2013 review: A unit that started out slow finished strong despite losing a few keys players to injury. Jarrett Grace, who moved into a starting role at inside linebacker in September, suffered a broken leg in Week 6 just as he was beginning to round into form. Ben Councell tore his ACL Nov. 2 against Navy, leaving freshman Jaylon Smith without a backup. And only a few days into fall camp, incumbent dog outside linebacker Danny Spond had to end his playing career due to a recurrence of hemiplagic migraines.
But a few bright spots emerged as the season went on. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox immediately excelled after Grace's injury, sealing a win over Arizona State with a pick-six and totaling 54 tackles in his final six games. Smith gradually developed throughout the season and finished with 6 1/2 tackles for a loss, the second-most on the team. Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on, saw time in Notre Dame's dime package and had a key pass break-up in Notre Dame's 14-10 win over USC.
This wasn't the elite unit it was with Manti Te'o in 2012 -- cat outside linebacker Prince Shembo took a step back, too -- but it wound up being a solid unit after some early struggles.
Departures: Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese, Prince Shembo
2014 outlook: Notre Dame will have to replace 75 percent of its starters from last year, with Fox, Calabrese and Shembo all finished up in South Bend. Grace should slide into the starting role at Mike linebacker before his injury, though incoming freshman Nyles Morgan said when he committed he expects to play Mike, too. That stuff won't shake out until fall camp, as Morgan is not an early enrollee and Grace likely will miss spring practice as he continues to recovery from that broken leg.
Certain players could always wind up playing a different linebacker position -- especially with a new defensive coordinator/linebackers coach -- but expect Smith to stick at dog and Ishaq Williams or Romeo Okwara to start at cat. Adding inside guys like Morgan, Kolin Hill, Greer Martini, Nile Sykes and redshirt freshman Michael Deeb will help fill out the depth at Mike and Will, too.
Smith is a known quantity -- there's a good chance he'll be the best player on the 2014 defense -- and Grace looked solid in about half a season of play. Depth shouldn't be an issue this time around, and there's a decent mix of talent and experience here.
X-Factor: Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brings seven years of NFL experience to South Bend, three of which were spent specifically coaching linebackers. He has plenty of experience at the collegiate level, too, and should quickly command respect from a group that loved playing for former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco.
While plenty of players from this unit won't be around for spring practice, we should begin to get a decent idea of how VanGorder will set up Notre Dame's linebacking corps in March. He's still in an evaluative phase, and likely will be through the end of spring practice, but it'll be an early window into his line of thinking for this unit.