Who Will Start at Rover for Notre Dame in 2018?

There are very few starting positions up for grabs as Notre Dame heads into its second week of practice for 2018 fall camp.  One of those positions, though is the ROVER spot.  With Drue Tranquill moving over to the BUCK, new defensive coordinator Clark Lea is in search of that hybrid linebacker/safety role that Tranquill excelled at in 2017.  He will have some options to choose from, but the question will be whether or not he settles on one of them – or decides to use a rotation.

Asmar Bilal Opens Camp in the Lead

The leader in the clubhouse coming out of spring ball is senior Asmar Bilal.  Bilal came to Notre Dame three years ago as an athlete in a linebackers body carrying a 4-star ranking.  At the time, he was considered raw but with exceptional athleticism.  Three years later, the Irish coaching staff is still trying to turn that potential into production.

After not playing as a freshman, Bilal recorded just 47 combined tackles the last two seasons. Over that time he has collected 4.5 TFL but actually had a more productive season in 2016 than 2017.  As a sophomore Bilal had 3.0 TFL and his only career sack.  Last fall that production fell in half with just 1.5 TFL and no sacks as he learned the ROVER position behind Drue Tranquill.

The knock on Bilal has always been his coverage.  When he’s able to pin his ears back and attack, his athleticism kicks in and Bilal can be a weapon.  When he’s been asked to drop back into coverage, however, he’s been a liability.  How much he is able to improve his coverage skills will likely be the deciding factor in whether or not Asmar Bilal is able to lock down the ROVER position in camp.

Youngster Waiting in the Wings

If Asmar Bilal does not bring his A game and lock up the ROVER this summer, Notre Dame has some very talented youngsters waiting in the wings.  Sophomore Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah came to Notre Dame very late in the 2017 recruiting cycle in a similar mold to Bilal. He didn’t have 4-stars, but he was an athlete in a linebackers body.  He reported to Notre Dame very raw last summer, but he has developed quickly both physically and in his grasp of the ROVER position.

Owusu-Koramoah is a well put together athlete who looks bigger than the 215 lbs he is listed at on the official roster.  That weight, if accurate might make an every down role for him a bit out of reach just yet.  Even if he is not able to unseat Bilal though, JOK figures to be an absolute nightmare on special teams this fall.

Isaiah Robertson spent his freshman season in the Notre Dame defensive backfield but made the move down a level to ROVER in the spring ala Drue Tranquill.  Like Koramoah, Robertson is only listed at 215 lbs which might make an every down role unrealistic this year.  That said, both Robertson and Koramoah could be used in spot duty against pass happy teams.

The real wild card in the mix at ROVER for Notre Dame this fall is true freshman Shayne Simon.  He was one of the highest rated defensive recruits in the class of 2018 and he played a position almost identical to ROVER for St. Peter’s Prep in Jersey City, NJ in high school.  He’s already listed at a playing weight of 222 lbs and reportedly was very impressive during off-season workouts.

Is a Committee in the Works?

Clark Lea and Brian Kelly most likely would like to avoid a committee or platoon at ROVER this year but in looking at the situation, it makes the most sense.  After three years Bilal hasn’t been able to force his way onto the field and even as a senior, he is not considered a lock to start.  No position is guaranteed, but the fact that he didn’t lock up the position in spring gives an indication that the coaches are hoping to see more out of him before anointing him the starter.

Now, there is a very real possibility that Bilal locks this spot up over the next few weeks and has a Corey Mays like breakout senior season.  Remember, Mays was a highly rated recruit who also couldn’t force his way onto the field until his 5th year in 2005.  Then he blossomed into one of Notre Dame’s leaders on defense.

Regardless, when Michigan comes to town on September 1, expect to see Bilal in the starting lineup.  Also expect to see at least one of the youngsters getting reps as well.  In fact, it would be a surprise if none of them received reps on clear passing downs at least.

After that though, it is going to be very interesting to see this position develop over the season.  On paper, it would seem to make sense for Bilal to be the ROVER against a team like Stanford as well, but Cardinal tight ends have tormented Notre Dame over the years.  So Notre Dame will need whoever is manning the ROVER position to hold up against both a physical rushing front and in the passing game.

What’s crazy about all of this is we’re talking about a former 4-star senior linebacker potentially not even being a full-time starter. That isn’t a knock on Bilal either – it’s a testament to the depth that Notre Dame has finally built on defense.  When Brian Kelly says that this roster is stronger at positions 65-85 than any he’s had at Notre Dame, it’s true.

It’s also very encouraging to see the potential Notre Dame has at this position in the future too.  Koramoah-Owusu, Robertson, and Simon all have a world of potential in front of them and will give Notre Dame options not just at ROVER but possibly at the BUCK position as well depending on how much more each bulks up over the next few years.

For 2018 though, I think we’ll see a number of players contribute at ROVER.  Notre Dame pulled it off last year at the BUCK and by the end of the year, Tevon Coney developed into a tackling machine.  So even if Bilal splits time early in the season, it doesn’t mean he won’t lock down the spot by the end of the year.  It also wouldn’t preclude him from eventually transitioning over to the BUCK for 2019 like Tranquill did this season.

Then again, by season’s end it shouldn’t surprise anyone if we’re talking about Shayne Simon as Notre Dame’s ROVER of the present.  This position is one of the biggest – maybe only – question marks heading into the season and it doesn’t look too likely we’ll have a definitive answer by September 1.

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  1. I said it before, and I’ll say it again: I have complete confidence in Coach Lea.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  2. Confucius once said, and this is a paraphrase, as my Mandarin is suspect:

    “He who start at Rover in September opener may not be who who starts season finale in November.” True then, true now.

    1. So true Duranko. I’m not sure about this, but I think Coney was not a starter at his position at the beginning of 2017.

      BTW: Confucius also say “If your plan is for a year, plant rice. If your plan is for 10 years, plant trees. If your plan is for 100 years, educate children.”

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. Bruce in fact it was Greer Martini who was the starter against Temple.

        There is an odd dynamic, not exclusive to Notre Dame, with this new “you can play in four and not burn your redshirt” rule as some of these kids can use games like Ball State to show what they can do on the field. The next iteration may be that the coaches see something and decide to “reevealuate” their redshirt decisions.

        What is surprising about this team is the depth. Let’s consider safety, where Elliot was penciled in as the starter but it now seems as if Coleman was the starter. And Houston Griffith may not become a starter at all this year. If, in fact, Griffith, Allen, and Studstill are your 4th, 5th and 6th safeties, well,,,,,,,,that is a place where Notre Dame has not been for a long time.

        If you drop down to cornerback, the lengthy Donte Vaughn is getting good reviews, but is stuck behind Love and Pride.

        Check back with me in December, but it will be interesting to see how many cornerback tandems will have been MORE PRODCTIVE than Julian and Troy.

        As recently as 2012 Farley and KeiVarae Russell were forced into more snaps than they had earned. Not any more.

        On the other side of the ball, there was much weeping and gnashing of teeth about WR and RB. Sure, the practice field is not the same as Don Brown’s defense, but the cupboards are not bare

        Tim O’Malley who knows “come here” from “sic ’em” claimed that Long’s 6 TES are so talented that you could lose two, any two and barely miss a beat.

        This is not 2010: merely juxtapose the position and use of Rees 2010 and Jurkovec 2018.,

        One other thing, er two other things. Newsome and Yoon. They will come in handy, some afternoon or evening:
        sometime, when the team is up against it — and the breaks are beating the boys . Justin? Tyler? You’re up……

        On Confucius, I am both appreciative and distraught of your comment on education.

        Hoosier Youth Mike Pence is prattling about Star Wars, and should quit sounding like colonel Akbar, and focus more on educating kids. After all, any TRUE Christian is highly aware of what JESUS said about children, The challenges are ever greater in these days, with these media and device opportunities/perils.

  3. I could care less where anyone is positioned, draft choice or no draft choice. The name of the game is to keep the other side from putting points on the board.

  4. Moving Tranquill in order to help his NFL draft stock is a joke. This ND team doesnt have the luxury of doing such things, and Tranquill is not an NFL linebacker.

    1. George,

      What the hell are you talking about!? Tranquill is one of the best tacklers on the team along with Coney. At LB, Tranquill is going to be involved in many more plays than he was at Rover. As an ND fan, this should be what you want from one of your best defenders. Sorry but that was a really dumb statement you just made. This is a perfect fit for him.

      1. Except there’s nobody available to replace him at Rover! “BIGGEST QUESTION MARK”
        And it’s happening only so he can possibly get drafted.

        Try again. But don’t overlook the obvious issue this time.

      2. Really, George!? The “BIGGEST QUESTION MARK” huh!? HAHA!! The real question mark here is which of the three studs competing for the spot right now will end up getting it. It sounds like each one of them would be a good option, even the true freshmen Simon is turning heads already.

        Sorry bro but it’s garbage to blame the coaching staff to help Tranquill to the NFL. You clearly don’t know football.

      3. I was actually just quoting the article with the “biggest question mark” comment. You should show the author a little respect. But don’t allow me to shake your blind faith in this coaching staff and their BIG TIME defensive coordinator “hire” during the offseason.
        “Three studs competing” – That’s just low hanging fruit for me. I’ll let it go.

        Drue came back for a 5th year to play the position that suits him best in the NFL and to possibly get him a shot to be drafted. There’s nothing to argue there. It’s actually something you should have already known. But don’t be ashamed.

    2. Curious George,
      It’s not happening for the NFL, it’s happening because he is suited to move to that spot. Sure it will help in the NFL but more importantly it will help Notre Dame this fall. I have said for a long time that he is a LB and not a safety, this is the position he should have been playing all along imo. I understand that there is a lot about the game that you don’t understand so it’s best that you trust the decisions and opinions of the guys that do.

      1. Try following the team, pal. It’s going to be really tough for you to disprove anything I say otherwise.

      2. WOW!! LEA decides TRANQUIL is best suited for BUCK LB and that 3 players “CAN and WILL play rover this year!! Obviously theres no one suited to play buck this year but TRANQUIL!! His speed and tackling ability will b much better served at LB!! There is not a chance in hell they moved him to help his NFL chances!! Try following the DEF-COORDINATOR he knows whats best for the team!!

      3. The guy with zero experience in the role who’s there because ND didn’t care enough to pay for a real one?

      4. With all the questions on offense ( QB, RB , O-LINE ,WR ) to cry about the ROVER position is stupid!! TRY FOLLOWING THE TEAM PAAAAAAL!! Defense is the strength of the team, guess that was hard to figure out!!

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