perhaps one of the things to watch out for is if there's a shakeup like Butler moving to safety (a fan favorite move) but that seems unlikely unless the staff is blown away by a freshman. Who else would step up as the 4th corner and does anyone see a freshman making that impact within the first few practices? I don't see that happening.
Except maybe one freshman...
Matthias Farley vs. Shaun Crawford (NB)
Listed in his NSD profile at 5-9 and 170 pounds I would be open to convincing anyone that Shaun Crawford has the most corner skill, coming out of high school, than any player at his position since Brian Kelly arrived in South Bend. But he's really, really small even for corner standards.
Thus almost everyone projects Crawford to get a start working at nickel corner. It wouldn't be crazy to see him become that 4th corner, or even push Watkins/Butler for 3rd corner, given his skill but also because by all accounts BVG & Co. love Farley at nickel and will a freshman really unseat him?
Part of me thinks Baratti's shoulder won't hold up, they'll decide Tranquill has outgrown safety, and eventually Farley gets moved back to safety (where he did spend some time during spring when not in nickel packages) but my God they were about to be forced to use the last walk-on DB at safety last year with everything going on and they still didn't move Farley to the back end.
I expect Crawford to impress and see the field I'm just not sure in what capacity and role that'll be in 2015.
Drue Tranquill vs. Avery Sebastian vs. The Field (S)
Backup safeties are needed in a really bad way. I don't think there's any other area of the entire team that needs to get things in order before the season.
More specifically, a free safety-type is needed to patrol the back. Vegas odds would likely have Tranquill and incoming 5th-year transfer Avery Sebastian as the front-runners to be the backups and that kind of feels like it's by default even though they should be decent players.
Who knows how Baratti's body is going to hold up and I'm not willing to lay down anything on John Turner making a miraculous redshirt junior jump. If it's not these two (and Farley stays put) then you're back to Tranquill and Sebastian if you're not dipping into the true freshmen.
Forgotten Freshman to Watch: Elijah Taylor
The situation at the 3-tech defensive tackle position is interesting. Sheldon Day is your unquestioned starter and big playmaker, and I think it's safe to say Jay Hayes will be his backup. Beyond that there really isn't a body-type suitable for the position except Taylor. During the spring early enrollee Micah Dew-Treadway was getting two-deep reps when Day was sitting out but MDT is already listed at 6-4 and 295 pounds.
They may not worry too much about the third string 3-tech and leave Dew-Treadway there but he's going to out-grow that position very fast. And while I thought Taylor lacked explosiveness off the ball in high school there might be a chance to quickly move up the depth chart during camp anyway.
Time to Show Something: Doug Randolph
Randolph has not made an impact yet and moved into a pass-rushing specialist role during the spring. For a team that really needs some speed and ability to blow past a defender off the edge it'd be great if he was able to find an effective role after moving from linebacker.
There should be plenty of opportunity to impress with Jhonny Williams transferring and Bo Wallace not enrolling. Almost by default, Randolph has moved into the third option at the weak-side. If he doesn't take advantage this could be an Anthony Rabasa 2.0 type of situation.
Most Likely to Move Positions: No One
I originally planned on writing about someone moving positions but I don't think we'll see anything, at least not something super important. Some possibilities though:
Micah Dew-Treadway: As mentioned, spent the spring at 3-tech but could grow into a strong-side end or even nose tackle.
Te'von Coney- Spent the spring at weak-side linebacker but I'd be shocked if that's where he stays long-term. I think placing him there in the two-deep for spring was more about letting Jaylon mentor him and keeping a Florida kid focused and committed during the important first semester on campus.
Greer Martini- In conjunction with Coney above, I wouldn't be surprised if Greer went back to the weak-side and switched positions with Te'von. More on this below.
Matthias Farley- Also talked about already, moving back to safety full-time.
Drue Tranquill- Finally settles long-term at strong-side linebacker, perhaps? Might not get too much bigger but was pushing 230 as a freshman.
Ashton White- As an incoming recruit, he's someone who could move to safety.
What About Jaylon Moving?
Back in February I wrote a post on Notre Dame's linebackers and I showed why I thought Jaylon Smith would continue to move around the field but stay primarily at weak-side linebacker.
I'd say roughly 74% of all linebacker discussions this off-season never even brought up James Onwualu on the field at the strong-side. If you move Smith to SAM now you've got Onwualu and Martini stuck there (and Martini probably switches positions too at that point), you've got to switch Schmidt to WILL, and you're going to ride with the young Morgan at MIKE. It's a pretty large shakeup that I don't see happening even if it sounds great on XBox.
What's been pretty funny this off-season is seeing a lot of Notre Dame fans nitpick Smith's game (I'm convinced most of this is believing an inside linebacker has to be a huge 255 pounder & years of recruiting talk that he was an outside linebacker who needed to play in space) while the NFL media simultaneously has started drooling over him as they begin evaluating 2016 draft talent.
Jaylon Smith has the most potential at linebacker I've seen since Patrick Willis. https://t.co/Y9cwo1ZOFQ— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) July 10, 2015
I honestly can't bring myself to say that ANYBODY is better than Jaylon Smith in the '16 class. A lot can change, but man..... #Legit— Rob Donaldson (@RobDonaldsonOTC) July 12, 2015
Sometimes when you're so close to someone you forget how good they are at such a young age. I know Jaylon could play SAM and be a menace in the back-field in a way Onwualu is not. But Jaylon is such a phenomenally well-rounded weapon at WILL that I don't see them moving him full-time--and shuffling everyone else--when there are plenty of opportunities to move him around situationally just like last year.