This 5 player series dissects returning Irish players whose careers appear to be approaching "Now or Never" junctures. Each featured athlete enters Notre Dame's 2013 Fall Camp as a Junior. As members of the consensus Top 10 2011 Irish Recruiting Class, they know two of their original class members almost assuredly will go in the 1st Round of the 2014 NFL Draft; others in their Irish locker room adorn multiple pre-season All-America and positional "watch" lists. With another élite class in 2013 set to take their first reps in August, many of these upperclassmen will find a depth chart featuring experienced veterans on top and talented newcomers below .
First Up – OLB/DE Ishaq Williams. I almost called this the "Put Up or Shut Up" Series but ultimately decided "Now or Never" can be interpreted by the reader as a bold statement - "Now or NEVER!" or a question – "NOW or … Never?". My opinion on how it applies to the players we'll cover varies, but for each it's clear – they need to show some value early in 2013 or risk losing snaps to younger players. Still, "Put Up or Shut Up" applies more to our first subject, Ishaq Williams, more than any on the roster.
Williams arrived in South Bend as 247's 45th ranked high schooler in the 2011 class and #4 outside linebacker. As a frosh, Williams got into 11 games and tallied 6 tackles and 1 Tackle for Loss. In 2012 Williams played in all 13 games, mostly as a situational pass rusher, and finished with 22 tackles (11 solo, 11 assisted), 3.5 Tackles for Loss and 1 Forced Fumble. Williams was unable to wrest extensive playing time at the CAT outside linebacker position from Prince Shembo and despite cross-training at the DOG during Danny Spond's injury, he never seemed an option there for the defensive staff. Many, myself included, thought Williams first career Forced Fumble against NAVY, which led to Stephon Tuitt's memorable 77 yard TD scoop and score, was a great sign of what lay ahead in 2012. Notre Dame fielded one of the school's historically dominant units last season, but it'd be a stretch to say Williams was an integral part of it. It was reported during 2013 Spring Ball that Williams was taking more repetitions at defensive end and that the staff may believe his future in football lies with his hand on the ground. (UND.com Profile)
For the uninitiated – I was covering high school football in New York City for Madison Square Garden (MSG) during Ishaq's junior year (2009). We didn't even consider him for a our All-Area teams during December reviews because not much jumped out from his films outside Williams being the biggest and strongest guy on the field versus extremely poor competition … and even then he wasn't "dominating" opponents. Imagine my surprise a year later when he populated 5-Star recruit lists and his journey ended with the definitive Bob Diaco recruiting story. While I don't peruse message boards much, my perception is that he's been handled with kid gloves by media and fans due to his enormous potential. If he doesn't start producing at a higher level, I'd expect the angst among fans to grow quickly this fall. The definition of "potential" in biology terms is "unused energy which holds ability to accomplish work but currently isn't", which seems to apply with Williams career each passing game.
Outside Linebacker – Both starting outside linebackers from 2012 return in Seniors Prince Shembo and Danny Spond. Williams spent 2012 listed as Shembo's back-up and returning is Spond's primary back-up and 2012 Opening Day starter – Ben Councell. Also lurking at OLB is massive sophomore Romeo Okwara, who turned heads as a 17-year-old last fall. Okwara's first career tackle for loss caused a fumble against Oklahoma. Returnees Anthony Rabasa & Justin Utopo seem destined for special teams and scout work again. If Ishaq Williams didn't already have an uphill battle for more playing time, Notre Dame signed the nation's #1 OLB, Jaylon Smith, and he seems poised to push for snaps the moment his helmet is buckled.
Defensive End – Ishaq remains listed at OLB on UND.com but it seems the team views him more as a 4-3 end. Notre Dame lost captain Kapron Lewis-Moore to the NFL and Chase Hounshell is lost for 2013 with another injury. Sheldon Day is expected to take over Lewis-Moore's starting spot opposite All-American Stephon Tuitt, but he isn't an ideal 3rd down player. Kona Schwenke was a key reserve in 2012 and we haven't heard much good or bad about sophomore-to-be Jarron Jones. The 2013 class brings in a highly rated candidate for early playing time in Isaac Rochelle and a presumed "project" in Jacob Matsuka. This group is a long ways from solidifying an ideal rotation to last through 4+ months of grueling days in the trenches. Outside Tuitt, the DE unit also lacks much in the way of edge rushers.
Is It Now Or Never?
"Never" is a long way away for a player with Williams incredible talents. He somehow landed on The Big Lead's 2014 1st Round NFL Mock Draft - which is a bit aggressive considering he's racked up just 4.5 Tackles for Loss and ZERO sacks thus far. It's a testament to his recruiting profile and expectations but concerns about Williams future and role in 2013 are real. Where does he fit? Is it him or the system that is failing the immense skills? If Jaylon Smith is as advertised will Ishaq even see the field? It doesn't appear as if Bob Diaco and company have much faith in the junior as an 3-4 linebacker in his system and William's advancement in 2013 is stunted on all sides. If he is to excel at the position for which he was recruited and wants to play, the clock is ticking for him to show why the recruitniks media loved him so much more than reporters I worked with and watched him play in person.
Last August I offered my opinion on Ishaq Williams – move him to tight end. A year later I stand by my belief that Ishaq Williams can only make an NFL impact if he moves to offense. Williams excelled catching passes in high school, is a match-up nightmare at any level with his height/speed combo, and most importantly for this argument – he lacks the intensity and acumen to be an effective defender. Notre Dame will suit up five tight ends this fall and he's probably not needed there. This despite a higher upside than maybe even Troy Niklas. The success of Pro Bowl tight ends Antonio Gates & Jimmy Smith illustrate how NFL teams can mine his kind of talent even if they weren't catching passes in college. (See Ishaq's high school TE highlights below)
Projection For 2013
It's hard envisioning an "extreme" jump in playing time to starter-level status for Ishaq barring injuries to other defenders. He will get more snaps in 2013 compared to 2012. Prince Shembo is the most complete CAT linebacker and emerged as a star last season – he won't be asked to leave the field much. Romeo Okwara might already be a better run defender at the point of attack and Jaylon Smith should prove to be the more capable sub for pass defense purposes. I don't envision Ishaq on the field much at all as the CAT.
Where we'll see Williams most is on obvious passing downs, much like 2012, but he'll absorb a chunk of the snaps previously taken by Lewis-Moore. He may have his hand on the ground or come from a traditional OLB spot on the field but make no mistake – if he's on the field it's likely in a 4-3 DE role within that specific play and package as opposed to the versatile OLB roles defensive coordinator Bob Diaco employs.
Stats – Amazingly Ishaq still hasn't registered his first college sack. With increased playing time on passing downs, Ishaq should surpass his 2012 totals across the board. Prediction: 35 Tackles (19 solo), 5 Tackles for Loss, 4.5 sacks
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