Notre Dame’s linebacker puzzle has found its figurative corner piece. If nothing else, fifth-year Asmar Bilal has established himself as a rotational piece, Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Saturday after the ninth spring practice.
Bilal ending up in the starting lineup has been long anticipated after he worked as the starting rover throughout 2018, but the where has been in doubt. Kelly did not specify, and things could certainly still change, but Bilal looks likely to end up as the starting Mike linebacker, filling in where Te’von Coney left off. Alongside him, at least on passing downs, could be rising sophomore Jack Lamb, finally healthy after a weight room pectoral injury limited him last season.
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“Those two guys have done some things that give us an eye toward the fall,” Kelly said. “The rest is we have to see consistency in performance from everybody else. We think there’s a lot of guys that need a lot of work and the spring’s not going to be the end-all for them. We’re going to need camp, as well.”
That “everybody else” includes Lamb’s classmates, Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon, rovers Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Paul Moala, and upperclassmen Jonathan Jones, Jordan Genmark Heath and Drew White (injured for the rest of the spring). Lamb’s potential niche role as a nickel linebacker of sorts could create an opening for one of them to emerge as a first- and second-down option at Buck linebacker. Of course, that would necessitate solid tackling and instinctual play, qualities perhaps not as abundant as defensive coordinator Clark Lea would likely prefer.
“Today we didn’t tackle very well with our young players,” Kelly said. “We were in good position, but we’re just not there yet. This is going to be a process of continue to be patient, continue to work with them, be positive with them.”
Lamb’s development has not surprised Kelly. He played well on scout team as a freshman. He just did not have the chance to work into the rotation in the preseason thanks to the injury.
“If you ask our offensive linemen, they would tell you he was the toughest guy they had to deal with last year on scout team,” Kelly said. “He was physical. He was difficult to block.
“This didn’t just appear. His injuries really set him back from progressing a little further than what he did. Now that he’s healthy, he’s making the strides necessary for us to see him on the radar.”
Perhaps that makes Lamb an edge piece of this puzzle analogy, one that lines up with Bilal. And Lea still has five spring practices, including the Blue-Gold Game on April 13, and the preseason to figure out the 2.5 other linebacker positions.
Neither of these injuries should be concerning, especially in the spring, but both are also the type of ailment to linger for a frustrating amount of time, thus warranting mention. Rising sophomore receiver Braden Lenzy aggravated his hamstring last week, and rising sophomore cornerback TaRiq Bracy sprained his ankle Saturday.
A MARCH MADNESS THOUGHT OR TWO
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl is now 7-2 against the spread as an underdog in the NCAA tournament after topping Kentucky as a 4.5-point ‘dog Sunday, including a 5-4 straight-up record. The first of those covers against the spread? When Pearl and No. 12-seed UW-Milwaukee came within a missed layup of beating Notre Dame in the first round in 2003 in Indianapolis.
Of course, the Tigers are now 5.5-point underdogs against Virginia in the Final Four.
This holds no point other than serving as an excuse to remember the Irish run to the Sweet Sixteen 16 years ago, their first trip to the tournament’s second weekend since 1987 and only one for more than another decade.