Last year Notre Dame was in a tough spot on offense. They knew they weren’t going to have their top running back in the opener, they had just lost Josh Adams, their top two offensive linemen, and their first team running back was a receiver who had never played a college snap. They were about to play the best defense they’d face in the regular season, by far, with a wicked front seven. They had their starter returning at quarterback, but he had issues with confidence and consistency, to say the least. Chip Long had a decision to make.
Chip Long went with his senior signal caller, Brandon Wimbush, and we know now that he felt Ian Book might be the better long term option. Wimbush gave Notre Dame a high variance type athlete at quarterback. He wasn’t going to complete 70% of his passes, but he could also compromise the defense with his big arm and his improvisation skills, which is exactly what won Notre Dame the game. Chip Long focused on beating Michigan, devised an offseason around doing that, and it worked. Can Clark Lea take a page out of Long’s book and do the same at linebacker?
Forget Last Season
A lot of the conversation regarding linebacker this season revolves around trying to find a permanent solution to the position and develop some consistency. That’s what we saw not only last season, but the year before. We knew who the core three or four guys were, and at what position. It’s most likely not going to be the case this year.
There is only one player with real game experience, Asmar Bilal, and his place in the lineup has never been a given. To expect this group to settle on a clear pecking order in the fall when they didn’t come close to doing that in the spring isn’t realistic. It could happen, but it likely will not.
Given that, fans would be wise to look at this unit as a whole, rather than what pegs fit into what hole and try and game out which players will start what game or at what point of the season. There is a good chance all of them will play, all of them will look good at times, and they’ll look bad at other times. Just as Brandon Wimbush did last season. Wimbush also showed you don’t need to be consistent to win the big games.
Find A Way To Beat Georgia And Michigan
This is what it all comes down to, right? Notre Dame needs to peak twice in 2019, at Georgia and at Michigan. They can probably win the rest of their games with some version of less than their best performance. But, in those two weeks, whatever this team can be next season, that’s what they need to be on those days. Which means at linebacker, it’s all hands on deck. It won’t be the time for snap counts and stats. It won’t be the time for long term concerns about who is playing where, who has started previously, and how much someone has played.
Clark Lea can use the first two weeks of the year to figure out who can do what at linebacker. Could he opt for the high variance play of Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon, who are long on athletic ability, but short on experience and size? Can he platoon them with Jordan Genmark Heath and Asmar Bilal, who have been in the program longer? Is a limited role for thumper Bo Bauer going to get it done on those nights?
It’s very likely none of these players is ever good enough this season to be play at a consistently high level. You don’t go from either not playing or being inconsistent to being a week to week player who can be counted on. Not how football works. And there will be weeks against lesser opponents that will drive all of us and the coaches crazy, and we’ll think there is no way that level of play is sustainable to be a playoff team. But, as Brandon Wimbush showed us, just because you can’t do it week after week doesn’t mean you can’t do it against the best. You just have to find a way, on that day.
Last Season’s Linebackers Play Other Positions Now
Now, this analysis on the linebackers assumes a lot of things. It assumes the safeties, Gilman and Elliott, are last season’s Coney and Tranquill. It also assumes the defensive ends are monsters, as predicted. Because you can take what you can get from the middle when the offense has much bigger things to worry about upfront. (This underscores just how brilliant Wimbush was against Michigan, because there is no hiding the quarterback. Bless that man.)
The question is, can the linebackers be some version of safety last season? I’d assume no, not to that degree, but there is a good amount of talent there and if Clark Lea can tap into that talent on the two nights it is needed most, Notre Dame may have something this year. And anyway, isn’t that why we think Lea is so darn good?