Notre Dame’s defensive transformation is about to kick into full gear when the Irish return to practice on Wednesday after a twelve day layoff between practices two and three in the 2017 Spring football season. One change we’ll witness will be one of two new linebacker positions – the “BUCK” – where Notre Dame will have two veteran linebackers fighting for a starting spot. Tevon Coney and Greer Martini.
Before jumping into what both bring to the table, let’s dive into what exactly the BUCK position is. Essentially, the BUCK is the weakside linebacker position and is similar to the WILL position from Brian Vangorder’s so called “scheme”. The BUCK has coverage responsibilities and needs sideline to sideline speed in the run game. Mike Elko’s defense puts a lot of responsibility on the BUCK in the run game while also allowing for it to be a factor in the pass rush. In short, the BUCK has to be athletic and versatile but not necessarily a brutally strong backer like the MIKE.
Rising junior Tevon Coney started nine games at the WILL position in 2016 and should be the leading candidate for the BUCK position this fall. Coney possesses the best combination of the size needed to handle the run game responsibilities and the athleticism needed to handle the responsibilities in coverage. In his nine starts a year ago, Coney racked up 62 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss with 10 of those tackles coming against Virginia Tech.
While Coney is athletically gifted, he simply did not make enough negative plays in 2016 to have the starting spot he occupied for most of the season guaranteed to him in 2017. Then again, who did make negative plays in Notre Dame’s defense in 2016? Not too many. Like many Notre Dame defenders over the last three years, Coney simply was not utilized to the best of his abilities under Brian Vangorder. That misuse is part of the reason why his negative plays simply were almost non-existent.
Not all of Coney’s struggles can be pinned on the BVG scheme, however. Coney has a lot of developing to do this spring and fall to start to realize his potential, but remember he was just a true sophomore in 2016. His best football is still very much ahead of him.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from Tevon Coney is senior Greer Martini. While Martini doesn’t have quite the athleticism as Coney, he has been a playmaker when he has gotten the chance to make them. In 2016, Martini had 55 tackles but 7 of them went for loss. In a defense starved for pass rushers, Martini also picked up 3.0 sacks on the season.
As he enters his senior season, Martini has not been a full-time starter to date, however, because his skillset is a bit one dimensional on the defensive side of the ball. Notre Dame has used Martini to the best of his abilities – a rarity for the previous defensive staff – in unleashing Martini mainly against option and power rushing offenses.
Of the 7.0 tackles for loss that Martini had in 2016, 5.0 of them came against Stanford, Army, and Navy. All three of his sacks from 2016 also came in those games with 2.0 against Stanford and his third against Army. In 2015, Martini had 1.5 of his 2.5 tackles for loss on the season against Stanford. One of them being his only sack of the season.
With Martini we know what we are getting at this point. He is a hard nosed, disciplined linebacker who is a better power player than Coney. What we don’t know is whether or not Martini can handle to coverage responsibilities of the position. To this point in his career he has not shown that he has those skills.
If Notre Dame didn’t have a potential star at MIKE linebacker in Nyles Morgan, Martini would actually be a strong candidate to start there. With Morgan present, however, Martini will get a crack at BUCK.
Whither Asmar Bilal?
While Coney and Martini will be the primary hunters for the BUCK, rising junior Asmar Bilal could get in the mix as well. Bilal, however, spent the first practice of spring working at the ROVER position and his skillset and size likely make that position more of a fit for him at least for 2017.
We won’t know what Notre Dame plans to do at the ROVER position until the summer most likely based on some early comments from Brian Kelly. Bilal might be the most athletic linebacker on the roster but he also has a weight of 229 lbs listed on the official 2017 spring roster. That kind of size is not going to hold up well as an every down BUCK.
How This Battle Could Shake Out
The Notre Dame defense would be best served in 2017 with Tevon Coney locking down the starting position heading into the fall with Martini being able to be the Swiss Army Knife of the defense again in 2017. Martini can do a little bit of everything and should have a clear and defined role in 2017 just as he did a year ago.
Coney has the most upside at the BUCK position and if Elko and new linebackers coach Clark Lea are able to coach him up in spring and fall camps, Notre Dame could have itself a hell of a linebacker duo with him and Nyles Morgan manning the BUCK and MIKE positions respectively. For that to happen, Coney has to demonstrate that he is capable of producing more negative plays. He has the skills to do so, but to date that hasn’t been parlayed into big plays.
Greer Martini was named a captain for the 2017 season already but that shouldn’t play a role in whether or not he is an official starter. This situation is to a much lesser extent the Joe Schmidt vs. Nyles Morgan debate from 2015. Martini is a smart football player but his versatility and skillset would best serve the 2017 defense in that do it all type of role with the occasional start when the situation makes sense.
Even if Coney locks down the starting role, though, Martini should still be unleashed as he was in 2016 against option offenses and opponents who will want to ground and pound the football. Read Navy, Stanford, Michigan State, and maybe Boston College. He should also be the top backup at both the BUCK and MIKE positions with Notre Dame lacking an experienced backup behind Morgan.
This all hinges on Coney developing over these next 13 practices and into fall camp. If he doesn’t, Greer Martini will be there and will be very capable of stepping into lineup when called upon.