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Spring Outlook: Only questions among Notre Dame’s linebackers

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The luxuries of a year ago created the greatest concerns for Notre Dame’s defense this offseason. When Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill returned for 2018, they set up the Irish for a Playoff run, and they also put off worries about the linebacker position for 12 months.

That bill now comes due for Notre Dame and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Clark Lea.

Spring roster:
— Fifth-year Asmar Bilal, a starter somewhere.
— Senior Jonathan Jones, a possible starter, as hard as that may have been to believe a year ago.
— Junior Jordan Genmark Heath, another possible starter after a season spent backing up ironman Tranquill.
— Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and sophomore Shayne Simon, the prime contenders to start at rover if Bilal moves to the interior as widely expected.
— Sophomores Jack Lamb and Bo Bauer, the presumed linebackers of the future and possible dark horses to change these depth chart calculations.
— Junior Drew White, who may have solidified his role with a stellar showing against Navy last season.
— Early-enrolled freshman Jack Kiser.

Summer arrivals:
— Incoming freshman Osita Ekwonu, for sure, and possibly classmates J.D. Bertrand and Marist Liufau, depending on scholarship math.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
This begins with Bilal. Where he ends up will set forth a few dominos.

If Bilal remains at rover, Genmark Heath and Jones become the favorites for his starting companions, with Lamb and Bauer looming as possibilities. If Bilal moves inward, following the same path Tranquill took, then only one of those aforementioned will have a chance to step forward while Simon and Owusu-Koromoah compete to start at rover.

That decision may not hinge entirely on Bilal. To some extent, Lea may handle the linebacker unit much like former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand — and his successor, Jeff Quinn, though with limited sample size — always did with his offensive line. Whatever combination gets the greatest collection of talent on the field can be the one used, even if it takes some adapting to.

In that context, Bilal could start wherever is most lacking otherwise. That sentence reads negatively, but it could theoretically also reflect positively on the other two spots in the defense’s middle tier.

An acknowledgement …
This is all quite a shift from any discussion of Bilal as recently as August. At that point, an incoming freshman such as Simon had made as many plays for the Irish as Bilal had in his three years on campus. That was not a harsh assessment; it was a fact.

Bilal made strong strides in 2018 in coverage, improvements that allowed him to function as a worthwhile rover, meaning Lea could avoid the risk of inserting someone as green as Simon. Further development for Bilal in his final season of eligibility now at least has some precedent to be based upon. That is not to say he will rise to Coney’s or Tranquill’s levels, but the idea of Bilal as the centerpiece of a defense is no longer an utterly baffling concept.

Jonathan Jones (No. 45) held is own in mop-up duty in 2018, setting himself up for at least a genuine chance at a starter’s role as a senior in 2019. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Nonetheless, similar concerns will follow Jones until he proves them unnecessary. Spending three years in the program without ever making much of an impression is not the recipe for garnering expectations moving forward. Jones fared well enough in mop-up duty last season to deserve first crack at replacing Coney this spring, but that head start should not last more than a few drills if Jones does not make use of it.

That could result in Jones progressing as Bilal did a year ago, or it could mean those sophomores are called upon before Notre Dame heads to Louisville.

2018 statistically speaking:
Coney: 123 tackles with 9.5 for loss including four sacks; one forced fumble and one interception.
Tranquill: 86 tackles with nine for loss including 3.5 sacks; one fumble recovered.
Bilal: 50 tackles with three for loss with a Cotton Bowl fumble recovery.
Genmark Heath: 16 tackles.
Bauer: 10 tackles.
White: Eight tackles.
Jones: Six tackles.
Simon: Four tackles with one-half for loss.

2018 departures:
It is hard to overstate the losses of Coney and Tranquill. Coney led Notre Dame in tackles while Tranquill refused to sit on the sidelines despite a myriad of injuries. The two-time captain had his hand in countless plays the last two seasons, excelling under Lea’s tutelage. Coney’s development during the same timespan drew attention and put him onto NFL draft boards.

Suffice it to say, losing two players of their caliber in one offseason puts Notre Dame’s defense into unavoidable turmoil, though unease also somewhat desirable simply for what it indicates preceded.

Notre Dame gets the letter: Jack Kiser
Notre Dame gets the letter: J.D. Bertrand
Notre Dame gets the letter: Osita Ekwonu
Notre Dame gets the letter: Marist Liufau

Spring Outlook: Defensive backs

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.