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Notre Dame seeks versatility to utilize talented linebacking corps

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian VanGorder got about what he expected Monday upon Joe Schmidt's semi-return to spring ball.

"Yeah, a little bit," the second-year Notre Dame defensive coordinator quipped. "Let him try to run around a little bit. He didn't last very long."

Schmidt, a fifth-year senior, was cleared this weekend for non-contact drills, after suffering a fractured and dislocated left ankle in the eighth game of last season. And while the Mike linebacker's value to the Irish defense was noticeable -- especially in his absence, as Notre Dame dropped four straight games without him, surrendering 44.5 points per outing -- the hope among the unit is that the 2014 team MVP can head a strong linebacking corps, rather than hold the group, and the defense, together.

Jarrett Grace's return to action this spring has been among the Irish's biggest storylines. The fifth-senior was, after all, the Irish's leading tackler halfway through 2013, the last time the Mike linebacker played before suffering a broken right leg. There is James Onwualu, who made the transition from receiver to starting Sam linebacker a year ago. There is also Nyles Morgan, the Irish's top recruit of the 2014 class, who stepped in for Schmidt and did enough to earn freshman All-America honors.

And, of course, there is Jaylon Smith, the former five-star phenom who has done nothing but amass 179 tackles while starting every game through his first two seasons.

Smith has played all over the place as a linebacker since his arrival, from the drop-Sam position in old coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme to the Will last year under VanGorder, to cross-training between the Will and Sam this spring, which figures to grant the defense more flexibility to utilize its most-talented linebackers on the field in certain situations.

"I'd say that just depends on how the backup Will linebackers come along," VanGorder said when asked how much Smith has practiced at Sam. "We'll possibly cross-train Joe, who's very bright, (at) Mike and Will. That's ideally in our system we start cross-training linebackers and we just haven't had the ability to do so here. Last year we were real short in numbers and we got injuries, we came into spring ball and Joe's not here and we got a backup Will linebacker that just came from high school that you're trying to see how he's coming along, now he's injured, battling some things.

"We're holding ourselves back with guys who aren't participating in practice. Second half of the season, that's what it's been, spring ball, that's kind of what it's been. Having said that, you've got a lot of guys to develop and bring along. And they've got to take advantage of it. This is their opportunity."

Among those young guys is early-enrollee freshman Te'von Coney, an ESPN four-star linebacker who has seen time at Will this spring. Moving Smith around helps create those openings, and bringing the team MVP back in an even larger capacity should solve the welcomed problem of having a talent surplus at certain spots.

"We've got to be able to get all these guys on the field," head coach Brian Kelly said, according to BlueandGold.com. "Jaylon now allows us in certain situations to move him out on the perimeter if we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon. We can now do that.

"We had to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time."