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Young Notre Dame LB pieces need to quickly fill roles once held by singular veterans

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It is not that Notre Dame did not know what it had until it was gone. It is that some things cannot be properly appreciated until living without them. If nothing else — and there was much else — Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney provided Irish head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea peace of mind last offseason and then through the undefeated regular season.

The pair of linebackers rarely made mistakes. They made Lea’s first year as a defensive coordinator a relative cakewalk. He knew finding that stability anew along the second line would be difficult.

“We are replacing two really important players,” Lea said at the start of spring practices in March. “Everyone in that room is aware of 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.”

Knowing is different than doing.

There is no need to abundantly praise Tranquill and Coney at this point; their collegiate careers combined for 606 tackles. Not much else needs to be said.

But looking at Notre Dame’s current interior linebacker struggles through the prism of what was taken for granted can shed a unique light on how far the Irish defense needs to develop to return to any semblance of Playoff-quality.

Tranquill and Coney represented very different skillsets, as the Buck and Mike (middle) linebackers very much require. Tranquill was a converted safety who spent an interim year at Rover. He was not only able to cover running backs and tight ends, but he had been doing it for years.

“The Buck has to be somebody that can play in space, that can cover a back man-to-man out of the backfield,” Kelly said Tuesday.

As much as that, the Buck has to fit a hole just as ably as the Mike does. It is that balance that can be tricky, seemingly particularly for fifth-year Asmar Bilal. Reading a running back’s intentions as heading off tackle when they are in fact toward the interior of the line can immediately put Bilal out of position.

It is not a leap of logic to think Bilal may be more inclined to guess outside plays, knowing that is where he is weakest and wanting to get a step’s advantage. Bilal played alright at Rover in 2018, memorably breaking up a pass headed toward Stanford tight end Kaden Smith when that game was still competitive. There is a reason that moment sticks out: It was Bilal’s only pass breakup.

The point is not to compare Bilal at Rover to Tranquill at Rover, but rather to underscore one’s discomfort in space compared to the other’s ease in it. In 2017, Tranquill broke up three passes and intercepted another from the Rover position.

Tranquill could trust his instincts because he trusted his ability to handle both run fits and pass coverage. Bilal has never shown the latter of those.

Junior Jordan Genmark Heath has not yet been able to convert athleticism into aptitude in the box, and while sophomore Jack Lamb’s excellence in coverage has earned him a niche role, his deceptively-slight 6-foot-3 ¾, 233-pound frame is not built well enough yet to stop a charging running back in his tracks. That is, presumably, in part due to missing much of last year’s conditioning after suffering a pectoral injury while lifting weights.

Irish sophomore linebacker made only one tackle at Louisville on Labor Day, but he also recovered a fumble and centered a passing-down package Notre Dame may come to rely upon. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

In time, Lamb may be the spiritual successor to Tranquill, complete with even more range in coverage, but in-season is not a time to add muscle. For now, Lamb will rotate in on obvious passing downs.

At Mike, Coney’s four years of experience allowed him to lead the defense and his square frame filled any running lane he could reach. Junior Drew White (pictured at top) has now emerged as the unquestioned starter in the middle, putting to rest any doubts with a hand in five tackles at Louisville, including two for loss. He understands the role Coney filled.

“We’re not asking a Mike linebacker to leave the box and play out over a receiver,” Kelly said. “We’re asking him a lot more to play within the box structure, downhill, knocking off linemen. So there has to be a physicality and he has to be somebody that is getting the defense lined up, making calls. There is a cerebral part there that we’re looking for with the Mike.”

White’s drawbacks come in the downhill department, as they did with Coney. The latter would compensate for his lack of true speed with a degree of physicality not gifted to White, or to many in general, for that matter. White is far from plodding, but others are more fleet of foot, including sophomore Shayne Simon. With Simon, that cerebral aspect may not be as nailed down.

By no means has Simon shown signs of lagging in the playbook, but with this type of vacuum of known commodities in the middle — not to mention directly in front of the Mike linebacker at both defensive tackle positions — Lea needs as much assurance as he can get. Proper alignment across the board lowers risk more than an extra half step does.

Which is all at least some of the reason Simon showed up at Buck during the Cardinals’ third series Monday night, otherwise known as the first one on which they did not score. In fact, they went three-and-out, gaining only two yards. Louisville head coach Scott Satterfield had begun to run out of shock material by then, but whatever the reason, the Cardinals offense finally stalled.

Simon’s tangible impact was minimal. On second down, pre-snap motion forced him to account for a receiver. Louisville quarterback Jawon Pass then kept a read-option and ran away from Simon. A two-yard gain brought up an obvious passing down.

In came Lamb with six defensive backs, an effective Dime package to keep an eye on. Pass aimed a throw into the flat, falling incomplete, but Lamb was already closing on the target, having found a seam through theoretical blockers.

This will be Notre Dame’s status quo until further notice, replacing two stalwarts with a collection of pieces, hoping the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

“There is clearly still competition, but there’s also specific skill sets that we think these guys have that we want to take advantage of,” Kelly said. “There’s clearly for us some work out there now that we’ve been able to evaluate from this game that allows us to move forward with a little bit more of a plan than we had maybe before coming into this game.”

The next plan will almost-certainly still include Bilal. He is a powerful force when on the correct vector. It will just as assuredly include more Simon and a more-defined role for Lamb.

Along with White stabilizing things at Mike, perhaps the four of them can create a facsimile of Lea’s luxury of a year ago.