Notebook: Could ND linebacker Jaylon Smith be on the move?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The most-telling sign of the authenticity and persistence of Notre Dame middle linebacker Jarrett Grace’s now 18-month comeback from career-threatening leg injuries is what’s happening in practice with Jaylon Smith.

On Wednesday, Notre Dame’s 10th practice of 15 this spring, the junior-to-be Smith was back at his old outside linebacker position.

That’s where ND’s leading tackler in 2014 spent his freshman season, before a dearth of health, quality and experience at the two inside linebacker positions in 2014 prompted Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder to funnel Smith inside to the weakside linebacker position.

Outside is where many say Smith’s future is, at the NFL level, and where his breathtaking skill set now best aligns at ND.

Where Grace, the starting middle linebacker in 2013 until his Oct. 5 injury that season, factors into all this is he’s a part of a sudden glut of talent inside this spring.

ND sixth-year head coach Brian Kelly is framing Smith’s move outside as situational, at least for now, and that 2014 starting outside linebacker James Onwualu (6-foot-1, 220) is still a strong option against spread teams, while the 6-3, 235-pound Smith matches up better against more-physical offenses.

But VanGorder acknowledged the three best linebackers will find their way onto the field, presumably in the starting lineup, and fifth-year senior Grace increasingly has a chance to be one of those three. Also competing for playing time inside are last year’s MVP — fifth-year senior-to-be Joe Schmidt, sophomore fill-in starter Nyles Morgan and early-enrolled freshman Te’von Coney.

“We’ve got to be able to get all those guys on the field,” Kelly acknowledged.

As for Grace, after missing some time early in spring with a concussion, the largest of the inside linebackers (6-3, 253) is engaged in all contact drills with no restrictions.

“He’s been very, very productive for us,” Kelly said. “I think what we were all looking for is to see if there was going to be a big drop-off (after multiple practices with contact). He’s been sore, but he’s continued to progress each and every day, so he looks good.”

Quarterback non-intrigue

Kelly finally said publicly on Wednesday what anyone with an iota of football acumen already knew, that the open quarterback audition between fifth-year senior-to-be Everett Golson and junior-to-be Malik Zaire won’t have a tidy conclusion to it by the time the Irish finish spring practice April 18 with the annual Blue-Gold Game.

“They’ll continue to compete into August, no question,” Kelly said.

Golson’s point of emphasis has been ball security and reducing the 22 turnovers he committed last season that opened the door for Zaire’s challenge. The hole in Zaire’s game, to this point, has been consistency as a passer.

Former Irish standout QB Joe Theismann took in Wednesday’s session and watched both signal-callers adeptly address their weaknesses.

“Everett had a great day in the pocket,” Kelly said. “His feet were settled. He was calm. He was protecting the football.

“The things that were flaws for him and problems last year, if you watched him today. … Joe Theismann was there today. I don’t want to put words in Joe’s mouth, but in our conversation, you would not think that that was an issue at all last year, in Joe’s eyes, looking at Everett today.

“Malik was throwing the ball accurately and on time today, so the areas where we’ve really asked them to improve on, both of them were on their game today.

“They’re both trying to get better and working to get better at the areas where we’ve asked them to really focus on. So I can’t see how that’s not healthy. And it will continue to help us get better as a football team, because they’re getting better every day.”

Bonner to have surgery

An ascending redshirted freshman defensive end now finds himself on the comeback trail.

Kelly said Wednesday that Jonathan Bonner will undergo surgery for a turf toe condition next Tuesday at the Cleveland Clinic.

The 6-3, 275-pounder is expected to resume football activities in late June.

No longer day-to-day for Day

ND’s most accomplished and experienced defensive lineman, Sheldon Day, had been part-spectator, part-participant for the first half of the 15 spring practice sessions.

Wednesday was the first day the 6-2, 285-pound senior-to-be went full speed and full contact this spring.

Day was coming off a knee injury that knocked him out of ND’s final two regular-season games (Louisville, USC), though he did return to play in ND’s Music City Bowl victory over LSU on Dec. 30.

“He had an injection for an IT (iliotibial) Band inflammation,” Kelly said, “so we were being cautious with him. Today was his first cut-it-loose day, if you will, and I thought it was a very productive day for him.”


• A pair of recruits — sophomore defensive end Robert Beal and freshman athlete Houston Griffith — attended Wednesday's practice.

Beal, a 6-foot-4, 210-pound prospect at Norcross (Ga.) High, already claims offers from Alabama, Nebraska, North Carolina State and Toledo.

Griffith, a 6-0, 170-pound prospect at Chicago Mount Carmel, reported an offer from Illinois before his first high school game. He is the son of former Illinois and NFL fullback Howard Griffith.

• Kelly said both Golson and Zaire will be live in Saturday’s scrimmage, meaning they would not be wearing red jerseys to protect them from contact.

• When asked to name the most impressive receiver in terms of development and improvement, Kelly pointed to fifth-year senior slot receiver Amir Carlisle.

• Fifth-year senior Chase Hounshell, a converted defensive lineman, is starting to turn heads at his new position, tight end, but is still closer to the bottom of the depth chart than the top.

• Kelly said wide receiver C.J. Prosise, cross-training at running back this spring, is the fastest of ND’s running backs.

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Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith (9) got a look at his old position, outside linebacker, during Wednesday's practice at the Loftus Center. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)