Asmar Bilal

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Re-Stocking the roster: Linebackers

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Notre Dame’s spring roster at linebacker is one of the most interesting position groups on the roster. Jaylon Smith is gone, the junior All-American taking his talents—and healing knee—to the NFL. Joe Schmidt is no longer in the middle of the defense, the two-year starter and team captain no longer a coach-on-the-field. Jarrett Grace is gone as well, a player who’ll be missed by more than the 115 snaps he played in 2015.

A new generation awaits, nearly all of them recruited under Brian VanGorder. James Onwualu remains at Sam linebacker, a potential three-year starter who has never been a truly full-time player. Nyles Morgan’s wait is over, the starting middle linebacker job is his to lose. While injuries and youth will impact how the Irish decide to fill Smith’s shoes, there are some intriguing young athletes ready to see if they’re capable of stepping forward.

No group has more to do this spring than Mike Elston’s crew. So before spring practice begins, let’s take a look at the state of the linebacking corps.

 

DEPARTURES
Jaylon Smith
, Jr. (114 tackles, 9 TFLs)
Joe Schmidt, Grad Student (78 tackles, 4 TFLs)
Jarrett Grace, Grad Student (26 tackles, 2.5 TFLs)

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Josh Barajas*
Asmar Bilal*
Te’von Coney
Daelin Hayes
Jonathan Jones
Jamir Jones

*Fifth year of eligibility available

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
James Onwualu, OLB
Nyles Morgan, MLB
Te’von Coney, OLB

Greer Martini
Josh Barajas
Asmar Bilal
Daelin Hayes

 

ANALYSIS
Where’d all the linebackers go? That’s the first thing that jumps out, just how thins the numbers seem to be. It’ll be very interesting to see how spring practice goes, especially considering the injuries that have wreaked havoc on this group. Coney is expected to be out for spring, healing from a shoulder injury that happened just plays after Jaylon Smith went down. Greer Martini also needed work done to fix an injury that all but kept him out against Ohio State, how that impacts his spring remains to be seen as well. Daelin Hayes has everybody excited, but he’s coming off a late-November shoulder surgery, so spring practice isn’t necessarily the best bet for him to be unleashed.

It’s a very big spring for two young redshirts, with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas looking at nothing but opportunity in front of them. This defense badly needs playmakers and both guys were recruited because of their ability to make an impact. But Barajas was never healthy last season after getting hurt in fall camp, and he also added heft to his frame that the staff didn’t necessarily think he needed. Bilal is a great-looking athlete, though probably could use some of the extra weight Barajas was lugging around to protect him in the trenches.

On paper, it’s easy to see some weakness at the position, especially after attrition took guys like Michael Deeb, Kolin Hill and Bo Wallace out of the program. And while some of that will be shored up come summer when Jonathan Jones and Jamir Jones hit campus, this position may also be impacted by how well the secondary’s rebuild goes. A season after not being able to play a nickel or dime package, those may be preferred looks in 2016.

The biggest question that faces this group is knowledge base. Replacing two multiyear starters is difficult. Now add in the challenges of learning position fits and scheme under Brian VanGorder and it’s no wonder some Irish fans are calling for a dumbing down of the playbook.

But before things get too remedial, it’s worth pointing out that this is Morgan’s third year learning under VanGorder and the only defense he’s known at the college level. He should be ready. And whoever slides into Smith’s shoes, they’ve been in the program for at least a full season. The key to all of this is Morgan. If he’s able to take his instincts and athleticism and pair that with a solid grasp of the system, there’s a big year in store. Throw in Onwualu, some intriguing athletes and ascending talent and while it might take some time to learn new jersey numbers, there’s plenty of promise on the horizon as the next wave of linebackers step into battle.

Last looks: Linebackers

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With a strong recruiting surge, some roster shuffling and some good luck (and hard work) in the health department, Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was rebuilt remarkably quickly. A season after question marks were everywhere, the Irish have a linebacking group that is among the fastest and most athletic we’ve seen in a very long time.

With an All-American star and a returning MVP as its heartbeat, new position coach Mike Elston is working with a group of talented and veteran players. They are also the key to the defense’s success against a schedule that features a variety of offenses and two difficult option opponents.

Let’s take our last look at the linebackers before the season opens this weekend.

 

LINEBACKERS
Position Coach: Mike Elston

 

OPENING DEPTH CHART

Mike: Joe Schmidt, Grad Student
Mike: Nyles Morgan, Soph.
or: Jarrett Grace, Grad Student

Will: Jaylon Smith, Jr.
Will: Te’von Coney, Fr.

OLB: James Onwualu, Jr.
OLB: Greer Martini, Soph.

Additional Depth:

Asmar Bilal, Freshman
Josh Barajas, Freshman

 

LEADING MAN

Jaylon Smith. Notre Dame’s most talented defender is ready to take a step forward and play dominant football. After a strong preseason camp and an offseason dedicated to improving key pieces of his game, Smith looks poised to match his world-class athleticism with a better grasp of the Notre Dame defense. Just as important, he’s ready to lead from the front, named a team captain, the only junior of the five wearing the ‘C.’

Capable of being Notre Dame’s best edge rusher and also an elite cover man, Smith can do so many things to help the Irish defense. In what is likely his final season in South Bend, dominance—and a full stat sheet—are just the beginning for him. Willing the defense to a complete performance is another.

 

NEED A BIG SEASON

Joe Schmidt. The team’s returning MVP and the captain who is the alpha of the unit, Schmidt’s Cinderella story is done and told. Now he needs to be an overly productive middle linebacker, building on a great first season in the starting lineup.

Schmidt’s injury was essentially the beginning of the end for Notre Dame’s defense last season. Now that he’s healthy, it’s even more important for him to take the core basics that allowed him to excel last season and use them to play championship-level football.

Schmidt’s limited physically. But no more than 30 or 40 other middle linebackers in the country, including Scooby Wright, Arizona’s all-everything performer. So it’s time to take the focus off of his size and two-star pedigree.

Schmidt runs well, he’s got plenty of heft at 235 well-sculpted pounds and he’s got a brilliant football mind. Now he’s got to learn how to impact a game more, making plays behind the line of scrimmage in addition to anchoring the unit in the huddle.

 

THREE BIGGEST FACTORS…

Where will Jaylon Smith spend most of his time? Yes, Smith is still listed as the starter at the Will linebacker spot. But there’s no doubt that Notre Dame will play Smith everywhere, hoping to get him into positions where he can best impact the game.

If Smith shifts outside, what does that do for James Onwualu? If the Irish need to go bigger against triple-option teams like Georgia Tech or Navy, who slides into the middle? One thing seems clear, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But mixing and matching around him is one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle that’ll only be revealed once the games start.

 

How will Notre Dame’s linebackers adapt to the up-tempo attacks? It’s great to have versatile pieces of depth. But if you can’t run them on and off the field, you’re only as good as the three guys you have on the field.

On paper, the depth chart looks great. Onwualu is the perfect outside linebacker for teams trying to spread the Irish out. Greer Martini has more mass, capable of holding up in the trenches if team’s try to go big against the Irish. Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan will each have specific jobs in different packages.

But a versatile collection of weapons doesn’t do you much good if you can’t get them out of the holster.

 

How can this defense optimize their personnel?  I’m not sure how you do it, but I think it starts with Jaylon Smith. From there, it’s hard to see a grouping that doesn’t include Joe Schmidt. After that, Notre Dame’s defense will likely view the third linebacker as a swing piece, deciding if Onwualu is a better fit than Matthias Farley or an additional defensive back.

The loss of freshman Shaun Crawford likely tweaks this formula. So does the move of KeiVarae Russell to the slot and Devin Butler to the outside in nickel. It’s easy to see a Schmidt-Smith pairing, but beyond that, finding how best to use the linebackers is going to be key.

 

THREE RANDOM THOUGHTS

Can this group hold up against the run? A former walk-on, a converted wide receiver and Jaylon Smith walk into a bar…

I’m at a loss for the punch line right now, but with the loss of Jarron Jones in the middle, Notre Dame’s undersized linebacking corps lost a very important protective barrier as this unit looks to be stout against the run.

In 2014, before the rash of injuries the Irish were tough to run against. And while Daniel Cage was praised on Tuesday afternoon by Kelly for his work in the trenches, calling on Cage and true freshman Jerry Tillery to play the nose and stuff the point of attack is a step backwards from a senior like Jones. There’s no questioning this group’s athleticism. But the war in the trenches will be one to watch.

 

Is Te’von Coney ready? A lot of freshmen have been discussed this August. But Te’von Coney has flown under the radar, interesting considering he’s in the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith.

Sure, Smith isn’t coming off the field. But he’s also not a full-time Will linebacker, either. So we’ll have to figure out if Coney’s just a plug-in name on a weekly release or a part of the plans on the inside. The Irish know they have contributors in Grace and Nyles Morgan, but having one in Coney would be impressive, too.

 

Is it crazy to believe that this group can be elite? Nightmares from November continue to run through my head. Watching Jaylon Smith get stuck behind a cavalcade of blockers against USC as the Trojans just ran the ball through Notre Dame’s injury-ravaged defense isn’t forgotten. Even in the Irish’s improbable victory over LSU, Leonard Fournette got his 2016 Heisman campaign started early, averaging 13 yards a carry as the Tigers ran for 285 yards and 7.5 a carry.

Yet the personnel at this position is talented, physical and extremely athletic. They don’t resemble the group that ran around like chickens with their heads cut off late last season. So while it’s tough to forget a terrible run of football that saw Notre Dame give up an average of 39.8 points a game over the final eight games of the year, this group looks really good both on paper and in practice.

Now let’s see what happens when the games start.

 

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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In soon-to-be-freshman Asmar Bilal, Notre Dame landed a linebacker who looks like he should be playing in the SEC. A star player out of Indianapolis power house and state champion Ben Davis, Bilal is the type of lightning quick and athletic linebacker that may not weigh 235 pounds, but he’ll cover sideline to sideline and beat opponents off the edge.

As part of an exciting linebacker corps, Bilal joins fellow Hoosier Josh Barajas and early-enrollee Te’von Coney as potential impact players. He’ll need to find a position and hit the weight room, but there’s plenty to like about Bilal.

Let’s dig a little deeper as we look at the incoming freshman.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’3″ 210 lbs.
Freshman, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal made a difficult decision in choosing Notre Dame over Michigan. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team.

 

UPSIDE POTENTIAL

Right now, Bilal screams upside potential. In Ben Davis’ state championship victory, Bilal shifted to free safety, serving as a tackling machine in their runaway victory over Carmel.

That move will likely necessitate a look at Bilal at a variety of positions, especially if he’s capable of running like a defensive back. While he might join the group of recruits who end up shrinking a few inches once they hit the official program, if Bilal is 6’2 even, he’ll have the type of length that could play really well on the edge—though there’s also some who believe he’s a prototype middle linebacker as well.

It’s hard to say you know what a player brings to the table when you’ve only seen his YouTube highlights. But there’s reason that Bilal has many thinking he’s the real deal and the top player out of Indianapolis, and the Irish have a great starting point with him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL

 

Faxes in: Asmar Bilal

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ASMAR BILAL
Indianapolis, IN

Measurables: 6-3, 205

Accolades: U.S. Army All-American, All-USA Indiana defensive player of the year, second-team MaxPreps All-American, Indianapolis Star Super Team, 6A State Champion.

Impressive Offers: Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Texas A&M, Tennessee, Wisconsin

Projected Position: Inside Linebacker

 

Quick Take: An in-state product with a national recruiting profile. And a linebacker who is athletic enough to be a safety. Bilal runs like someone playing in the secondary, but hits like a cement truck. Notre Dame won a big recruiting battle over Michigan, benefitting from the coaching change in Ann Arbor.

He’ll need to add some weight, but Bilal is a physically impressive kid who looks chiseled from granite. And the disposition he has on the football field will make him one of this group’s favorites very quickly.

 

What he means to the Irish: A key piece to one of the most athletic linebacking corps in this recruiting cycle. With Bilal and early enrollee Tevon Coney, Notre Dame officially adds two athletes that would fit in at any school in America. (Expect another key piece in Josh Barajas.)

Wherever Bilal plays (and his versatility is a nice asset) he’s going to bring speed and violence to the position. As the Irish continue to strengthen their presence in Indianapolis, reeling in Bilal is a very big deal.

 

Obligatory YouTube clip: Enjoy watching Bilal search and destroy during these senior highlights.

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Irish add Indianapolis LB recruit Asmar Bilal

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Notre Dame’s recruiting train keeps rolling with the Irish accepting the commitment of Indianapolis linebacker Asmar Bilal. The Ben Davis product chose Notre Dame over Michigan in a recruitment that seemed to have the Wolverines in the driver’s seat until the football season started.

Bilal also had offers from Michigan State, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas A&M and others. At 6-foot-3, Bilal has great length at the linebacker position. But at roughly 200-210 pounds, there’s still some heft needed before he’s ready to hit the field.

Where Bilal will play remains to be seen. 247Sports sees Bilal as the third-best inside linebacker in the country. Others view him as an outside linebacker target. Seeing as the Irish are playing converted wide receiver James Onwualu at outside linebacker, Bilal might not be too far away from fitting that specific physical skillset, especially with the depth chart there just Onwualu and converted safety John Turner.

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps should come into focus in the next few weeks. Tevon Coney, another top target for the Irish is making a decision soon, choosing between Notre Dame, Florida and Miami. With Josh Barajas already committed, that could close up the Irish’s recruiting at the position.

Bilal’s commitment was all but made official by head coach Brian Kelly, who headed to Twitter to produce the #WeAreND, the bat-signal for recruiting commitments.  Landing Bilal from a public school powerhouse in Indianapolis is another great catch for the Irish coaching staff, getting back into an in-state school that’s produced a lot of talent, but not necessarily a lot for the Irish.

Bilal is commitment No. 20 for the 2015 recruiting cycle. Here are some highlights from his junior season:

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