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.