Blue and Gold Illustrated

Preseason 2016

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 50 of 99 PRESEASON 2016 51 can do, Nyles. Let's see what it looks like for 70 plays in a big game. He's on the right road right now." Two of Notre Dame's three starting linebacker positions were established this spring with senior James Onwualu returning at Sam and Morgan securing the middle (Mike). In August, Martini settled in at the third as the heir to the Butkus Award winner Smith at Will — and he might well be the top backup at the other two spots. Last year he was a tag-team part- ner with Onwualu at Sam. Onwualu (501 snaps) was mainly a drop line- backer versus the pass, while Martini (314 snaps) was more of the physical presence against the run. He started in wins against triple-option teams Navy and Georgia Tech, and it was against those two teams he recorded nearly half of his tackles for the season (17 out of 35). He also made starts in place of the banged-up Onwualu against the physical attacks of Boston College and Stanford. While preparing for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Martini tore a la- brum in his shoulder, played sparingly with it and underwent surgery in Janu- ary that didn't allow for clearance into full practice mode until the middle of July. The other candidates to take Smith's spot were two sophomores. One was Te'von Coney, who also missed all of spring following winter shoulder sur- gery — and his 2016 season has been jeopardized by an Aug. 19 off-campus arrest with four other teammates. The other was Asmar Bilal, who red- shirted last season while learning the Sam position. With Coney and Mar- tini both out, Bilal was shifted to Will this spring. Among the three, Martini already was declared the starter by head coach Brian Kelly on media day Aug. 17. In VanGorder 's assessment, Bilal possesses the best speed/athletic skills among the trio, but he is undergoing the development phase experienced by Morgan and Martini the past couple of years. Coney is the best closer to the line and versus a core running game. However, Martini's overall game and knowledge of the defense gave him the edge. "He's played a lot of snaps for us," VanGorder said. "He's had to perse- vere through some tough times. He's a much more confident player now … and I feel confident with Greer now." The first priority was to learn the Will position well enough to win the job — which he did even prior to Coney's arrest. By the end of August camp, Martini also was taking reps at Mike, in case of an emergency. "We don't want him to be a jack-of- all-trades and master of none," Kelly said of Martini. "We've given him enough work at Will that he can solidify that first, which he has. And then that's when we started to move him around to Mike a little bit and a little bit at Sam as well." No one will be expecting Martini to be Smith, but the disparity between Smith and the injury-riddled Schmidt last year was vast. "We've had playmakers in the past, but this year I think we're more solid as an entire linebacker corps," said Martini, who also started twice as a freshman, recording 26 tackles (includ- ing two sacks). "We all kind of comple- ment each other. "You're not going to have some of those amazing plays that Jaylon was making last year and Joe his junior year, but I think overall we're going to be in the right spot and we're going to make a lot of plays together. I think this is going to be a better whole defense, and I don't think there is going to be a weak spot at linebacker." Martini's ability to work at all three spots and grasp VanGorder's high vol- ume playbook and hard, direct coach- ing just might be paying off. "You learn through those mistakes and basically over the two years they've moved me around to all three, so I've had to be good at all three to get to this point," said Martini of his versatility. "You kind of have to get used to [VanGorder 's] coaching methods. There are different ways of going about it, but his coaching style has made me the player I am today." Wherever it requires him to line up. ✦ Despite recording 47 tackles as a freshman in 2014, Morgan barely played last season. PHOTO BY JOE RAYMOND "YOU'RE NOT GOING TO HAVE SOME OF THOSE AMAZING PLAYS THAT JAYLON WAS MAKING LAST YEAR AND JOE HIS JUNIOR YEAR, BUT I THINK OVERALL WE'RE GOING TO BE IN THE RIGHT SPOT AND WE'RE GOING TO MAKE A LOT OF PLAYS TOGETHER. I THINK THIS IS GOING TO BE A BETTER WHOLE DEFENSE, AND I DON'T THINK THERE IS GOING TO BE A WEAK SPOT AT LINEBACKER." MARTINI

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