There isn’t a more intriguing position group on the Notre Dame football roster heading into spring football this year than the linebacking corps. After losing two stalwarts from the last couple of years, Notre Dame could very conceivably have and entire new starting trio depending on potential position changes and how things shakeup this spring. And honestly, there isn’t really any combination of linebackers emerging that would surprise me. Almost any scenario is possible right now.
Today I am going to take a look at how each position could shake out by outlining the major competitors for the starting positions.
Bilal is the only linebacker who returns with any starting experience after manning the ROVER position in 2018. Conventional wisdom suggests that the staff would want continuity there since Coney and Tranquill are gone. The thing is, there are three different scenarios that could play out here for Bilal alone: 1) he could stick at ROVER though it limits his NFL potential 2) he could move to BUCK ala Drue Tranquill or 3) he could end up pursuing a graduate transfer if his role in the defense isn’t what he is looking for.
While Bilal started every game at ROVER he didn’t exactly light the world on the fire the way Tranquill did in 2017 before his move to BUCK. Bilal compiled 50 tackles but but 3 TFL with no sacks and a single fumble recovery. In 2017, Tranquill had 85 tackles with 10.5 TFL, a sack, 3 fumble recoveries, a forced fumble, and an interception.
Bilal made a big step forward in 2018 though. Heading into the season it was not a forgone conclusion he would even start. He ended up winning the ROVER position in the spring. For him to have a shot at moving over to BUCK or even just holding on to the ROVER position, he will need another strong spring.
Simon might be the best pure ROVER candidate on the roster heading into 2019. He took some time to adjust last fall, but he could be primed to take over at ROVER even if Bilal doesn’t move inside to BUCK as many expect he will. Long term Simon could follow Tranquill’s path from ROVER to BUCK as well, but for 2019, he’ll be at the ROVER position and will likely be the starter on opening day whether or not Bilal makes the move.
It is really a shame that Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah got hurt and missed the 2018 season. While his injuries aren’t the reason he lost out to Bilal for the starting ROVER position last year, they did rob him of valuable playing time on special teams where he could have cut his teeth last year. “JOK” as he is known is an extremely gifted athlete whose has the perfect profile for the ROVER position. Problem is, he red-shirted in 2017 and then missed all of last year with the injury.
JOK will factor into the mix at ROVER this spring – especially if Bilal moves inside. Given he essentially hasn’t seen game action since high school though, 2019 might be more of a year where he gets some experience under his belt before taking over at ROVER in 2020 if/when Simon moves to BUCK.
For 2019, Jack Kiser is going to be a depth option, but his late rise in the recruiting rankings is a solid indicator that the Indiana native was more than just a a throw in recruit like some incorrectly viewed him. Kiser is an early enrollee, but will now be missing the spring with an injury.
The most intriguing name to watch at BUCK is junior Jordan Genmark-Heath. The converted safety played behind Drue Tranquill in 2018, but didn’t get onto the field much playing behind a guy who rarely came off the field. When Tranquill did come off the field versus Navy though, Genmark-Heath wasn’t who Clark Lea tapped – it was Drew White. Part of that was due to White’s experience against the option from high school.
After Genmark-Heath spent the year learning linebacker and growing into the position in the weight room, he could be primed for a big breakthrough this year. That is what makes spring practice so critical for him this year. We saw what is possible when a jumbo sized safety grows into a BUCK with Tranquill. Genmark-Heath has the background and profile to be the same kind of playmaker.
Another name to watch at BUCK is sophomore Jack Lamb. Like Simon he took some time to acclimate as a freshman last fall. Towards the end of the year though, he started to flash in practice and is going to factor into the starting lineup in 2019. Lamb could play either BUCK or MIKE potentially, but BUCK might be his best position long term.
While White got the playing time against Navy with Tranquill hurt, that seems like it was more a product of familiarity. Now, White could be groomed to be another Greer Martini – aka an option buster. That said, he seems to have an uphill battle on his hands in terms of getting past Bilal, Lamb, or Genmark-Heath.
This will be an interesting year for the redshirt freshman. I see an eventual move to DROP in Oghoufo’s future given the depth Notre Dame has at linebacker and his skillset ala Daelin Hayes. It will be interesting to see where they line him up in the spring because if the coaching staff feels the same way, there’s no reason to keep him at linebacker this year even if he needs some work in the weight room before he’s ready to make an impact at DROP. If he stays at linebacker, where he ends up will still be interesting too watch because he’s got great athleticism.
It could be a two man race at the MIKE with senior Jonathan Jones the most experienced. Jones has not played a ton, but he’s entering his senior season with two years of eligibility. He could be a candidate for a Corey Mays type senior season breakout. He’s flashed at times and there is no question if he can deliver the big hit or not – he definitely can. The question remains if he can be in the right position more often than not to deliver said big hit. That is something that we haven’t seen from Jones to this point in his career. He plays with a contagious high energy though and considering Notre Dame lost some of that in Drue Tranquill, that could give Jones a boost.
If Jones does not lock down the starting MIKE spot, the most likely candidate to take the position is sophomore Bo Bauer. Bauer is a heady player who had the looks of a multiple year starter written all over him ever since Notre Dame recruited him. Like Jones, the challenge for Bauer will be to play more disciplined in the spring. He took some time adjusting to the defense like many other freshmen did a year ago, but that is understandable at the MIKE position. A year later, he could be ready to seize the opportunity for playing time.
How this all shakes out
Your guess is as good as mine right now. I suspect we will see Clark Lea experiment with a lot of different alignments this spring to see what he has to work with and when all is said and done, a rotation of sorts could be in the works just like we saw in 2017. Two years ago then defensive coordinator Mike Elko mixed in Greer Martini, Tevon Coney, and Nyles Morgan frequently throughout the course of a game with Tranquill then playing ROVER.
Should Lea follow the route of Elko in 2017 this fall, there will be at least five players in the mix for the two inside spots – Bilal, Genmark-Heath, Lamb, Bauer, and Jones. That would leave Shayne Simon and JOK to handle the ROVER spot.
Lea could also throw some caution to the wind and turn to the future with an all sophomore lineup of Simon (ROVER), Lamb (BUCK), and Bauer (MIKE). Such a unit would take some lumps early on, but the long term benefits of getting them all playing together now could have benefits down the road.
If he wants to go with the veteran experience route, we could be looking at Jones at the MIKE, Bilal at BUCK, and then Simon at ROVER again. That’s all predicated on Bilal moving to BUCK though. As of now that hasn’t happened and it’s very possible the coaches keep him at ROVER at this point.
Given the numbers Notre Dame has here, it shouldn’t shock anyone if there is some movement in this group during or after the spring. Position changes are inevitable and Notre Dame is still over 85 scholarships so that is something to watch out for as well.
So. Many. Questions. No real answers right now. Lea and Brian Kelly have 15 practices starting next weekend to start to find some answers. Odds are they will exit spring without a clear lineup in mind but if they can exit spring at least with their rotations set, the’ll be in solid position entering fall camp.