SOUTH BEND — Irish head coach Brian Kelly reiterated earlier this week that his linebacker unit appears far from a solidified depth chart.
That became even more evident at Notre Dame's spring practice No. 5 of 15, the first full session open to the media. Held at the Loftus Sports Center, ND's Thursday practice featured a merry-go-round of sorts at the linebacker position.
Drew White's injury certainly contributed to the carousel. The junior, who started at middle linebacker in ND's opening March 2 practice, will undergo surgery Friday on a right AC joint (shoulder). He's expected to miss the rest of spring football.
The Irish aren't using their nickel defense package, which adds a defensive back onto the field, until this weekend. Uncertainty at linebacker contributed to that decision, Kelly said. Injuries also prevent ND from using its full look defensively.
Early enrolled rover Jack Kiser, still injured from his left shoulder surgery in February, was limited to sideline work but ditched his arm sling. Cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Shaun Crawford, defensive tackles Jamion Franklin and Hunter Spears and White joined Kiser.
Senior Asmar Bilal took White’s place to start practice. Bilal, last year’s starting rover, was in line as the starting buck linebacker to begin the spring. He manned the middle as junior Jordan Genmark Heath and sophomore Shayne Simon started at buck and rover, respectively.
Sophomores Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb, junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and senior Jonathan Jones intermingled and rotated with the aforementioned linebacking trio. Bilal also slid to buck while Bauer and Jones rotated at mike. Simon at rover seemed like the only consistent linebacker placement for now with Owusu-Koramoah backing him up.
Senior safety Alohi Gilman participated in practice but remained limited. He did not participate in contact situations. Sophomore safeties Derrik Allen, Paul Moala and DJ Brown saw plenty of action.
Allen struggled in 1-on-1 drills and in 7-on-7, failing to keep up in coverage with his 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame. Moala saw time at rover, rotating in behind Simon and Owusu-Koramoah. Brown showed flashes at strong safety, breaking up a couple passes. He moved to the position from cornerback this spring yet impressed more than Allen and Moala.
Senior Troy Pride Jr. distinguished himself as the clear leader of the cornerback unit. At 6-feet, 194 pounds, Pride mostly operated in press coverage, looked physical and worked hard.
Pride held his own against senior Chase Claypool, breaking up a jump ball targeted toward ND’s top receiver. Pride bullied speedster Braden Lenzy at the line of scrimmage, using his strength to jam the sophomore out of his route on a couple occasions. Not many balls were caught in Pride's area, and he registered a few pass breakups.
Sophomore Houston Griffith started at boundary cornerback with junior Avery Davis rotating behind him. Sophomore TaRiq Bracy subbed in for Pride at field cornerback. Griffith garnered a pass breakup on Lenzy, and Bracy and Davis each knocked away a pass intended for receiver Kevin Austin.
The Irish safeties mostly struggled, and the defense couldn’t seem to defend the middle of the field. Tight ends Cole Kmet, Brock Wright and Tommy Tremble terrorized ND’s safeties with their size and athleticism.
With the exception of Pride, the Irish defensive backs were no match for sophomore Lawrence Keys III, Austin and Claypool. Junior Michael Young and Lenzy made a couple impressive plays.
Elliott’s biggest blunder of the day came during 1-on-1 drills against Keys. His double move, which ended with him catching a pass over the middle, created a gaping amount of separation between the two.
Nothing memorable came out of the Irish defensive line, which was not allowed to hit the quarterback. For the most part, ND's front seven bottled up the running game and jet sweeps. Early enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey continued to rotate early and often at nose guard. Senior Jamir Jones made an impressive play against the run early in practice.