Clark Lea was referring to the unproven confusion at linebacker, a morass so thorough Lea does not break it down into starters, backups and depth, but rather simply pairs up players with fewer than half a dozen tackles at their current position with players with no such tackles. Yet, the Irish defensive coordinator may as well have been referring to the entire back seven of Notre Dame’s defense with only two starters returning healthy this spring in their previous positions.
A defensive depth chart through the next 12 practices would be an exercise in boosting egos, only to risk bursting those bubbles within days as positions reshuffle.
“They want to see a depth chart, and I don’t want to see one,” Lea said last week when pondering who might emerge as a starting linebacker leading up to the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. “I don’t know why we have to determine this stuff until we’re teeing it up, and even then, it’s like, what’s your target for completion?
“This unit has to keep evolving and we’re going to line up and play our first game and by game five and game eight, we need to be better. How that looks, how the parts shift, if I can get a guy who ends up being the two to push himself up until the point that his number is called, then we’ll be better for it when we need the next man in.”
If that is how Lea intends to approach September and October, he clearly has no need for a pecking order this spring.
At linebacker, fifth-year Asmar Bilal has moved inside to Buck linebacker after playing well on the outside at rover last season in 10 starts. That is the extent of the abundant experience, a positional transplant.
Junior Jordan Genmark Heath handled some Buck duties at Northwestern to spell Drue Tranquill’s sprained ankle, a role held the week prior against Navy by rising junior Drew White. Senior-to-be Jonathan Jones made six tackles in 12 games, playing on the rare occasions Te’von Coney took to the sidelines.
The rising sophomore trio of Shayne Simon, Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb did not get a chance to make an impact in their debut seasons beyond Simon’s appearances in a few goal-line packages, though Lea sees those moments as the needed motivation to push Simon into the starting rover role now ahead of rising junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
“(Simon) never quite got over the hump where we felt like as a rotational player he was ready. He involved himself in some packages,” Lea said. “That experience completely shifts the way the next segment (goes), because he knows now what it feels like to go through the season and, honestly, the sting of not playing as much as he wanted to.”
Such is the state of the Irish linebackers at the moment, that a player’s very limited snaps in the past are seen as a good thing moving forward, and understandably so. Lea does not know what he has on hand. Bauer and Lamb could very well become the next starting duo, perhaps by August, perhaps coming out of the October off week heading to Michigan, perhaps leading into 2020. Or maybe Genmark Heath and Owusu-Koramoah are going to make life difficult for character limits all fall.
The only way for Lea to find out is to give them all chances.
“Everyone has bought into the fact that this is going to be an open competition,” he said. “We’re every day rolling units through. We have kind of paired the guys up, and when it’s time for their pair to go in, they roll in, create some chemistry together. They’re going to earn what they get.”
This rotation may not be confined to the spring. Tranquill and Coney were stalwarts in Lea’s first year as coordinator, playing through injuries and fatigue, playing far more than anyone would consider ideal. There is a reason Lea and defensive line coach Mike Elston have developed depth along the front. Even now, they have such a bounty of talent at end, they may work with a rising senior to preserve a year of eligibility. Of course, the NCAA’s four-game participation flexibility makes that far more tenable these days and more of a possibility for Jamir Jones (No. 44, pictured above).
The depth at defensive tackle might limit that moving forward, but Lea feigns a lack of worry thus far.
“That’s not what keeps me up at night,” he said. “We have a great line coach that is getting young guys ready. We’re going to re-introduce healthy bodies and add some bodies in the summer and fall that will be not just serviceable, but I think will push the standard forward.”
There may not yet be enough defensive tackles for a reliable rotation, three healthy upperclassmen and one freshman somewhat counteracting Lea’s public optimism. There are, however, eight healthy linebackers, along with early-enrolled freshman Jack Kiser. Similarly, there are three healthy safeties with rising senior Alohi Gilman expected at full-strength sooner than later, if still limited in the name of load management. Senior Jalen Elliott currently leads a secondary that also has rising senior cornerback Troy Pride to rely upon. Beyond him, as is the norm, cornerback is another position of possibilities sans experience.
In time, both position groups could mirror the defensive line of last season.
“This defensive system was built on let’s play as many guys as we can,” Lea said. “There’s two effects there, one it keeps your unit rested, and then two, there’s this collective buy-in that goes on when they know they have ownership. …
“If we get to the fall and we can’t do it because we feel like performance suffers, then that’s something we have to confront, but at this point, we’re looking to open the doors up and ask the guys just to earn what they want.”
That chance to earn playing time will extend past the spring, through the preseason and into the fall.
“I don’t anticipate making any decisions up until the point we have to, and even then, it’s how you set the target. The season is about your defense, your unit evolving the entire time. We just want guys to keep pushing.”