Turner's window to shine for Notre Dame is now

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If there’s one guy who could be the face of the defensive overhaul at Notre Dame, it’s John Turner.

Languishing in special-team obscurity last season — after a year of inactivity — the 6-foot-1, 217-pound rising junior suddenly is in a competition for a prominent place on the Irish football team’s depth chart.

The Notre Dame defense, masterminded by new coordinator Brian VanGorder, will be on display for the first time Saturday at the Blue-Gold Game.

Don’t expect much. Vanilla may be the flavor of the day. In the fall, Notre Dame will have a schematic advantage (OK, so you’ve heard that phrase before, right?) against Rice and Michigan, since no one knows how VanGorder’s defenses from the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons will translate to the college level.

Obviously, he’s not going to tip his hand in an exhibition.

What fans will get to see is how the personnel on hand might fit in. Turner will be one of the more interesting players to watch.

It’s been a long road for Turner. He came out of Cathedral High in Indianapolis as a cornerback. Obviously not fast enough to play corner in big-time college football, Turner was immediately switched to safety.

Freshman year was spent adjusting in practice. He never saw the field in a game.

Last year, he didn’t find his way onto the depth chart at safety, but played in every game on special teams. He had four tackles to show for that participation.

The cold, hard fact was that he was even too slow for safety. Besides, the safety position was stocked.

What’s the best way to deal with a slow safety? Convert him into a fast linebacker. Turner might be a bit undersized at 217 pounds, but he certainly will be able to move.

“The biggest challenge is having to deal with (much bigger) tight ends (blocking) in run situations,” Turner said. “I’m not 235-240 pounds yet. I have to have better quickness (than the tight ends); better technique. (Technique) is having better leverage; striking (the blocker) harder.”

This spring, with able-bodied linebackers at a premium, Turner has been used at the strongside (lining up on the same side as the tight end) linebacker along with James Onwuala, a converted receiver. In the fall, when Ben Councell is cleared for full contact and incoming freshmen Nyles Morgan and Nile Sykes show up on campus, the battle for playing time will be ratcheted up.

But for Saturday, Turner is the leader in the clubhouse.

“(Turner has) handled (the position switch) great,” outside linebackers coach Bob Elliott said. “He’s found a niche for himself. At safety, he was a little overmatched in the quickness area. Now, he’s a quick, fast outside linebacker.

“Granted, he’s a smaller outside linebacker than we would want him to be, but he didn’t know he was making this move until right before spring ball. I’m interested in seeing what he looks like at the end of the summer. I’m sure he’ll be bigger and stronger and able to stand in there (against bigger blockers) pretty good.”

“The move for John has really been good for us,” said VanGorder. “He’s battling consistency, but he brings some real good physical traits to that position, especially in the coverage area after being a former safety. He’s really helped us there.”

VanGorder is a coach who likes packages suited to the situation. Turner may be a solid candidate to play a lot against teams who run the spread offense, while Councell may be a better fit against a power two-back team like Stanford.

“The new position has been able to translate to my skill set,” Turner said. “I’m a pretty long kid. I have decent speed, I’m not slow or anything. I have some strength, but I do need to improve it.”

Getting on the field last season, even in a limited role, paid a dividend already.

“(I learned) that I can definitely play with the best of them,” Turner said, not sounding the least bit intimidated by the challenge ahead. “I never really doubted it, I just finally got my chance to come out and compete. I’m doing a pretty good job at it.

“(Playing linebacker) is a little more physical and a little faster at the line of scrimmage (than safety). You have to make a read faster and diagnose run-pass faster (than safety).”

It’s been a tough process that has consumed Turner since early March.

“The first eight or nine practices (of the 15 in the spring) were a learning process, just getting comfortable near the line of scrimmage and being asked to do a lot of the different jobs,” he said. “The last few practices it’s been starting to click a lot; just knowing the defense and being able to line up and do what I need to do.

“I haven’t had a day off since practice started. We have practice, then I go watch film with coach Elliott. I’m just putting in work, trying to get better.”

No guarantee opportunity will knock again.

Now’s the time to roll the dice.

No matter the position.

Languishing in special-team obscurity last season, linebacker John Turner is in a competition for a prominent place on the Notre Dame depth chart this spring. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)