Yesterday we featured junior nose guard Kona Schwenke as maybe Notre Dame’s most improved player this spring. He took only 33 snaps as a freshman and 44 last year, but this spring he moved ahead of last year’s most improved defender — Louis Nix III — on the depth chart, although both likely will be a tag team at the demanding slot.
Ishaq Williams recovered a fumble and made an interception in the Blue-Gold Game.
Today we look at another Top 5 of defenders beyond Schwenke who either cracked the starting lineup or positioned themselves to be regulars this year. A criterion to be chosen here is having less than 100 career snaps on defense.
1. CB Bennett Jackson
Defensive Snaps: 65 last year in 13 games
His nose for the football, speed and tackling skills were evident during his 2010 freshman campaign when he was named Notre Dame’s Special Teams Player of the Year.
Prior to his sophomore season he was switched from receiver to cornerback to begin grooming for a starting role once Gary Gray and Robert Blanton graduated after the 2011 campaign. Halfway through the spring, the six-foot Jackson, also a 60-meter hurdler on the indoor track team, separated himself as the team’s top cornerback. He will play the boundary side, where he generally lines up against the opponent’s top receiver and adds a physical component against the run.
A player he reminds us of in terms of how he carries himself on the field is former Irish safety Glenn Earl (1999-03), who also began his career as a wideout, made his mark on special teams early and, like Jackson, arrived with little fanfare.
An injury to his shoulder joint (labrum) sidelined Jackson for the Blue-Gold Game.
Cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks, who played in the NFL from 1998-2000 and is in his 10th season of college coaching, has noted Jackson’s vocal presence in practice, but is even more impressed with the physical skill set.
“Bennett is as talented as cornerback as I’ve ever coached … speed, he’s long, he’s athletic, he can flip his hips,” Cooks said. “The part that he’s missing is experience … he’s still got to grow.”
2. OLB/DE Ishaq Williams
Defensive Snaps: 71 in the 11 games he played last year
If there was a “most likely to transfer” candidate from last year’s freshman class based on body language, Williams was it.
Arriving with “five-star” accolades similar to defensive ends Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, Williams played behind graduating Cat linebacker Darius Fleming and was not in nearly as many meaningful situations as Lynch and Tuitt. When Lynch left the program this spring, Kelly admitted that he monitored Williams too … and was pleased to discover a conspicuous attitude change. He made the most of his opportunity when starter Prince Shembo was sidelined the last three weeks with turf toe (on which surgery was performed).
“There are a lot less plays where he is loafing or not giving effort,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “There are more plays when he’s giving either the expected level of effort — and then also what we would consider to be exceptional effort.”
In the spring game, Williams intercepted an Andrew Hendrix pass and also recovered a fumble, although he did miss a few tackles to add to the three he had.
Whether at either outside linebacker position or as an end in the 4-3, Williams’ presence should be felt more in 2012. In nickel and dime packages, both he and Shembo could be the ends.
3. DE Sheldon Day
Defensive Snaps: 0
Among Notre Dame’s three early enrollees this semester, cornerback Tee Shepard was the best bet for 2012 impact, while quarterback Gunner Kiel was the one in the limelight.
However, Shepard left the program prior to spring drills (USC reportedly now is among his favorites), and Kiel appears to be a prime red-shirt candidate for now.
Meanwhile, the 6-2, 286-pound Day quietly added 11 pounds to his frame since January while also displaying advanced strength (560-pound squat, 330-pound clean), technique and work volume for his age — he doesn’t turn 18 until July 1.
With Lynch out of the mix, and sophomores Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann sidelined this spring with injuries, Day seized the opportunity and positioned himself well to be a regular in the defensive end rotation that is led by starters Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore. We could envision him playing 15-20 snaps per game.
“They’re all going to have to play at some point, just like you saw last year,” said Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston. “… [Day is] just a solid, solid player right now. He still has a lot to learn and a lot to get better at … but he’s way ahead of where we thought he’d be.”
4. S Austin Collinsworth
Defensive Snap Count: 78 in 13 games
The successor to Jackson as the 2011 Special Teams Player of The Year with his intensity, toughness and production, he recorded 14 tackles on kickoffs alone and 18 overall, leading Diaco to refer to him as a “werewolf” and “one of the more entertaining players to watch and be around.”
Like Jackson, he also moved from receiver to the defensive backfield last spring, and his progress at safety has allowed the defense’s most versatile player, safety Jamoris Slaughter, to take some snaps at field corner in case an emergency situation develops at that inexperienced position.
Last year Collinsworth was specifically inserted in the dime package, but this year his role is expected to expand significantly. In the one fully open practice on April 14, he was quite active as a blitzer.
The Irish had a three-man rotation at safety last year with captain Harrison Smith, Slaughter and Zeke Motta. With the graduation of Smith, Collinsworth is Next Man In.
5. ILB Jarrett Grace
Defensive Snap Count: 0
Despite getting withheld from action in 2011 to preserve a fifth year of eligibility, Grace made the team bus on some road trips because of his production in practice.
It became even more conspicuous this spring while positioning himself as the potential heir to Te’o from 2013-15. Special teams should be his initial work, but he could help right away against Navy in the opener because of his acumen against the option.
“He knows the game very well,” said Brian Kelly after the 14th spring practice. “He’s so focused. His football intelligence and his focus allow him to really progress quickly.”
“He’s going to be a hard guy to keep off the field,” Diaco said. “There are a lot of jobs to do. Manti has shown there are times when he doesn’t need to be in there or can’t be in there, so those opportunities would be a time when Grace will go in.”