It is a testament to Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea that a year ago the Irish had nothing but questions at linebacker and now they can reasonably rely upon a pair entering 2020. Finding one reliable contributor would have been logical, but turning a weakness into a strength was a testament to Lea, also the linebackers coach.
The progress of juniors Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah turned Notre Dame’s defense from a solid unit into one of the country’s best, and made Lea a genuine head coaching candidate this offseason. He reportedly finished as the runner-up in Boston College’s search, making it unlikely he remains with the Irish into 2021.
“We’ve had great conversations about where he is right now, where he believes he needs to go,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in December. “Some of the insight I’ve been able to give him as it relates to continue to grow as it relates to head coaching.
“This is not about where he is right now — he’s an outstanding defensive coordinator, but there are other things you have to begin to develop philosophically as a head coach. Those are off to the side, but those are exercises he’ll put together now in the offseason as he builds his résumé.”
Speaking more broadly than focusing on just this position group, the Irish defense returns only five literal starters, but three more should be considered that quality (two defensive ends, one Kyle Hamilton at safety). Those practical exercises and a third impressive season from Lea’s defense, of three years as coordinator, should have him elsewhere in 12 months, and in Kelly’s mind, that elsewhere should be somewhere notable.
“Those are discussions that are pertinent to who he is and where he is at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “I think a successful defensive coordinator at Notre Dame can put himself in position to be a Power Five head coach.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
There might already be a third answer moving forward at linebacker if the Irish had not turned the previous biggest worry into a consistency in 2019. Of course, that is in reference to Asmar Bilal. When Bilal moved to Buck from Rover, it was a risk. It had taken four years for Bilal to find a position he could succeed in; switching him away from there threw that progress into doubt.
Yet, Lea did it, anyway.
“There was a physicality, and he wasn’t — afraid is not the right word — but there was never a time where we felt like he wasn’t willing to really mix it up and play physical,” Kelly said before the regular-season finale. “We knew there was a guy that was willing to get in there and be physical.”
Bilal began 2019 with a poor enough performance in the Labor Day regular season opener that the Notre Dame coaching staff was not sure he would remain in the starting lineup moving forward, but before long he proved he would be a mainstay in the defense. The Irish season-high for tackles? Bilal’s 11 against USC, part of him finishing a single tackle off the leading pace for the season, finishing with 79, including 10 tackles for loss.
Bilal probably will not hear his name called in April’s draft, done in by a lack of speed and still less than ideal coverage skills, but for one year, he overcame all of that to drive much of Notre Dame’s defense, a testament to both his personal development and Lea’s role in it.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
The two players to finish a tackle ahead of Bilal were also questioned plenty entering 2019. White even missed spring practices after injuring his shoulder on a spring break ski trip. More than his low recruiting profile and his minimal work in his first two seasons, that mishap spelled doom for his career. Then he rattled off 80 tackles, with two sacks, and recovered two fumbles while starting 13 games.
“He obviously was set back with an injury in the spring, but he fought through that and put himself in a position where that [2018 Navy] game was not just a cameo for him,” Kelly said before this fall’s encounter with the triple-option. “It was something that was going to be more of what we’ve come to see this year, and that is really solid play at the middle linebacker position.”
White will never be the fastest Irish linebacker or the most physical, but his ability to anticipate the opposing offense’s plays as quickly as he does more than makes up for those deficiencies and should set him up to be a three-year starter in the middle of the defense.
If Owusu-Koramoah does not join White with that distinction, Notre Dame should consider that a positive indication. His perimeter range alone makes him more of an NFL possibility, meaning if he does not start for three years for the Irish it is presumably only because he is on an NFL roster in 2021 after excelling in 2020.
That thought was not on anyone’s radar a year ago; Owusu-Koramoah missed 2018 with a broken foot. Moments of 2019’s preseason included thoughts of keeping Bilal at Rover. When Kelly was asked about Owusu-Koramoah’s growth immediately after the Camping World Bowl, his first thought was, “Well, he’s getting lined up.” Clearly, that was not always the case.
By season’s end, Owusu-Koramoah not only led Notre Dame in tackles, but also in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (5.5). His 9-tackle, 4-for-loss, 3-sack bowl performance was simply a final exclamation point.
“You can see his physical ability is real, his suddenness,” Kelly said. “You have to factor him in when you’re game-planning. He’s loved by all of our players and the ceiling is great for him as he continues to learn our defense and continues to grow.”
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
There will inevitably be some consideration of moving Owusu-Koramoah to Buck, a la Bilal and Drue Tranquill before him. But Rover was the position Owusu-Koramoah was specifically recruited for, and he could not have shined more in 2019 once he got a chance. His ability to cover a slot receiver or a fleet running back in space is not one to be taken for granted, so that consideration may not lead to the expected move.
Instead, Lea will be called upon to find a new starter at Buck, inserting someone with no experience at a vital run-stopping position for the first time in his career as a coordinator. Of the three likeliest possibilities, current sophomores Jack Lamb (hip) and Shayne Simon (dislocated knee cap) will both be limited this spring, if available at all.
In Jordan Genmark-Heath’s last year of eligibility, that will give him plenty of an opportunity to impress. This space is often a skeptical one, especially when it comes to seniors who have physical talents but have never turned those into Saturday results. If Bilal taught anything, though, it is to not write off Genmark-Heath.