This may seem an odd Notre Dame position group to include second in this series, when clarity should be abundant. That’s the thing — the uncertainty about the future of the linebacker corps is so prevalent it borders on certainty. It is very clear, moving forward there will be a lot of questions in the defense’s second unit, with up to three senior starters and captains leaving. Those questions are obvious, themselves. This is not going to be an instance of one or the other. Rather, it will be a “Who?” aimed at the entire positional meeting room.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Seniors and captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini gave defensive coordinator Mike Elko two established starters in the middle of his first Irish defense. It is a good position to be in when senior Drue Tranquill is the biggest question mark of a group.
Tranquill hardly was a doubt entering 2017, but his fit in the new role of rover was an unknown, albeit a promising unknown. To pull from his summary in the summer’s “Counting Down the Irish” series as the No. 7 entry, “Tranquill will now find himself in the middle of the defense. Already a vocal leader as a captain, this will give him a chance to also lead in action.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Morgan and Martini lived up to expectations, at least as much as they could while playing through injuries for much of the season. A shoulder issue plagued Morgan while a torn meniscus cost Martini the USC game.
In his place that mid-October day and alongside both the senior captains throughout the year, junior Te’von Coney more than stepped forward. When looking to 2018, Coney’s emergence this year could set up for a star turn next fall.
Throughout much of the season, Coney and Tranquill were the best two linebackers on the field for Notre Dame. This was always expected to be a strong unit, and neither of its presumed leaders disappointed, which just goes to show how much Coney and Tranquill progressed in one season under Elko.
The entire first paragraph of this section from last week’s defensive line entry is still applicable here: In 2016, Notre Dame allowed 182.4 rushing yards per game (No. 72 in the country), 378.8 total yards per game (No. 42) and 39.0 percent of third downs to be converted (No. 60). This season, the Irish have given up 153.2 rushing yards per game (No. 48), 366.7 total yards per game (No. 44) and successful third downs only 33.5 percent of the time (No. 28). Clearly, each metric improved in Elko’s first season with the Irish.
Jr. Te’von Coney: 99 tackles; 13.0 tackles for loss; 3.0 sacks; one fumble forced; one fumble recovered.
Sr. Nyles Morgan: 83 tackles; 6.5 TFLs; 1.0 sacks; one fumble forced.
Sr. Drue Tranquill: 74; 8.5; 1.5; one interception; three fumbles recovered; one fumble forced.
Sr. Greer Martini: 70; 3.0; 0; one interception; two fumbles forced.
Jr. Asmar Bilal: 16; 1.5; 0.
So. Jonathan Jones: 9; 1.0; 0.
So. Jamir Jones: 3; 0.0; 0.
The first item to be settled is Tranquill’s decision between heading to the NFL Draft or returning for a fifth year. He will have an engineering degree and two surgically-repaired knees. Taking a shot at a professional career as soon as possible would be a decision no one could argue with.
However, Elko and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would jump at the chance to welcome back Tranquill. He excelled in the rover position this year, not needing to worry about getting burned by speedy receivers running deep and instead focusing on running downhill and attacking the football.
Regardless of Tranquill’s choice, his heir apparent is not exactly, well, apparent. If needed in 2018, Bilal would seem the most logical candidate, but freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah was recruited with this exact assignment in mind. If he is not ready by September, then Elko and Kelly will hope Tranquill is around to man the position until Owusu-Koromoah is raring to go in 2019.
Beyond the rover, one most wonder who lines up alongside Coney. To be clear, Coney will start, he will presumably once again lead the Irish in tackles, and he will be the binding force of the front-seven. His 2017 arrival was that impressive.
Kelly’s coaching staff has been sure to pursue linebackers in the class of 2018, now with four commitments, including three consensus four-stars. It may be a position where depth is a noted asset, but this would be the most linebackers signed in one class since the 2014 class of … Martini, Morgan, Nile Sykes and Kolin Hill. Sykes did not reach his freshman year and Hill transferred to Texas Tech after his first season. Recruited as a defensive back, Tranquill was also in that class. (Perhaps an added wrinkle to adding to the position in the class, it has been one of quick attrition in the recent past. In 2015, Notre Dame signed four linebackers — Bo Wallace never enrolled and Josh Barajas transferred this past summer, leaving only Coney and Bilal.)
The grouping of Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon, Matthew Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo could speak to some doubt of the current freshmen linebackers, Drew White and David Adams. If so, then the Coney’s compatriot query becomes even more convoluted. Could one of the current high school seniors make that jump from the outset? Such seems unlikely.
At that point, turn toward Jonathan Jones, at least for a short-term fix. Or, just to really throw a wrench into these ponderings, perhaps Bilal steps in at a traditional linebacker position and Owusu-Koromoah is counted on in place of or backing up Tranquill at the rover.
This lack of both depth and experience is reminiscent of the state of the Irish defensive line just a few months ago. Expecting such a reclamation again might be asking a bit much of Elko.