Five-Star Linebacker Caleb Kelly Is A Perfect Fit At Sam Linebacker
For months Notre Dame has made Fresno (Calif.) Clovis West linebacker Caleb Kelly one of the top targets in the class. Kelly is part of the plan the Irish staff has been working on for two years, a plan with the ultimate goal of improving the overall speed and playmaking ability of the defense.
Notre Dame plays a base 4-3 defense that utilizes a Sam linebacker, a Mike linebacker and a Will linebacker. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense has produced an All-American at the Will linebacker position for two straight years in Jaylon Smith, but now Smith is off to the NFL.
The production and playmaking at the Mike and Sam positions has not come anywhere closer to the production Notre Dame got from the Will spot.
Part of that is due to how each position is utilized, with the Will position being designed to be the most productive position in VanGorder’s defense. Part of that is due to the fact Smith is a tremendous talent that will likely go in the first round of the NFL Draft. Part of it is due to the fact Notre Dame simply has not had playmakers at those positions.
Kelly is down to Oklahoma and Notre Dame and the Sooners are considered the leader. If the Irish staff can pull off the upset and land Kelly, it will give VanGorder a player whose athleticism is perfect for the position. It will give VanGorder a linebacker with the potential to be the playmaker the defense needs, but has lacked.
Kelly fits perfectly into the Notre Dame defense for several reasons. Below is a breakdown of the primary responsibilities of the Sam and how Kelly’s skill set fits those responsibilities.
1. SET THE EDGE
First and foremost, the Sam linebacker must be productive on the perimeter against the run. He must be able to set the edge of the defense, which means forcing the running back to go where the defense desires. This could mean forcing the running back inside by aggressively attacking the outside of the blocking scheme or spilling the runner outside (forcing a bounce) into the arms of the safety.
In Notre Dame’s defense the Sam is asked to force the run back inside as his primary edge responsibility. Ideally, the Sam wants to attack the alley blocker on the offense’s side of the line and as tight down to the offensive line as possible. He wants to narrow the gap between himself and the linebackers/strong safety that are in pursuit from the inside.
Junior linebacker James Onwualu was solid in this part of the game during the 2015 season.
This requires good technique, enough athleticism to beat the blocker to the point of attack and enough toughness to hold up on the edge.
Kelly will have to add strength and mass in order to accomplish this at the collegiate level, but he has the frame to quickly build up to that point. Once his strength improves his ability to set the edge should be every bit as good as Onwualu.
He displayed the ability to handle the edge during his prep career.
Below is an example of Kelly setting the edge and then coming off the block to make a play, something the Irish linebackers were not nearly as effective as needed this past season.
In this clip, Kelly — who is to the left of the defensive line and on the edge — does a good job squeezing down on the fullback, closing down the inside run lane.
The goal is to either force the running back inside where the hole is tight and the inside linebackers are in pursuit (first goal), or to come off the block and make a tackle for loss should the running back bounce (secondary goal).
The way Kelly plays this run — squeezing down and attacking with his inside shoulder — closes up the line and forces the bounce. By being aggressive and keeping his outside arm free he is able to quickly disengage and make the play on the ball carrier for a loss.
2. MAKING PLAYS OFF THE EDGE
The first objective is to set the edge, and force the back where the defense wants him to go. The ideal objective is to have a Sam linebacker that can not only set the edge to set up his teammates, but also to make plays against the run game when lined up on the edge.
Notre Dame got 8.5 tackles for loss from the Sam linebacker position in 2015. While that is a good number, the ideal scenario is for the Sam spot to produce even more negatives against the run game.
Onwualu often lacked the girth to hold up on the edge but he was able to use his quickness to make plays at times when lined up on the edge.
Onwualu fires off the line and beats the tight end into the backfield. He then closes on the running back and is able to bring him down behind the line.
Kelly is an athletic player that was highly disruptive at the high school level, generating over 20 tackles for loss as a senior. He often uses a quick burst and excellent closing speed to get into the backfield and make plays behind the line.
With additional strength and mass he should be able to thrive on the edge. He has a better natural frame than Onwualu, which should allow him to carry more weight, add more strength and play with a bit more power than the current Irish Sam linebacker.
Martini has that kind of strength and mass but lacks the quickness and closing speed that Kelly and Onwualu bring to the game.
Improving his technique will be important, but that is the case for all incoming freshman linebackers. The key is having the natural athletic skills, the willingness to mix it up and the growth potential. Kelly shows all three of those traits as a prep player, which is evident in this clip.
3. BEING A PLAYMAKER IN SPACE
In an ideal scenario, Notre Dame will have a Sam linebacker that can play every down. There will always be times when a nickel (five defensive backs) or dime (six defensive backs) package is needed, but having a Sam that can handle the edge and play in space gives the defense far greater flexibility.
A key to being an every-down player is being able to handle oneself in space. This means not only taking on blockers and forcing the ball carrier to the help defenders, but also actually beating blocks and making plays.
It means having the speed to chase down ball carriers, the athleticism to be balanced (which means not over-running the ball carrier or getting out of position) and the ability to tackle well in space.
In this clip Notre Dame’s front pressure forces UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel out of the pocket. The key for Onwualu is closing on him as fast as possible and bringing down Frohnapfel before he could get rid of the football.
Onwualu waits for Frohnapfel to get out of the pocket and not leaving his zone too early. Once the quarterback declares the scramble Onwualu immediately flies downhill and makes the play for the sack.
Kelly has shown himself to be a strong space player at the prep level.
In this clip, Kelly quickly reads the run and attacks the ball. He splits the blocks and quickly closes on the running back. Kelly makes the tackle behind the line despite two different receivers having an angle on him to make the block.
His ability to use his speed to beat the blockers and then close on the football is a trait that makes him a five-star recruit according to Rivals.
Plays like this — and he has several just like it on his highlight reel — are strong examples of why Kelly fits so well into the Sam position.
4. MAKING PLAYS IN THE PASS GAME
Coverage skills are important for the Sam linebacker. If the starter cannot handle himself in coverage against slot receivers and tight ends it forces VanGorder to use his nickel package in spots when he might want to otherwise stay in his base defense. This can often put Notre Dame in a vulnerable spot against the run.
If VanGorder decides to stick with his base defense and the Sam can’t handle himself in coverage it exposes the defense to big plays in the pass game. Being able to keep the Sam linebacker on the field on passing downs was key to Ohio State’s defense the last two seasons. Darron Lee — who is now headed to the NFL — was able to make plays in man coverage thanks to his speed, and in zone coverage thanks to his instincts and ability to close on routes.
Kelly has shown himself to be natural in coverage. During his prep career he has displayed the instincts to read routes and the speed to run with smaller players. His length allows him to run with tight ends.
Notre Dame’s Sam linebackers were inconsistent in man coverage during the 2015 season.
The Sam linebacker being able to make plays in zone coverage is also vitally important to the Irish defense.
In this clip, Onwualu shows good quickness getting into his zone — which, on this play, is the flats to the left of the defense. He takes away the seam route and then settles down, jumping the check down by the back.
Once USC quarterback Cody Kessler starts to scramble, Onwualu runs with the back and reads the quarterback. Kessler tries to make the throw but Onwualu makes the play and breaks up the pass.
Kelly’s athleticism allows him to make a lot of plays in coverage. He shows himself to be instinctive reading routes and getting his hands on a high number of passes.
Kelly is working the curl-flat zone. He has no immediate flat threat so he sinks with the seam route by the No. 2 receiver. Kelly reads the route well and breaks outside and underneath the out route.
His technique and coverage instincts are good on this snap. What makes this clip impressive is not the sound technique he shows but how quickly he closes on the ball and is able to make a difficult interception.
Kelly is a standout tight end at Clovis West and his ball skills are on full display here.
5. BLITZING FROM SPACE
Modern offenses force the Sam linebacker into space far more frequently than he is attached to the line. On top of the traits discussed above, VanGorder’s defense ideally has a player that can effectively attack the quarterback as a blitzer from space.
Notre Dame has not gotten much pass rushing production from the Sam linebacker spot the last two seasons. VanGorder has dialed up the edge pressures from time to time, but neither Onwualu nor Martini were able to consistently get to the quarterback for a host of reasons.
Here is one example where Onwualu was able to get to the quarterback from space.
Onwualu times the snap well and is aggressive attacking the running back. He quickly dispatches the back and closes on the quarterback. Notre Dame’s defensive backs cover well down the field, which gives Onwualu the time to get to the quarterback before the ball can be thrown.
Kelly was a highly disruptive pass rusher at the prep level, finishing with over 20 sacks as a senior. He was not often used to blitz from distance, but when his coaches brought him from space he was highly effective.
The key for Kelly is top-level speed and closing ability off the edge.
In this clip, Kelly times the snap well and flies off the edge, showing off his instincts and speed. He shows off his agility and balance by quickly spinning inside the running back and getting back to full speed.
The blitzer off his opposite side forces the quarterback to scramble, and Kelly quickly pursues him and brings him down for the sack.
6. WINNING ON THE EDGE IN THE PASS GAME
The one significant missing ingredient from the Sam linebacker position has been the ability to line up off the edge and rush the quarterback. Notre Dame has gotten little production from the Sam with its space pressures and even less from pure edge rushes.
Finding players that can do all the above traits and also blitz off the edge is rare. It requires dynamic athleticism, length and instincts. The only player capable of doing that the last two seasons was Jaylon Smith.
Ideally, Notre Dame would like to have this kind of pass rush ability from its Sam linebacker and Will linebacker.
Kelly is still raw as a player but he flashes the skills to get to that point at a collegiate player as long as he is willing to take coaching and put in the work. It might take time, but the skills are there for him to become this kind of edge rusher.
In this clip, Kelly shows an excellent burst off the line and the power to blow up the blocker. His spin move is impressive and he quickly closes on the football.
There are a number of clips like this on his highlight clip and the skill set is obvious. It requires not only the above-mentioned athletic skills; it also requires good length and good pass rushing instincts.
Asking Kelly to become a player capable of doing all the above things at a high level is certainly asking a lot. Notre Dame wants to find a player that can do all these things at a high level, but those types of players are rare.
Having that kind of player would, however, dramatically alter the look of the defense and give VanGorder a weapon that could make life miserable for opponents.
Kelly has the physical tools to one day become that kind of player, which is why the Irish coaches are making such a hard push for him as it gets closer to National Signing Day.