Losing the best linebacker in the country sets up Notre Dame’s defensive second-level for a step back in 2021, but that is more a testament to Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s development and stellar 2020 than anything else. Much of the next month will be spent pondering his draft prospects, seemingly a certain first-rounder, while simultaneously debating his successor.
It is not a condemnation of new Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman that such wondering will come with a degree of fretting. Clark Lea’s streak of linebacker successes — particularly at Rover, the key to his defensive scheme — had earned the greatest benefit of the doubt. Lea’s track record spoke for itself: turning Te’von Coney into a tackling machine, Drue Tranquill into a playmaker, Asmar Bilal into a tackling fiend capable of tracking down SEC running backs around the edge and Owusu-Koramoah into the best linebacker Notre Dame has enjoyed in nearly a decade.
Freeman does not have that run on his résumé, if anyone else does, so more so than in the last few years, the Irish linebackers will remain an unknown until proven otherwise, a worry until assured differently, a springtime and preseason storyline until Labor Day Eve if not longer.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
The only departure along the Irish defense’s second-level, Owusu-Koramoah finished 2020 with only 62 tackles, a number lessened by a truncated season, by Notre Dame’s ball control and by teams running away from Owusu-Koramoah when they could. His athleticism was unmatched, a reality made clear early in the season and emphasized in the biggest Irish win in nearly 30 years.
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) November 8, 2020
Owusu-Koramoah’s 11 tackles for loss led Notre Dame, as did his three forced fumbles. Not to be dramatic, but none of these stats properly describe Owusu-Koramoah’s impact in 2020.
His breakout was not entirely out of nowhere, not after making 80 tackles in 2019 with 5.5 for loss, but nine of those tackles and four behind the line of scrimmage came in the 2019 Camping World Bowl win against Iowa State. Before that, his 2019 had been solid but not spectacular, as much a supporting role as anything else. Only when Owusu-Koramoah became the focal point for Lea to build around did his development truly skyrocket.
WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Overshadowed alongside Owusu-Koramoah, current fifth-year middle linebacker Drew White is now poised to become a three-year starter. Barring an even more drastic jump than Owusu-Koramoah’s, White’s development will not garner the same lasting praises, but to begin a career as an under-recruited consensus three-star linebacker sought by a defensive coordinator fired before White even arrived in South Bend and end it as a three-year starter with more than 200 tackles (144 to date) will be quite the development story in its own right.
That is where Freeman’s planning can begin. White has proven himself ever since his 2019 spring break shoulder-injuring skiing mistake, and when he didn’t know who would be the new Irish defensive coordinator, he was already advocating for someone in Freeman’s mold.
“I’m just excited to see who the next DC is,” White said after the Rose Bowl loss. “Because he’s got a unit here that is super close with each other, that plays for the ball and hunts.”
Freeman deploys an aggressive scheme, and that “hunting” may be where White ends up on the sideline. For as consistent and reliable as he has been in his responsibilities near the line of scrimmage, White has usually come off the field on third downs. Of his 460 snaps in 2020, very few came on the make-or-break snap. That was when rising senior Bo Bauer stepped in, taking 275 snaps himself. White will remain the clear starter in 2021, but the permutations after that will give Freeman the opportunity for creativity.
Rising senior Paul Moala may take some time to recover from an Achilles injury suffered in September — of football’s injuries, anything to the Achilles remains a true trouble — opening the door for junior Jack Kiser to perhaps move back to the position still known as Rover, from the position formerly-known-as Buck, now known as Will (for weak-side) under Freeman.
Kiser’s performance on short notice against South Florida assured him a chance at more playing time moving forward, but finding that role at Buck, err, at Will would be tough behind the duo of junior Marist Liufau (more multi-dimensional) and senior Shayne Simon (best against the run), who eventually split time throughout 2020, as Lea essentially deferred to the hot hand.
Add in the possibility of junior J.D. Bertrand or fifth-year Isaiah Pryor (less likely after his 2020 included only five games, and none of them were Clemson or Alabama) making a White-esque leap, circa 2019, from third-string to starter and Freeman will have options.
How he deploys those options may be 2021’s most intriguing development, and yes, that word choice is intentional, given the role development has played at linebacker in the last few seasons.
WHERE NOTRE DAME WILL BE
— Notre Dame on NBC (@NDonNBC) December 16, 2020
Before we get into spring practices, any questions? Let’s hear them: firstname.lastname@example.org
Where Notre Dame was & is: Quarterback
Where Notre Dame was & is: Running backs
Where Notre Dame was & is: Receivers
Where Notre Dame was & is: Tight ends
Where Notre Dame was & is: Offensive line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive line
Where Notre Dame was & is: Captains