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Spring Outlook: Notre Dame’s Linebackers

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For a position group returning two of its three starters, Notre Dame’s linebackers will still be one of the key focuses this spring. The Irish need to find a Buck linebacker, but doing so could create a need elsewhere.

For that matter, the entire second unit lacks clarity. If there is ever a time to give an excess of opportunities to an unproven, but once highly-recruited, group of juniors, it is in the spring.

Spring roster, in order of eligibility remaining:
— Rising senior Jordan Genmark Heath in his final season
— Genmark Heath’s classmates Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, both returning starters, both with two years remaining.
— Rising juniors Bo Bauer and Paul Moala, the former established as a special teams ace, at the least, and the latter flashing enough to necessitate more playing time.
— Their classmate Shayne Simon, who will likely be limited this spring thanks to a November knee injury.
— Rising junior Jack Lamb, also possibly limited this spring due to a midseason hip injury.
— Rising sophomores JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser, Osita Ekwonu and Marist Liufau.

Summer arrivals:
None. Notre Dame did not worry about linebacker recruiting in the last cycle, in no small part because of the depth above. The four sophomores all have four years of eligibility remaining, and Lamb has three.

Consensus four-star Jordan Botelho did play linebacker in high school, but every expectation includes him moving to defensive end at the next level.

Depth Chart Possibilities:
Two things are known about the Irish linebackers moving forward: White will start in the middle and Owusu-Koramoah will start somewhere. Figuring out exactly where that somewhere will be needs to be the priority for defensive coordinator Clark Lea. Not only was Owusu-Koramoah one of Notre Dame’s best defensive playmakers in 2019, if not the best, but his alignment in 2020 will affect the rest of the Irish defense.

With Owusu-Koramoah at Rover again — where he particularly starred in the Camping World Bowl with nine tackles, four for loss including three sacks, and one forced fumble he recovered — Notre Dame will turn to Genmark Heath, Lamb or Simon at Buck. At least, that would be the instinct, but with the latter two not 100 percent these next two months, perhaps Bauer of Bertrand gets a chance there. Most of those names would fill the role in a prototypical way, not that there is anything wrong with that; Asmar Bilal was the definition of a prototypical Buck linebacker last year.

But if Owusu-Koramoah moves to Buck, he may provide a range on that side of the field that lessens Notre Dame’s cornerback concerns. Moala would almost certainly be the next one in at Rover, and he fits that mold. The Irish would have two linebackers that can operate in coverage, theoretically lessening the frequency of the need for a fourth cornerback. Given Notre Dame has questions about its third cornerback, that would be an undeniable step forward.

Owusu-Koramoah may not best operate at Buck, though, and depriving the defense of any of his abilities in space would be a step backward.

2019 statistically speaking:
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: 80 tackles with a team-leading 13.5 for loss including a team-high 5.5 sacks; two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered.
Drew White: 80 tackles with eight for loss including two sacks; two fumbles recovered.
Asmar Bilal: 74 tackles with 10 for loss; one fumble recovered.
Bo Bauer: 28 tackles with two for loss
Paul Moala: 14 tackles with one for loss, on which he forced and recovered a fumble on a pitch and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.
Jordan Genmark-Heath: 10 tackles with one for loss
Shayne Simon: Nine tackles with 1.5 for loss
Jack Lamb: Seven tackles with two for loss including one sack; one fumble recovered.
Jonathan Jones: One tackle
Osita Ekwonu: One tackle while preserving a year of eligibility.

2019 departures:
Bilal became a productive linebacker, but no bolder compliment can genuinely be offered him. His 124 total tackles in the last two seasons were needed, perhaps most surprisingly the three he managed at Georgia. Absolutely nobody could expect Bilal to hold his own against the Bulldogs’ speed, especially not after he struggled against Louisville’s. That season-opening performance was so questionable, the Irish coaching staff wondered if Bilal needed to be pulled out of the starting lineup.

Instead, he delivered two weeks later. Georgia undoubtedly expected a first-quarter pass underneath to aptly-named running back D’Andre Swift to gain more than a yard with Bilal in coverage, but he read it and made the play. On the Bulldogs’ next possession, he hauled down Swift on a one-yard carry. While Georgia eventually scored on that drive, Bilal tackled Swift once more to keep the Bulldogs behind the chains on the way.

Quite literally, Notre Dame media members walked through the Sanford Stadium press box mouthing “Bilal?!” to each other during halftime.

No greater moment ever came in Bilal’s career — and his NFL hopes are slim enough to doubt one will yet — but that memory will linger every time the Indianapolis native’s name comes up.

As always, questions are welcomed at insidetheirish@gmail.com.