Organized Chaos Describes Notre Dame Linebacking Corps this Spring

Coming in to spring football we knew that the biggest puzzle for the Irish coaching staff to solve was going to be linebacker.   We also knew not to expect any semblance of a depth chart by the end of spring ball.  What we didn’t know was that the staff would be mixing and matching even more possible combinations than anyone imagined.

With program stalwarts Tevon Coney and Drue Tranquill out of eligibility, Notre Dame was always going to have to replace at least two starters.  It wasn’t going to be just that simple though because it has long been speculated that 2018’s starting ROVER, Asmar Bilal would move to BUCK ala the same path as Tranquill.  So essentially, that was going to have three whole new starters.

Things haven’t been as simple as just sliding Bilal over to BUCK and looking for a new ROVER and MIKE though.  Here’s a quick recap of all of the comings and goings we know about so far after just seven practices.

  • The first domino that fell here was losing Drew White for a few months to injury.  White was expected to challenge for the MIKE role and reports are that he might have had a better chance than most felt coming into spring.  He’s out for all of spring.
  • Asmar Bilal has actually been playing some MIKE so far in open practices.  That would be quite the move from ROVER, but the staff is really looking to find the best combination of backers.
  • Rising sophomore Paul Moala moved from safety to ROVER and it looks like the move might just stick.  Moala was running with the 2nd team on Saturday with rising junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (aka JOK) running with the first team.
  • JOK was the first team ROVER over the weekend, because sophomore to be Shayne Simon has been spending time cross-training at BUCK with Bilal at MIKE.

Get all that?  Your head spinning yet?

In the last few practices, sophomore Jack Lamb has been starting to flash at BUCK .  Meanwhile classmate Bo Bauer so far has been surprisingly quiet this spring though that could change between now and April 13.  We haven’t heard Jonathan Jones’s name mentioned a whole lot so far either.  Bilal playing MIKE so far is pretty indicative of how the returning MIKE linebackers have performed thus far.

Once Notre Dame gets some more clarity at MIKE the rest might to start to fall into place.  Don’t expect that to happen by the end of spring though based on how things are looking right now.  In best case scenario, either Jones or Bauer start to flash and allow Bilal to play at BUCK as originally planned.  At this point though, Asmar Bilal starting at MIKE Labor Day weekend against Louisville is starting to look like a real possibility.

Nailing Down the BUCK

If Bilal sticks at MIKE, it appears Notre Dame has three viable options at the BUCK right now based on almost the first half of spring: Shayne Simon, Jack Lamb, Jordan Genmark-Heath.  While there’s a ton of question marks about the linebacking group as a whole right now, there is some legitimate reason to be a little excited about the potential here.

Without question, there will be a drop off from Drue Tranquill here just like we knew there was going to be a drop off from Quenton Nelson & Mike McGlinchey on the offensive line last year.  That said, all three players have had encouraging reports already this spring.

Lamb specifically has reportedly been impressive lately and might be on the field in the nickel at a minimum.  He’s challenging to be an every down backer as well, but it’s sounding like he is at least finding a niche in the nickel package.

This group will be fun to watch in the Blue & Gold game because there is a lot of athleticism in this group.

JOKers Wild?

It was assumed that Simon was the leading candidate at ROVER heading into spring, but so far JOK‘s been making some noise at ROVER.  Some of that is because Simon’s been cross-training at BUCK.  But it’s also because of reps like this:

After missing all of 2018 due to injury, it would have been understandable for their to be some rust for Owusu-Koramoah, but so far he’s look every bit as freakishly athletic as we’ve known him to be since he originally committed to Notre Dame.  He’s still very much learning the position after losing a year of development essentially, but it’s reportedly starting to click for him.

Athleticism is not an issue at all for Owusu.  In fact, he is probably the most explosive candidate vying for playing time at ROVER and he’d bring a pass rush eliminate back to the position that it missed in 2018.  As Brian Kelly cautioned over the weekend though, there’s still work to be done for JOK in terms of being “assignment correct” consistently.

If Paul Moala’s move to ROVER proves permanent and he can convince the staff that he’s a viable #2 option, Simon could end up staying at BUCK with JOK taking over at ROVER.  That’s if Simon shows he can pick up BUCK.  Lot of ifs there but, that’s probably the closest to clarity we have right now.

Now here’s the fun part in all of this.  This could all change by the Blue & Gold game.  There’s two ways to look at that.  1) OMG the sky is falling and Notre Dame has no linebackers or 2) Hey, Notre Dame’s got a ton of raw talent here and it’s pretty smart for Notre Dame DC Clark Lea to use the spring to try out just about every combination he can to maximize the roster while replacing two recent greats. For the sake of Notre Dame building on 2018’s run to the playoffs, let’s hope it’s the later.

Lea’s linebacking units are the furthest thing from providing any sort of clarity to the depth right now. What is clear, however, is that Notre Dame’s 2nd year defensive coordinator is taking advantage of the 15 practices he’s got this spring to really see what he’s got.  Hopefully at the end he see’s he’s got a lot.

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  1. Linebacker is a non-issue under Lea, with the cadre of talent he has recruited and shifted from safety/rover/

    The Achiles Heel of the 2019 Notre Dame football team is Defensive tackle. It is devoid of achievement depth
    and upside potential.

    The losses of Tillery and Bonner on the one hand, and Tranquill and Coney, on the other hand, are equally deleterious.
    The significant difference is in the cupboards. One was well-stocked, the other scarily sparse.

    James Coley, Georgia’s offensive coordinator, is licking his chops at turning his five deep running back corps and that terrifying aggregation of
    five star talent at OC and OG, against the Irish Achilles Heel on September 21st in Athens.

    It may not be a pretty sight.

  2. I think it’s obvious that Notre Dame has figured things out. You open things up for competition. Whoever is the hungriest gets to play. In the past we always stuck the safe bet back there but never had dynamic players like they do in the SEC and ACC. The coaches I believe over thought things.

  3. Wow Frank , good article on “the chaos” of 2019 linebackers . I must admit by end of your article — you are bewildered as is the coaching staff on the linebacking solution for 2019. What I see though is more talent of a group not ever seen before at an ND spring start. It’s not the loss of Tranquil/Coney —it’s where the abundance of talent is able to be set/positioned for 2019 season. Once accomplished — Tranquill /Coney talk will fade away. A new era of linebackers is upon us — Go Irish.

    1. Right now I see a ton of potential. My question is whether that potential is ready in 2019 or if we see a lot of growing pains this year before an explosion in 2020. Jury is still out.

      1. Let’s hope the growing pains and the learning on field this season can bring victory. Same goes for the D Line interior. Go Irish.

  4. Bilal is going to end up being able to play any of the three. He could always be on the field, but maybe in different positionsn and obviously, with different sets of LBs. Drue and Tevon were on the field all the time. Maybe Bilal is that guy…or maybe we won’t have that…we’ll have a true rotation. It’s all speculation anyway.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  5. I really like Clarke as a defensive coach/ coordinator.Matter of fact I am very impressed with Notredames entire defensive coaches. I think the defense will be pretty good this year. The key to Notredame making the playoffs again will be how good is the offense. Since Chip Long has been the o coordinator the rushing and passing yards have been really good but the points per game has not been any better under him than in Kelly’s other 7 years. Got to average over 40 points a game to win a national championship.Just go check out the last 10 national champions and you will notice they all averaged over 40 a game.

    1. Yeah, it helps to play patsys like Troy State , Ga. Southern, Furman. I’m a nickname freak and don’t know theirs at all.

      1. true to an extent Greg but over the last 4 or 5 years Notredame played the same teams Ohio State Clemson Texas etc played and they scored a lot more points against those teams than Notredame did.Some examples Notredame last year scored 24 on Michigan 24 on USC 3 on Clemson 24 BallState 22 Vanderbilt 19 vs Pitt.In the same breath Clemson scored 42 on Pitt Ucf scored 45 on Pitt Penn State 51 on Pitt. Ohio State 62 on Michigan 45 on Northwestern .Notredame 31 on Northwestern Ohio Ztate 45 on Northweatern Texas 42 on usc.Alabama 66 on Vanderbilt. Do you see where aIm going with this.

  6. Frank, I enjoyed the detailed update. However, when you give the option of 1.) OMG, the sky is falling versus 2. ND has a lot of raw talent and you follow that with “let’s hope it’s the former,” I believe–or at least hope–you mean, let’s hope it’s the latter.

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