Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt played a lot of football for the Irish. Despite their differences in talent their departure leaves a ton of work for Notre Dame to do this spring.
Returning Snaps from 2015: Onwualu (544), Martini (312), Coney (62), N. Morgan (41)
No Snaps Last Year: Bilal, Barajas
Lost Snaps: Schmidt (895), J. Smith (825), Grace (108)
Early Enrollee: Perry
Summer Arrival: Jo. Jones, Jam. Jones
Don't Mess with Mike
You could make the case that the Mike linebacker spot is the most important question of any position on the roster this spring. For one, Joe Schmidt played more snaps than anyone else, both offense or defense, in 2015 and leaves a major hole of experience to say nothing of his understanding and knowledge of the defense.
The counter to that loss is that many believe from an athletic standpoint the Irish will be going through a major upgrade this spring. Not only was Schmidt limited from a raw skill standpoint but he spent 2015 coming back from an ankle injury suffered late in 2014 in addition to playing through serious thumb and shoulder injuries.
The new starter at Mike linebacker encapsulates so many problems that could be rectified in 2016. Will the new starter be tasked with running such a large chunk of the defense the way Schmidt did in 2014-15? Will the loss of the savvy Schmidt force VanGorder to dumb down the defense? If the great responsibilities for being a coach on the field are removed from the Mike linebacker who takes on that task this fall?
We Need Smiles from Nyles
If you took a condensed form of green kool-aid and main lined that straight into your arm you might make the case that Nyles Morgan has been groomed for the past two years to become the next great middle linebacker at Notre Dame. Shoot up that rainbow of happiness and maybe, just maybe, you'd see things that way.
The harsher reality is that while Morgan picked up freshman All-American honors after starting the tail end of 2014 he's still a major unknown commodity for Notre Dame. Maybe to be more fair it's correct to say that as he comes into his junior season there are far more questions than answers surrounding his ability to start for the Irish.
Frankly, not much makes sense regarding Nyles Morgan. As a true freshman he certainly flashed some of the major speed and athleticism that made him one of the top prep linebackers from the 2014 class. On the flip side, there was a chicken-with-its-head-cut-off quality to his performances that led to plenty of missed opportunities and big plays for the opponent.
As a sophomore, Morgan's name lit up message boards from keyboards all across the United States. Not only did Schmidt struggle, but they wouldn't take him off the field. Further, the younger Te'von Coney was deemed worthy to go backup Jaylon Smith while Morgan couldn't even beat out Coney or Jarrett Grace for goal line snaps. That's how Morgan finished with a paltry 41 snaps, the bulk of which came in a blowout over UMass.
You could forgive the coaching staff if they realized Morgan at middle linebacker just wasn't working and spent 2015 making adjustments for him at another position. Still, as there are whispers out of South Bend that Morgan really struggles in practice with run fits/recognizing gaps/various other middle linebacker-y qualities yet last we knew VanGorder has remained steadfast that the Illinois product is the heir apparent at Mike.
Not the Full Picture
Perhaps it wouldn't be shocking if Morgan does move positions as Martini or Coney ultimately are tasked with playing Mike linebacker in 2016. The only problem with that scenario is that neither Martini or Coney are expected to be 100% healthy for spring practice.
Almost by default, Morgan has to play Mike linebacker in the spring with the only possible competition coming from Josh Barajas.
Obviously, linebacker is going to be one of the positions with poor depth for spring practice. We're expecting incoming EE freshman Spencer Perry (recruited as a safety) to play linebacker long-term and likely help out right away this spring. That makes Perry, Morgan, Onwualu, Bilal, and Barajas as the only linebackers on scholarship--not a lot to work with. It's possible someone else moves to linebacker (John Turner again before a summer transfer for a 5th-year?) but either way walk-ons are going to be used heavily this spring.
Setting aside Perry--who may not even move and likely won't be vying for starter minutes in the spring anyway--we're looking at a race between Onwualu, Morgan, Barajas, and Bilal. It would seem Onwualu should remain the starter at Sam (although like last year there will be grumblings of his ineffectiveness and lack of playmaking ability) and as discussed Morgan slots in at Mike. Are we going to see the two Indiana redshirt freshmen fighting it out at Will or will one of them essentially lose and go back up another position for spring?