Exiting spring practices, concerns around four broad positions made any Notre Dame hopes of a return to the Playoff feel like pipe dreams. No linebackers had emerged throughout the entire position group. A handful of players continued to fail to distinguish themselves as the second Irish cornerback. Notre Dame’s backup quarterback had a Blue-Gold Game to forget as quickly as possible. And both kicking specialists had, to be generous, inauspicious debuts in their new leading roles.
Exiting preseason practices, those worries have been at least partly assuaged across the board.
At least one linebacker looks ready to break out, and another one or two may be on the verge. The only clear, unquestioned starter along the defense’s second level is junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (pictured at top) at Rover. Among unproven Irish defenders to buy stock in, he may be at the top of the list for Notre Dame faithful. (Followed by, in some order, sophomore defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola, freshman safety Kyle Hamilton and sophomore defensive end Justin Ademilola.) Owusu-Koramoah was recruited for the position and looked to have a role entering 2018 before a broken foot ended his season in September. The first half of that route has him set to overcome the setback of the second half.
“If we’re going to recruit that position, let’s get the ultimate flexibility out of it,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday in discussing Owusu-Koramoah’s development. “The ultimate flexibility to me was that you don’t have to take him off the field. You can play man coverage with him, you can play him in the box, you can play him in run downs, you can play him in pass situations.”
Owusu-Koramoah will not stay on the field in every package, but the fact that he might be able to takes some of the pressure off the other two linebacker spots, where fifth-year Asmar Bilal looks ready to start at Buck and junior Drew White at Mike (middle). Neither has distanced himself from his competition (sophomore Jack Lamb and junior Jordan Genmark Heath at Buck; sophomore Shayne Simon at Mike) as Owusu-Koramoah has, but they will at least establish a comfort level on Labor Day at Louisville.
White, in particular, may be more about setting a bar at which Notre Dame knows it can win than anything else.
“What has given Drew a chance to be involved is I think he has incredible self-awareness,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said Wednesday. “He knows exactly what his strengths are, what his weaknesses are. He doesn’t shy away from that, and so he tailors his approach to maximize.”
Pass coverage is not one of White’s inherent strengths, nor does it headline as one of Bilal’s better attributes. That is where having Owusu-Koramoah may make Lea’s life easier. Add in Lamb’s aptitude in the area, and Notre Dame could have an unexpected pair of linebackers to rely upon in third-and-medium packages.
At cornerback, the Irish at least know they have options to play opposite senior Troy Pride. Part of the remaining confusion at the position traces to injuries over the last month, none so severe as to rule anyone out moving forward, but each worrisome enough to cost a week’s worth of practices as a preventive measure. Part of the lack of clarity ties to incomplete skill sets.
Sophomore Houston Griffith, who has struggled with a hamstring issue, has not shown the diagnostic range necessary to handle the duties on the field (wide) side, which makes it difficult to start him alongside Pride, who is best used at boundary as the most-experienced cornerback. Senior Donte Vaughn, hindered by a balky quad of late, has yet to show consistent enough health to be relied upon. Sophomore TaRiq Bracy may have a bright future, but he is still too slight to be an every-down player.
That leaves some combination of them as Notre Dame’s best likelihood.
“We feel great about the people we have, we just need — it’s also based off the opponent,” Lea said. “What do we have to stop? Who do we have to stop? Who’s skill set fits that mold the best?
“It’s not going to be a two-man show. We’re going to be creative in the way we fit our people and put them in the right positions.”
That listing did not include one notable name, because where he fits best may be some version of everywhere. Fifth-year defensive back Shaun Crawford is thus far healthy, and as long as that remains the case, he may be every bit the playmaker he was in 2017.
The understandable trepidation with Crawford has been about how much of his explosiveness was lost to a second ACL tear, making for an ACL tear in each knee and a blown Achilles across the last four years. That fretting may have been put to rest, albeit cautiously so given that lengthy injury history.
“Shaun is one of our smartest football players in terms of his football intelligence and understanding of the game and his ability to reroute combinations,” Irish cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght said Wednesday. “… He brings a lot of value to our team with his positional versatility, being able to play safety and nickel and corner. He’s an outstanding player.
“He’s a guy we have to get into the season healthy, and a guy we’re depending on greatly during the course of the season.”
Crawford’s moonlighting at safety, along with the presence of Hamilton, should allow Notre Dame’s star senior safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman needed time to catch their breath.
“When you look back at last year, Jalen and Alohi, they played probably above everybody’s expectations, but at the end of the day, they played too much,” Irish safeties coach Terry Joseph said Wednesday. “… The next step for us is to get better by having them do less, play less. … Then in October, November, December, January, you can have a group of guys that can play at a high level.”
In addition to playing less, they may play elsewhere, particularly Elliott. If Notre Dame has struggled to find a second cornerback it can rely upon, clearly a nickel back is still in flux, as well. Unless, that is, Elliott moves into the position and Crawford or freshman Kyle Hamilton fills in on the back end in those situational packages.
Flipping sides of the ball, to a reserve, sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec has quieted the alarms, lessened the worst Irish fears, bettered Notre Dame’s doomsday scenario. After the Blue-Gold Game, it seemed the Irish season would be lost if starting quarterback senior Ian Book was injured. His backup, Jurkovec, looked that bad. Admittedly, that was only one day, but it was rough enough it diminished sample size disclaimers.
“There was a lot more progress during the spring than probably that game showed,” quarterbacks coach Tom Rees said. “So I think a lot of that was unfair, because he needed to play better, but probably a little misleading on where we thought he was and what he could accomplish.”
Rees’ work with Jurkovec’s footwork led to improved confidence for the sophomore which has, in turn, led to improved confidence from Notre Dame’s coaching staff.
“Phil got himself right,” Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long said Wednesday. “He’s out there just so much more confident throwing the ball. That’s not an issue. Now we can really work on what it takes to play quarterback here and the nuances.
“… It’s just really helped elevate his game, where I’m comfortable if he has to come in there and take over a game, which was probably my number one priority going into fall camp.”
Special teams coordinator Brian Polian had a similar panic on his hands following the spring finale, but twice the sources. Neither junior kicker Jonathan Doerer nor freshman punter Jay Bramblett looks to be finished products, but neither should cost Notre Dame an early game, either.
“You are replacing two of the best in the history of the program,” Polian said. “So we don’t expect them to be the next Justin Yoon; we don’t expect them to be the next Tyler Newsome. We just need them to do their jobs to the best of their ability, and we’ll clean it up from there.”
That may seem hardly a ringing endorsement, but it is magnitudes better than what it would have been in April. Doerer has found a consistent swing, and what Bramblett lacks in punt distance, he makes up for in hangtime.
Four months ago, each of these positions looked poised to torpedo the Irish season before it began. Now, development has at least given Notre Dame a chance at returning to the College Football Playoff.
What more can be asked for seven days before the opener?