SOUTH BEND — The position group that carried so much uncertainty into the 2019 season opener, a year later flexes both prosperity in the present for Notre Dame and promise beyond 2020.
Not that there aren’t challenges, including keeping all those surging and developing linebackers happy — senior Jordan Genmark Heath’s plunge this week into the transfer portal a tangible case in point.
None of the remaining 10 had expiring eligibility even before the NCAA reconfigured eligibility clocks this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So confident were Irish head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea that the position group has evolved beyond years of linebacker recruiting missteps they passed on recruiting any in the 2020 cycle — including top 100 prospect Cody Simon, who ended up at Ohio State.
Cody’s older brother — 2018 top 50 national prospect, junior Shayne Simon — finally found his way to the top of the depth chart. An unlikely late bloomer, Simon shares the distinction of top option at buck linebacker heading into Saturday’s season/ACC opener against Duke with traditional late bloomer, sophomore Marist Liufau.
Seniors Jeremiah-Owusu Koramoah (rover) and Drew White (middle linebacker) are returning starters for 10th-ranked ND. Owusu-Koramoah went from a guy with zero career tackles heading into 2019 to a preseason All-American and projected first-round draft choice next spring if he comes out.
White, a two-star recruit at one juncture in his recruitment, tied Owusu-Koramoah for the team lead in 2019 with 80 tackles.
The intrigue involves some of the players further down the depth chart, including two whom Kelly addressed Thursday during a Zoom conference call with the media.
Junior Jack Lamb hoped to compete for the slot that went to Simon/Liufau and sent Gemnark Heath packing. Lamb’s body had other ideas.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Californian was a key niche piece in ND’s third-and-long defensive package last season until a torn muscle in his hip/glute area, suffered Nov. 2 against Virginia Tech, sidelined him for the rest of the 2019 season.
“We still really have a lot of confidence in Jack, but he’s been slowed by his injury, which was career-threatening,” Kelly said Thursday. “During camp, he had a little bit of a setback with that hip. He has worked through that, but he’s been behind, quite frankly, in a very, very competitive situation, as you know.
“So we expect that Jack is going to be able to contribute for us immediately in special teams and (we) continue to work at getting him back at 100%. Again, I think from our perspective, this is a very competitive position. Jack is a guy that is rounding back into playing shape. But it’s going to take some time.”
Kelly also confirmed Thursday what had been widely speculated, that sophomore linebacker Osita Ekownu’s move to running back was actually more of a cross-training exercise. And that still would have been the case had Genmark Heath not exited the roster earlier this week.
“Osita was going to be a niche player on offense,” Kelly said. “And I’ll define niche player — a short-yardage back, a goal-line back. So he never really left the linebacker corps. He’s been cross training at the position and would continue to spend most of his time with the linebackers.
“So if we’re breaking down the depth chart, he is still with the linebackers and continues to work exclusively now with the linebackers. We’ve given him enough work at running back in camp that the couple plays we needed him for, he’s tuned in for.”
Big Ten aftershocks
Publicly, Kelly never wavered over the past few months in his rhetoric that Notre Dame’s fall football season would at least reach the starting line.
Privately, there were some anxious moments, though, including Aug. 11, when the Big Ten punted on fall football followed by the Pac-12 doing the same.
“Well certainly when you hear a conference decide not to play, you think that there’s going to be ripple effects,” Kelly said. “I said to our staff (Thursday) in 30 years of being a head coach, I really had a hard time envisioning not playing, because I didn’t know anything else for 30 years.
“But now, it’s hard to imagine that we’ve gotten here. So from that respect, I think we’ve had days where when we heard noise and we saw things like that, we kind of just kept our head down and kept going.”
Notre Dame’s roster went through its second round of three COVID-19 tests this week on Wednesday, but Kelly didn’t have access to the numbers yet at the time of the Zoom call. As of Monday, there wasn’t a single Irish player in isolation or quarantine.
Campus-wide, more than a week after ND began phasing back in in-person classes, the school reported on Thursday one new case in 598 tests.
The overall active cases on campus fell to 41 and the positivity rate decreased to 1.1%.
“We knew we had good procedures and protocols,” Kelly said. “We had good science, that we had doctors that were really following what they believed to be the best protocols and procedures. So we were following them diligently hoping that we would get to this point.
“We were probably like everybody else in that we had some ups and downs in this. The Big Ten not playing was probably one of those bad days, but we were seeing great results.
“I think there was some great internal optimism within the ACC. I was on daily conference calls for the first time in a long time, not being in a conference here at Notre Dame.
“But now being in conference calls, I think we felt some comfort as a group that we were doing good things, and we were feeling confident as a conference that we were going to hang in there. But that’s kind of how it came together for us.”
Conference membership has its privileges — and its price.
Last week, Notre Dame painted the ACC logo onto the Notre Dame Stadium turf, only to have to relocate it when it was learned that the location was out of compliance with league protocol.
On Thursday, quarterback Ian Book on Instagram revealed his game jersey, complete with an ACC logo patch. It also is cluttered(?) with an Under Armour logo, a “C” to commemorate Book’s captain status and a “Rally” patch to celebrate Notre Dame’s 2020 official team mantra.
NBC kicks off its 30th season of Notre Dame football coverage having to adapt just like everyone else to COVID-19 restrictions. The end result includes some different sight lines for fans watching at home.
Play-by-play voice Mike Tirico will be working with a new analyst for ND, former NFL head coach Tony Dungy, and — temporarily — a new sideline cohort as well.
ND grad Jac Collinsworth’s role this season is to host NBC’s pregame, halftime and postgame shows, but he’ll also be on the sidelines Saturday as regular sideline reporter Kathryn Tappen continues her NHL on NBC Stanley Cup Playoff coverage.
As for Tirico adjusting to the smallest Notre Dame Stadium crowd since 1937, capped Saturday at 15,525?
“I’m going to lean back on something that I stumbled on after 9/11 and the first weekend back doing football,” he said during a conference call earlier this week with the college football media. “I did a game at Michigan, and I had no idea, going in, how to react — be upbeat, be positive or continue the somber tone that was in the country.
“On that day, I remember walking into the stadium just thinking, ‘I’ll react the way the people react. If there’s crowd noise and there’s enthusiasm and you can hear that coming through the TV, I’ll match that. If there’s not, you’re a little more subdued.’ I’m going to try to use that as a guide or a barometer for how we do it (Saturday).
“I think my biggest concern — or I guess unknown is a better word — is the logistics of calling the game, being socially distant in the booth in terms of spotters, statisticians, things like that.
“We’ve worked a lot to have a game plan in hand to have all the services and the ancillary things that are essential to getting a good broadcast on the air replicated. For me that’s more of a trepidation going in than what’s it going to sound like with no fans, because we will have some in South Bend on Saturday.”