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Fitting the Notre Dame defensive puzzle: Now Moala and Simon shift

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Notre Dame’s defensive flux will continue well into the summer, and a few moves Saturday underscored that. While the Irish linebackers have not settled into any regular rotation or even positions preferred by the coaching staff, it at least seemed a finite pool of options was at hand, a number temporarily lowered by one with rising junior Drew White’s shoulder injury.

Instead, rising sophomore Shayne Simon dabbled at the Buck linebacker spot, something that seemed to be a piece of his cross-training past, only a future at rover awaiting him. In his place, classmate Paul Moala got some work up a level from his usual role as a safety.

“[Moala has] shown a real propensity to get his nose to the football,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “A really good tackler. We’re looking at somebody that when you’re in big spaces like that, you’ve got to be a really good tackler. He’s just shown that over the first week or so that he’s a guy that we feel comfortable in space tackling.”

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It will remain to be seen if Moala stays at the position. Kelly insisted the consideration is legitimate — “We want to leave the spring and know we have guys who can compete for us against the top teams in the country” — but sometimes a position move in practice is a trial balloon and the trial goes awry.

If, however, Moala remains at rover, that will leave only rising sophomores Derrik Allen and D.J. Brown as backup safeties, the latter a converted cornerback. One does not need to take a logical leap to figure incoming freshman Kyle Hamilton, as well as Litchfield Ajavon, is expected to play a role in shoring up the position’s depth.

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As for Simon at Buck, the move may hinge on fifth-year Asmar Bilal’s ability to handle the mental aspects of the Mike linebacker, with instincts an absolute necessity in the middle of the defense. If Bilal can indeed manage that, then bringing Simon to the inside with him could provide the Irish with an abundance of athleticism.

“We just think he’s a big-bodied guy that can add some more competition to that position,” Kelly said. “Again, we’re just trying to find the right players at the right position. We like everything about him. We need him to get more film and more technique work to see how he fits there.”

Whether Simon sticks to Buck or slides back to rover, one thing is assured: Notre Dame’s quest to find a starting linebacker trio is far from over.

One position move that has stuck, though, is rising sophomore Ovie Oghoufo from linebacker to defensive end. Simply put, the praise offered his way Saturday was lofty given how the comparison point has turned out.

“He’s flashed to us,” Kelly said. “It’s easy to compare — we try to find guys. He’s a young Julian Okwara. He’s very twitchy. He’s probably a little bit physically stronger than Julian was at this time, but they’re on a similar career path. We think he’s going to be the next guy that steps in when Julian moves on.”

That may sound as if Oghoufo will remain on the sidelines through 2019, but two aspects counter that. First off, he did so in 2018, so no further eligibility can be preserved. Secondly, in one’s sixth practice at a new position, shedding a stout linebacker (No. 52, rising sophomore Bo Bauer), knocking aside a wiry running back (No. 20, rising sophomore C’Bo Flemister) and dismissing an established veteran (No. 32, senior walk-on running back Mick Assaf) is not a sequence to take lightly.