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.
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:
— J. Owusu-Koramoah (@j_owuu) March 23, 2019
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.