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Where Notre Dame was and is: Linebackers

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Looking back on the December version of this series, the post-mortem on the 2018 season and Notre Dame’s Playoff run, one line stands out: Thinking of going through 2018 with both (Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney) pursuing NFL dreams instead should induce a shudder.

Cue shudder.

Tranquill was drafted in the fourth round on Saturday; Coney signed with the Oakland Raiders soon after the draft concluded. Notre Dame must now turn to a dozen unknowns and only one known, and even fifth-year Asmar Bilal has switched positions.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
Bilal moving from rover to the interior was long-anticipated, partly due to his broad frame and partly due to the pressing talent presumed to be available behind him at rover. Theoretically, this would also move the only Irish experience at linebacker to more of a central role.

That talent behind Bilal at rover included sophomore Shayne Simon, who has since followed Bilal to the middle, while sophomore Paul Moala jumped from safety to rover.

All this moving, mixing and matching underscores how much of a vacuum Notre Dame knew it had at linebacker. The spring was the time to experiment for Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

“Obviously we are replacing two really important pieces. Everyone in that room is aware of that,” Lea said the first week of spring practices. “… We have young, talented players, and some more players that can evolve and be that.

“Am I pleased with where are right now? No, but that’s because I know what it’s going to take. We know what it’s going to take for us to accomplish what we’re out to do.”

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Before falling down the rabbit hole debating the merits of various players, let’s quickly rattle off all 10 linebackers who were around this spring and in a rough order of a likely depth chart.

Buck: Junior Jordan Genmark Heath; sophomore Jack Lamb.
Mike: Bilal; Simon; sophomore Bo Bauer; senior Jonathan Jones; junior Drew White (missed nearly all of spring after suffering a non-football shoulder injury).
Rover: Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah; Moala; early-enrolled freshman Jack Kiser (missed all of spring with a pre-existing shoulder injury).

By no means are those positions set in stone, and the order of a depth chart never is.

“There is enough athleticism out there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said after the Blue-Gold Game on April 13. “It will be our job and Clark’s job to put them in position to succeed, as well. They aren’t as experienced at that position as we’ve had in the past. It’ll be our job to utilize their athletic ability and put them in positions to succeed. If that means us doing some things, that’s our job. We’re seeing progress and we have to be smart in taking advantage of their skill set.”

For now, those skill sets make the middle (Mike) linebacker spot perhaps the most suspect, even with Bilal’s experience supposedly bolstering the assets there. He still struggles to fill holes as is mandated by the position, possibly out of slow recognition of a play or possibly simply being a step slow, while Simon is new enough to the inside role his recognition has not yet caught up, either.

At Buck, Lamb showed an aptitude in the passing game throughout the spring that could force him into a leading role in 2019, even if the chance to showcase such in the spring finale was stolen by injury. Between him and Genmark Heath (pictured at top before the Cotton Bowl), Notre Dame should have a complete linebacker; finding the balance between them will be the trick.

Meanwhile at rover, Owusu-Koramoah and Moala may both fit more naturally at the hybrid position than either Tranquill or Bilal ever did. Owusu-Koramoah played safety throughout high school, but his 6-foot-1 frame and long reach makes playing closer to the line of scrimmage a natural role for him, the one he was recruited for.

“Rover is all those things that I played in high school mixed into one,” he said following the Blue-Gold Game, in which he logged seven tackles. “You’re in the slot, you’re in the box sometimes … you’re also playing nickel sometimes, as well, with outside bounce. All the different positions I played in high school came into one, so that helped me settle into that one rover position.”

Similarly, Moala’s 210 pounds (and adding up to a wanted 220) made him a better fit at rover than safety. His teammates apparently expected the move long before he did.

“It fits my traits really well,” he said. “Just the physicality aspect, the mental aspect, the keys, everything is really similar to safety, so it wasn’t really too hard of a transition.

The duo of Owusu-Koramoah and Moala provide options at rover that are comfortable in coverage and in space but do not shy from contact. Bilal and Simon lagged in the former category. Tranquill fared well in all regards, but needed to improve on the inside for his professional aspirations.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
Of all the Irish position groups, this is the one most in flux and presumably most worrying to the coaching staff. More movement should be expected in the preseason, perhaps at all three specific slots. If Bilal or Simon does not step forward in the middle, then the needs will turn to the inexperienced Bauer or the more physically-limited Jones or White.

Incoming freshmen J.D. Bertrand, Marist Liufau and Osita Ekwonu will not provide the answers, only more depth and future hope.

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