Notre Dame Football: Ishaq Williams
Max Redfield -- No. 10 himself, just like Daniels -- sported a towel hanging from his uniform Saturday with hand-written numbers: 6 (KeiVarae Rusell), 8 (Kendall Moore) and 11 (Ishaq Williams), saying that was all he could fit.
"He was positive about it, that's the kind of guy he is," Luke said. "But he came up to me and was like, 'Keep balling man, I love you.' I said, 'I love you, too.' That was it."
Collectively, this all made for the most public display -- and even mere mention, really -- of any of the five Irish players who have been suspended since Aug. 15. Notre Dame, after holding a press conference that day to announce its internal academic investigation, has said it would not be revealing any of the results from the players' hearings, leaving those decisions in the hands of the college kids who were involved.
So there was Russell, the only of the five players whose fate seems remotely clear, announcing his intentions on Instagram on Friday. And there was head coach Brian Kelly, who has been the de facto spokesman for this ordeal despite not receiving full information, standing up there at the podium some three times a week, doing his best to decipher the indecipherable for everyone.
And, after escaping North Carolina on Saturday, winning 50-43 to get to 6-0 before their showdown at Florida State, there were Notre Dame players talking about those who weren't there, finally letting some of their feelings show as a process that began on July 29 -- when the Office of General Counsel initiated an investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence -- continued on through the weekend with little clarity.
"Obviously we've shown appreciation to them, because they've been out there with us over the summer and in the spring, working just as hard as we work," Redfield said. "They're no different than us. They're still our brothers even though they had to leave the team."
Kelly has driven home the message of blocking out noise since he first arrived on campus five years ago. He has said throughout this season that he feels for the suspended guys, though he cannot spend too much time playing the what-if game.
But even he was fine with his players expressing themselves in the manners that they did this past weekend, recognizing that keeping quiet for nearly two months could not have been the easiest thing for curious teammates.
"I think they're being good teammates and just recognizing their teammates in that situation," Kelly said Sunday. "I'm generally not big on that, but they've handled themselves very well through social media. They have not formed opinions of such, and so I did see a towel, I did not make a big deal of it because I thought that our team as a whole has handled the situation very well and felt that I was OK with it."
Notre Dame faces its biggest opponent yet in five days, as it puts its perfect record on the line at the defending champs' house, the location perhaps not being such a bad thing.
"I think it can work both ways," Kelly said of playing on the road. "One way is you're at home and it's great to be at home. Being away there can be a lot of noise. It just depends on your team. This team, the great thing about it is that they love to play and they believe they're going to win. I really don't know if it matters one way or the other."The Irish can enter Tallahassee a confident bunch. They have not lost in two months, despite the absence of five players creating an eternal silence that seems as deafening as most outside noise is.
"I believe it is [for all five players]," Kelly said after practice. "I don't have confirmation on all five, but I know that from what I hear it's, first-hand I know Tuesday and Wednesday. I'm hearing second-hand that they're trying to get them all wrapped up by Thursday of next week."
"I'm not really certain of that," Kelly said. "I've heard a committee. I know that committee is comprised of faculty and students. I don't know the ratio, and I don't know if it is the same committee hearing all five. I don't know the specifics, nor have I, quite frankly, asked."
The school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete. The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.
The five suspended players attend classes and have been welcomed back into the football complex, dining with teammates and working out with Irish strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo.
Kelly has chosen all along to hold the players out of team meetings, and he said Thursday that, despite considering putting them back in those gatherings to potentially have them ready to play, he opted against it because the process is seemingly close to completion.
Coach Brian Kelly said Thursday that he still has not been updated on the status of the suspended players since he last shared information on the matter with reporters. Whether he was referring to his comments on Sept. 4 that none of the players had been through honesty committee hearings yet is unclear. What remains clear, though, is that Kelly and the Irish would welcome the players back for Saturday night's game against Purdue if they were cleared Friday.
Kelly reiterated that he does not know much about the process that has been going on for nearly a month now, after the school announced Aug. 15 that it was withholding DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and KeiVarae Russell out from practices and games as it investigated academic misconduct. The school later announced, on Aug. 28, that Eilar Hardy would be withheld as well, and Kelly said that same day that the investigation was complete, meaning only hearings and potential appeals remained.
The players attend classes and have been welcomed back in the football complex, eating with teammates and working out with strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, though Kelly has chosen to hold them out of team meetings.
The school had said that the Office of General Counsel initiated an immediate investigation when the compliance office was referred to evidence July 29.
Kelly said Thursday that he is anxious, that the players are anxious and that reporters are anxious, but that he does not know much, choosing to let the academic arm of the school conduct matters as it sees fit.
"This is separation from church and state in the sense," Kelly said. "This is the deans and they have their domain and that's their business, and it truly is their business, and I respect that. They don't give me advice about play-calling and that's the truth of the matter. Whether that's a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things and that's their domain and that's their world, and I want my guys back but I get it, and they work and that's their job and so I really don't have any say on it."
Notes: Kelly said that former Irish and NFL player and current graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy has not missed a day of practice despite undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer. The NCAA allowed the school to hire former player Pat Eilers as a GA in light of the matter, but Kelly said Eilers cannot coach a unit during practice while McCarthy is still there.
"Incredible," Kelly said of McCarthy. "His resolve and his [desire] to be out at practice, just [a] pretty inspirational young man. It's been awesome to be around him and to get to know him even more, it doesn't surprise me why he's been such a favorite around here. He's a pretty inspirational kid."
Kelly also said Torii Hunter Jr. (Grade 3 groin tear) will not play Saturday despite showing progress throughout the week.
Kelly said after practice that he had been told on Monday that the hearings for DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams, Kendall Moore and Eilar Hardy would take place very quickly. He also said that process — a result of an internal academic misconduct investigation that the school announced Aug. 15, and that concluded Aug. 28 — has yet to be completed.
"I could get 'em ready, like right away. I mean, they're physically conditioned. I know they're working out with [strength and conditioning] coach [Paul] Longo, I can tell you that for sure. So they are conditioned and they've been going to class; I know that. And other than that, they haven't been taking any football reps. But if we were hypothetically to get that call, they'd be running out of that tunnel on Saturday."
The five players have been held out of games, practice, team meetings and film study, but they are attending classes and are welcome around the football complex. Kelly said holding them out of meetings and the film room was his decision, as he would rather them focus on their schoolwork. The fifth-year Irish coach said he has had little personal contact with the players but has checked up on them in text message. They still receive their four tickets for games and are in the stands.
Kelly said he is not expecting a decision to come Friday, but attributed that more to the mindset he has taken with the Irish since news of the investigation broke nearly three weeks ago.
"I have not had expectations really one way or the other," Kelly said. "I haven't woke up in the morning going, 'Is this the day?' I have dealt with this situation when I first heard of it with maybe blinders on in that I'm focused on the guys that I have. And maybe — I miss the guys, I care about them, but I've really just, I have a responsibility to the guys on my team, and so I've really just stayed focused on them and coaching the heck out of them. And I hope that doesn't come across as callous, but that's really been my focus. I haven't woke up every morning going, 'Is this the day?' I really haven't done that."
Previewing the 2014 season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish:
Key returners: QB Everett Golson, RB Tarean Folston, RB Cam McDaniel, RB Greg Bryant, TE Ben Koyack, LT Ronnie Stanley, C Nick Martin, RG Christian Lombard, DT Sheldon Day, LB Jaylon Smith, LB Joe Schmidt, S Matthias Farley, S Max Redfield, S Austin Collinsworth
Key losses: QB Tommy Rees, RB George Atkinson III, WR TJ Jones, TE Troy Niklas, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, DT Louis Nix, LB Dan Fox, LB Carlo Calabrese, CB Bennett Jackson
Most important 2014 games: Sept. 6 vs. Michigan, Oct. 4 vs. Stanford, Oct. 18 at Florida State, Nov. 8 at Arizona State, Nov. 29 at USC
Over/under Vegas odds: 7.5 (pre-suspensions)
Instant impact newcomer: Redshirt senior cornerback Cody Riggs did enough this summer and in fall camp to earn a starting job after transferring from Florida. But Riggs' role has become even more important after KeiVarae Russell (and three others) were suspended amid an academic probe. Riggs is a physical, versatile corner who brings along plenty of SEC experience and has proven to be a stabilizing force in light of Russell's suspension. He will likely prove to be one of the bigger fifth-year pickups in college football this season.
High point from 2013: It certainly didn't look like it at the time, but a 17-13 victory over Michigan State on Sept. 21 proved to be a huge win for the Irish and one that might have ended up changing the landscape of the national title race. The game was ugly, with poor offensive play all afternoon. Little did anyone know the Spartans would win the rest of their games, finish 13-1 and win the Rose Bowl. How much MSU learned from that defeat is anyone's guess, but it's not a stretch to think a 13-0 Spartans squad could have been No. 2 at the end of the regular season and facing Florida State in the BCS title game. Instead, one-loss SEC champion Auburn earned the shot.
Low point from 2013: A Nov. 9 loss at Pitt was a huge letdown, as the Irish entered the game with just two defeats and BCS bowl hopes still alive. Turnovers and mental mistakes in the Steel City did them in, though -- characteristics unbecoming of a Brian Kelly team in November. When Kelly said after the season that 2013 was a good year that could've been great, it is safe to assume the Panthers game was the one at the top of his mind. A Week 2 loss at Michigan also hurt -- because a loss to Michigan always hurts. But the ramifications of the Pitt defeat were bigger.
Best-case scenario for 2014: The optimistic view sees a young Notre Dame team that does not play a true road game until Oct. 18 at Florida State. Until then, Golson and the Irish take care of business early and race to a 4-0 start before stumbling into Stanford. A back-loaded schedule makes even a confident team trip into a few road blocks, but Notre Dame manages to finish 9-3 and heads to one of the better ACC bowl games. All in all, it's a very strong season for a team facing so much uncertainty on the defensive side of the ball, especially given the camp suspensions. (We could see 10-2 and an access bowl as a best-case scenario with all of the currently suspended players on board.)
Worst-case scenario for 2014: This is a tough one to project, given the uncertainty surrounding the currently suspended Russell, DaVaris Daniels, Ishaq Williams and Kendall Moore, but the weight of those players' losses might actually be more than the sum of their parts. Yes, three are starters, and Notre Dame will struggle to replace them, but if the academic probe lingers far into the season, it creates one more obstacle for a young team that faces a very difficult schedule. Notre Dame is favored in most of its games, but it has zero cakewalks. A worst-case scenario has the Irish scrapping for bowl eligibility.
They said it: "You never want to lose any of your players, so that's always difficult. To lose any of your players, especially given the circumstances, that's always difficult. But I'm responsible for not just four players [but] 105-plus [and] over 30 support staff [members]. I've got to get going. I've got to move immediately to getting better as a program and as a football team. I don't spend much time on the past [and] don't mortgage the future. I try to stay in the present." — Kelly, on moving forward as four players serve an indefinite suspension amid Notre Dame's academic probe
The biggest surprise? Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti will be the starter at weak-side defensive end, where Romeo Okwara had appeared to have the initial leg-up. Ishaq Williams is the other starting end.
"We think that he’s got a huge upside for us in so many areas that sometimes I don’t talk about him enough," Kelly said of Trumbetti. "But a great motor, physical, smart, does all the things that we ask him to do. But again, you’ve got to keep in mind we’re talking about first-and second-down players."
Another first-teamer, a name that is considerably less shocking than Trumbetti's, is Florida transfer Cody Riggs, who will start opposite KeiVarae Russell at cornerback.
Kelly repeatedly praised the approach of his defensive freshmen, saying that tackle Jonathan Bonner is in the two-deep, that linebacker Kolin Hill and lineman Jhonny Williams are third-down pass-rushers, and that linebacker Nyles Morgan will play.
While Kelly admitted that he probably would have been uneasy counting on so many rookies to contribute in the front seven, he says his eyes tell him different when he watches them every day on the practice field.
There is also, of course, a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. Kelly was asked if the new scheme is easier to grasp than what former coordinator Bob Diaco ran.
"They can go. There’s a lot more going on. There’s a lot more pieces to this," Kelly said. "But Brian let’s them run and let’s them go. And so that’s why a lot of these young guys can just, in the places that he’s putting them, in the fronts that he’s calling with Nyles Morgan, he’s not asking him to two-gap anybody. He’s saying, ‘Listen, we’re going to cover everybody. Just go run. Go make a play.’ And some of the freshmen are getting similar kind of front calls where they can just pin their ears back and go."
In what is probably a surprising number to many, Notre Dame comes in at No. 120 out of 128.
Now, we all know that the Irish have a lot to replace on the defensive side of the ball, where, depending on your formula, they are breaking in roughly six new starters. Offensively, too, there will be new faces in the receiving corps and, technically, under center, as Everett Golson returns after a one-season absence.
It is important to take a closer look at this formula in order to understand Notre Dame's ranking. Steele takes into account seniors who are starters and in the two-deep. The Irish do not have many of those. (And the ones that they do have are mostly redshirt juniors with another year of eligibility remaining in 2015.)
As starters, there's Golson, Cam McDaniel, DaVaris Daniels, Ben Koyack, Nick Martin and Christian Lombard on offense. And there's Ishaq Williams, Joe Schmidt and Austin Collinsworth on defense.
Four of those aforementioned players -- Golson, Daniels, Martin and Schmidt -- have eligibility remaining beyond this season. The other five don't, and Steele goes with that number in listing five senior starters for the Irish.
Other factors that Steele weighs include percentage of lettermen returning, percentage of returning offensive yards, percentage of tackles returning and returning starts on the offensive line. He goes further in-depth with these categories in his magazine.
For comparison's sake, Notre Dame ranked 65th going into the 2013 season, 65th going into 2012, 27th going into 2011, 105th going into 2010 and 17th going into 2009, which was the first year Steele used this formula.
Of course, experience does not always tell the story. Looking for promise down the list in recent years?
- Stanford entered 2012 at 109th and won the Rose Bowl, while Northern Illinois entered at 113th and made the Orange Bowl.
- USC entered 2011 at 102nd and went 10-2. (The Trojans were serving a bowl ban.)
- Georgia Tech entered 2009 at 112th and made the Orange Bowl, while Boise State entered at 119th (out of 120) and ran the table, winning the Fiesta Bowl.
- Notre Dame wants sizzle in a changing recruiting landscape, JJ Stankevitz writes on CSNChicago.com.
- IrishEyes' Tim O'Malley reviews the best single-game performances of current Irish receivers and tight ends.
- ESPN 300 quarterback and Irish commit Blake Barnett made a visit to Oregon on Tuesday. Should Notre Dame be worried?
- One Foot Down's Jamie Uyeyama looks at how Notre Dame defensive newcomers will fit with Brian VanGorder's scheme.
- BlueandGold.com's Dan Murphy looks ahead at Ishaq Williams' senior season. (Subscription required)
- The QB rotation is stable: Everett Golson is back from his 2013 suspension, hardened and bigger than ever. And Malik Zaire has taken full advantage of the opportunity Brian Kelly has given him, after Kelly declared the job open. (Notre Dame had just two scholarship quarterbacks this spring.) While few expect Golson to relinquish his hold on the starting role, the prospect of a hungry, capable backup has to make new QBs coach Matt LaFleur happy.
- Greg Bryant looks like a playmaker: A rough start to Bryant's career last year might have been a blessing in disguise, as knee tendinitis allowed him to redshirt and essentially get a do-over in 2014. The returns this spring have been phenomenal, with the No. 2 running back prospect from the Class of 2013 bringing a burst to the run game that was absent last season. He turned heads in the spring game and says he is carrying a more mature head on his shoulders after last season, as he's hungry to get back on the field and make plays.
- The secondary is primed to breakout: Notre Dame does not lack for bodies among its defensive backs. KeiVarae Russell enters his third year of starting ready to be one of the nation's top corners, and the Irish return four safeties with starting experience -- one of whom, Matthias Farley, moved to nickelback this spring. Throw in Florida transfer Cody Riggs at corner this summer -- as well as the aggressive approach of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who will bring more press coverage -- and the secondary has all of the ingredients to be very good in 2014.
- Where will the pass-rush come from? The Irish said goodbye to Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two linemen who made their living in opposing backfields. There are simply no big, athletic bodies like them on this year's roster. With a revamped front-seven, VanGorder will be tasked with finding new ways to generate pressure on the quarterback. Perhaps senior Ishaq Williams, now primarily at end, can add a boost to the line.
- Which receivers will step up? With DaVaris Daniels (academics) gone this spring, it was essentially an open audition for Irish receivers, only two of whom had ever caught balls from Golson before (Chris Brown and tight end Ben Koyack). Corey Robinson has continued his growth after a promising freshman campaign, and Koyack will have to emerge as a bigger receiving threat after handling mostly blocking duties next to the departed Troy Niklas. Daniels' expected return this summer will provide a major boost to this group.
- Will special teams play finally improve? Few areas have given Notre Dame trouble in recent years the way special teams has, particularly the punt return game. Awful weather this spring limited outdoor work, which limited ideal return opportunities. Bryant could emerge as the guy at punt return, though Tarean Folston and Torii Hunter Jr. may contend for chances as well.
Notre Dame will average better than 30 points per game for the first time in the Kelly era. In Golson, the Irish have the ideal quarterback in place to run the Kelly offense. And with the defense taking massive personnel hits up front while adjusting to a new scheme, the offense will be relied on more than ever to stretch the field, carry the load and put points on the board.
He just knows not everything is going to click overnight.
Being a veteran of 11 other college and pro stops has helped VanGorder fine-tune the installation blueprint, and he joked that he didn't know what the word "resistance" meant when asked if there had been any from his players in the early going.
But combating the coach's experience is the more versatile offense that his unit is facing every day, along with the overall greenness of a group that features just five total scholarship players entering their final seasons of eligibility (Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo and Ishaq Williams).
"It's a little bit typical of some places that I've gone into," VanGorder said of the installation process, "but I guess the thing that probably stands out here is our youth, we're so young. Really young in the front seven especially. Young players. Again, so we've got to speed the process up and bring them along. That's the objective."
The 4-3 vs. 3-4 debate, meanwhile, will have to die another day, as VanGorder said he wants to be multiple and that the 4-3 base the Irish have often used through six spring practices is more a product of early installation. And he said there's no getting around the fact that it will be an uphill battle for some of the injured regulars (Jarrett Grace and Tony Springmann, among them) to become acclimated with the new system upon their expected full returns in August camp.
Still, the defensive differences from last year to this year have been enough for offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock to notice, beyond the predictably stout play from names such as Jaylon Smith and KeiVarae Russell.
"I think our defensive line as a whole has gotten more aggressive with what they’re doing," Denbrock said. "They’re playing more into the gaps and playing more up the field. Those guys kind of flash on me. I think secondary wise, there’s probably five or six or seven guys I could say, ‘Wow, I like seeing that. I like what this guy is doing. This guy is challenging the heck out of my guys and making them work.’ From Max Redfield to Matthias Farley. You guys have had the chance to see a couple practices, but even the practices you guys haven’t seen, a lot of the characters remain the same. A lot of the guys that are kind of flashing at you in the practices you’ve gotten a chance to see are doing that day in and day out and that’s obviously a tremendous thing for our football team."
Notes: VanGorder joked that his son, prep quarterback Montgomery VanGorder, joining the Irish as a preferred walk-on this summer is "great for Notre Dame." Asked if he wishes he could coach him, VanGorder said: "I learned a long time ago with my five kids, don’t coach them. They’re all athletes. It didn’t work well so I kind of backed off. Gave them things here and there but kind of let their coaches coach them and let me be dad." ... Asked for his philosophy of man coverage and pressing at the line of scrimmage, VanGorder said: "I’d love to do that. I think my mindset is to, especially in today’s game, is to take more and more control on defense by being aggressive and it starts out there. That’s where you start your decisions as a coach."
- The gang at AthlonSports ranks all head-coaching jobs. The Irish come in at seventh.
- Notre Dame hopes Sheldon Day leads by example, JJ Stankevitz writes on CSNChicago.com.
- Nice video from Notre Dame here on Matthias Farley and the stories behind his tattoos.
- IrishIllustrated's Pete Sampson offers early takeaways from Notre Dame's first two spring practices. (Subscription required)
- BlueandGold.com's Lou Somogyi looks at what's in store for Ishaq Williams in 2014. (Subscription required)
@NJNDBlogger writes: Who do you project to start at D-line?
Matt Fortuna: Haven't seen the name Kiel in this space in quite some time. And of course your question centers around a quarterback. But I believe Everett Golson was wearing a visor when we saw him in the early part of practice on Monday. I'm not sure if he had to do anything extra to get that on his helmet for Day 1 of spring.
Matt Fortuna: Thanks, Jordan. And a reader from Japan? Wow. The different locations of Notre Dame fans I hear from never ceases to amaze me. As for your question, there's no doubt that special teams has been a failure so far in the Brian Kelly era. Here was his exact answer last Friday when asked: "Well, we went out and 'cliniced.' I won't tell you where we went, but we went with some NFL and some college programs and we took our film, with our hat in our hand and said, 'What are we doing here, what are we missing?' And primarily, it was, you know, it wasn't scheme as much as it was some coaching points and moving some personnel around, some speed players vs. some power players. And you know, I think we've got a better feel for the positioning of the players in the right positions.
"So we're going to make some adjustments to some of the looks that we have in our punt return. We think we've answered some questions in our coverage teams, and like I said, you know, it's unacceptable to be where we are. We went out with that sense of being very open to all things as it relates to special teams, because we've got to get better there. And I think we picked up some things that I think can really help us."
Matt Fortuna: Thomas, it's tough to handicap the carries at this point, but I do think you'll see more maturity from Folston and Bryant, who took some hits early in their rookie campaigns but certainly are talented enough to make an impact in the Irish backfield. Folston was running with the first-team during tempo drills on Monday, and his emergence down the stretch last season makes me believe he could take the next step this season.
Yes, all eyes were on Everett Golson during his first Irish practice in nearly a year, with Avicii's "Levels" blasting once stretching was done and the tempo drill was under way. The media was able to view the first 30 minutes of practice from a balcony in the Loftus Sports Complex, with Golson and the offense running tempo on the far end of the field and the defense getting into gear right below us.
Golson is set to meet the media after practice for the first time since his return to school so we will have more on him later on Monday. As for what could be gathered about his weapons with the 2014 season still far away …
- The first-team offensive line consisted of, from left to right, Ronnie Stanley, Steve Elmer, Matt Hegarty, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey. Corey Robinson, Chris Brown and C.J. Prosise were running with the first team at receiver, while Tarean Folston saw some action in the backfield, and Ben Koyack was at tight end.
- The second-team offensive line, again from left to right, was made up by Hunter Bivin, Conor Hanratty, Mark Harrell, John Montelus and Colin McGovern. Malik Zaire ran the show with that group, with Will Fuller (now No. 7), Torii Hunter Jr. and Amir Carlisle seeing action at receiver. Greg Bryant and Cam McDaniel split time in the backfield.
- Defensively, the Irish used a four-man front on the first team, with Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams on the edge and Sheldon Day and Jarron Jones inside. Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt and Kendall Moore were at linebacker, while KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke was at corner and Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth were at safety.
We'll have more later on Monday, as Golson will be joined by seven other players, plus coach Brian Kelly, following the completion of spring practice No. 1.
Now both are gone, and while the Irish lose Prince Shembo at the starting Cat linebacker spot as well, it is presumed that Ishaq Williams will step in with the chance to fill those shoes. (Jaylon Smith was a freshman sensation as the starting Dog linebacker.)
Grace figured to be the starting Mike, but his recovery from a broken leg means that the doors are open this spring for others to step up and make their marks. Kendall Moore is back for a fifth season and figures to play a big role this spring. So does redshirt junior Joe Schmidt, the former walk-on who earned a scholarship entering last season and played significant action inside in 2013.
One other thing to consider is that there is a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. And although Brian Kelly said that the Irish will still operate out of a 3-4 base and go 4-3 about half the time, it remains to be seen how much more aggressive, if at all, VanGorder is with the personnel at hand.
There will probably be plenty of mixing and matching this spring, as the Irish try to find where some of their young guys are most effective -- notably, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, a pair of players who redshirted last season as freshmen.
Outside linebacker has a bit more depth, with Romeo Okwara and Ben Councell, who will likely miss the spring after tearing an ACL late last season. And a major reinforcement inside could be on the way this summer in Nyles Morgan, the No. 5 inside linebacker in the nation and Notre Dame's top recruit from the 2014 class.
But that's a topic for fall practice. In the spring, the Irish need to work on replenishing the position unit that takes the biggest hit from 2013 to 2014 in linebacker, and in particular, at inside linebacker. Several players have opportunities to cement significant roles for the 2014 season.
2) Senior OLB Ishaq Williams
In some ways, it seems as though Williams just got to Notre Dame. In other ways, it seems as if he has been with the Irish forever. Part of that is likely because the narrative has never really shifted with Williams, as the same question has lingered in each of his three seasons in South Bend, Ind.:
Is this the season Williams finally breaks out?
It is a fair question, even if the opportunities weren't always there behind starter Prince Shembo at the Cat linebacker position the last three seasons. Still, while Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt await their NFL paydays, Williams, the other huge haul from that 2011 recruiting class, is just looking to start and make a major impact for the Irish as he heads into his final season.
Williams was slowed by an ACL sprain late last season that forced him to miss two games. As a result, the 6-foot-5.5, 261-pounder suffered a drop-off in production, tallying 17 total tackles, one sack and 1.5 tackles for loss. But the front seven of the Irish takes a major hit going into 2014, and it is now or never for the senior to step up and become a big player on the Irish defense.
First things first: figuring out where he plays. There's a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder, though Brian Kelly says that the Irish will run a 3-4 base while going to a 4-3 about half the time. Williams was ESPN's No. 43 overall prospect from the Class of 2011 and its No. 7 defensive end. He played on the line often in 2013 when the Irish played with four linemen.
Wherever Williams plays, he has the talent to become the Irish's most effective pass-rusher, a skill the Irish will miss dearly with Tuitt gone. Seeing how Williams develops under VanGorder this spring is worth keeping an eye on for that reason alone.