This is the only position group at which the Irish Player to Watch is a no-brainer. The Irish Player To Watch at linebacker is not just the best player at his position, he may be the best player on the team. But it’s the team, and staff around him, that will ultimately decide Notre Dame’s defensive fate. With Fall Camp underway yesterday at Culver Academies, first year Defensive Coordinator and inside linebacker’s coach Brian VanGorder will have his hands full putting the right pieces in the middle of his new defensive scheme.
IRISH PLAYER TO WATCH: Jaylon Smith, Sophomore, LBm 6’2.5″, 238 lbs.
Jaylon Smith is an OC’s nightmare. Miss an assignment, and he’ll decapitate your back or drop your QB. Didn’t see him on your checkdown? He’ll casually cover acres of space and pull your pass out of the night sky. He’s the first freshman to start a season opener since Kory Minor back in 1995. He had forty-one solo tackles as a freshman and sixty-seven overall. Compare that to Manti Teo’s sixty-three total tackles in his 2009 freshman campaign. Smith’s phenomenal freshman season and his move to Will linebacker, which will see him play almost every snap under VanGorder’s defensive scheme, have him on the Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi, and Butkus Award watch lists.
ENEMY PLAYER TO WATCH: A.J. Tarpley, Stanford, Fifth Year Senior, ILB, 6’2″, 238 lbs
Heading into the 2014 campaign, Stanford’s defense is having to replace its iconic leader, Shane Skov. One of the players upon whom they will rely is Stanford’s A.J. Tarpley, a Nagurski and Bednarik Award preseason watch list nominee. As a senior, Tarpley had 93 tackles, 52 of which were solo. He defensed three passes and hurried the quarterback twice and one sack. Tarpley had solid seasons in 2012 and 2011 and it’s clear that he’s back as a fifth-year to fill the leadership void the undrafted Skov left behind. Tarpley has all the skills needed to provide stability and stopping-power The Cardinal will need to contend for a playoff spot in 2014.