SOUTH BEND — Expect the unexpected with Notre Dame’s linebacking unit this spring.
A different linebacker could shine in any given practice. In spring session No. 6 of 15 on Saturday at the Loftus Sports Center, it was Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah who owned the spotlight. Only, the junior shined as the starting rover.
In ND’s Thursday practice, sophomore Shayne Simon manned that role with Owusu-Koramoah serving as his backup. The Irish continued to intermingle their mostly inexperienced group, which replaces former veterans in Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill.
Owusu-Koramoah performed well in scrimmage settings and special teams drills. He garnered an impressive pass breakup, undercutting Ian Book’s intermediate pass intended for tight end Cole Kmet. Owusu-Koramoah looked fluid and comfortable in his role.
Asmar Bilal and Jordan Genmark Heath continued to start at mike and buck linebacker, respectively. However, Bilal spent most of his time in the middle. In Thursday’s practice, the senior played plenty at buck and mike. He started at rover for the Irish last season. Senior Jonathan Jones rotated in at mike while Simon spent most of his time at buck.
Another surprise came at rover via Paul Moala. For the first observed session this spring, the sophomore worked exclusively with the linebackers. The 6-foot, 210-pounder spent all of last season at free safety. Moala received special attention and often worked one-on-one with a coach during position drills. He recorded a tackle for a loss on quarterback Phil Jurkovec during a scrimmage portion.
Moala’s move comes despite a lack of depth at the safety position. Senior free safety Alohi Gilman missed practice — as did receiver Chris Finke and left tackle Liam Eichenberg — due to class obligations. Starting safeties Jalen Elliott and Gilman rarely took plays off in 2018, and Gilman being limited this spring opened the door for time. Perhaps the move had to do with ND’s confidence in incoming freshmen Kyle Hamilton and Litchfield Ajavon.
Sophomore Derrik Allen took Gilman’s place, but like Thursday, he did not inspire much confidence. Allen looked stiff with slow instincts in one-on-one drills, 7-on-7 settings and in scrimmage portions. The 6-2, 220-pounder surrendered a touchdown to Kmet in a one-on-one situation near the goal line.
Starting cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr. and Houston Griffith both had quality practices. Chase Claypool and Kmet at times found soft spots in the Irish defense, but Pride and Griffith held their own for the most part. Pride logged a pass breakup against sophomore speedster Braden Lenzy during red zone one-on-ones. Griffith quickly brought down receiver Michael Young on a reverse.
TaRiq Bracy jumped out on multiple occasions. The sophomore cornerback registered the practice’s lone interception, picking off an overthrown ball during a scrimmage portion. Bracy won one-on-one matchups against Isaiah Robertson and Lenzy. He also recorded an impressive tackle in an early position drill.
The defensive line combo of Julian Okwara, Kurt Hinish, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Khalid Kareem look to be ND's strongest starting unit. Had he been allowed to make contact, Okwara would have recorded a sack during a scrimmage period.
The Irish rotated their second- and third-string defensive ends with the first team defense during scrimmage settings. Early enrolled freshman NaNa Osafo-Mensah rotated on the strong side. Sophomore Ovie Oghoufo had the best practice among ND’s backup defensive linemen. He tackled Lenzy on a reverse sweep and dominated the special teams portion.
Kmet figures to secure a featured role in ND’s offense for 2019. That’s been showcased so far this spring.
Not many of the Irish defensive backs have been able to cover Kmet in one-on-one situations. The junior ran a corner route near the goal line and blew past Allen with ease, catching a touchdown in the one-on-one drill. He tallied two touchdowns in 7-on-7 action near the goal line as well.
This translated to Kmet’s success in scrimmage situations. Quarterback Ian Book often targeted Kmet, who frequently found open holes across the middle of the field. Kmet even began a drive with a reception for roughly 35 yards on a wheel route.
Finke’s absence allowed ND’s younger receivers to see an uptick in participation. Sophomore Lawrence Keys III started in Finke’s role and made a long reception in a scrimmage setting. He hauled in a Book pass on an intermediate route before shaking off a few tacklers. Junior Isaiah Robertson also benefited from Finke’s absence with a few receptions.
Starting field (wide side) receiver Michael Young and Lenzy flashed their speed. Young blazed past Elliott on a one-on-one drill, but an overthrown pass prevented a touchdown. Lenzy also fell victim to an overthrown pass after torching cornerback Avery Davis. The Irish utilized Young and Lenzy via jet sweeps and reverses during the scrimmage periods.
Chase Claypool provided steady play at the boundary (short side) receiver position. The senior hauled in a few passes and ran solid routes. Sophomore Kevin Austin rotated with Claypool, while Lenzy subbed in for Keys. ND’s second string unit featured two tight ends in Tommy Tremble and George Takacs. Joe Wilkins subbed in when the Irish weren’t using a two-tight end set.
Austin did not have the practice he had on Thursday. That’s not to say it was a poor practice; he just didn’t jump out like he did two days before. After creating separation on a go route during one-on-one drills, Austin’s outreached arms could not secure the pass. He still won one-on-one matchups, though, against walk-on cornerback Temitope Agoro and Griffith.
Book and Jurkovec struggled with deep balls, overthrowing receivers in 7-on-7 and scrimmage periods. Both found difficulty locating open receivers at times. Neither made many poor decisions nor took risks in scrimmage settings. However, that resulted in more than a few stalled plays and drives.
Jafar Armstrong and Tony Jones Jr. alternated at starting running back. Jones had the day’s lone rushing touchdown near the end of practice. The senior juked a defender inside before accelerating outside for a three-yard touchdown run.
Eichenberg’s absence slid Aaron Banks to left tackle and elevated Josh Lugg to starting left guard. Jarrett Patterson (center), Tommy Kraemer (right guard) and Robert Hainsey (right tackle) manned the other positions. Hainsey looks to be the steadiest among the bunch. Head coach Brian Kelly said Banks figures as a better option than Lugg at left tackle.
Patterson handled his snapping duties. Backup Luke Jones, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to hit Jurkovec in the numbers. The sophomore hung around after practice, working on his snapping with a fellow offensive lineman.
No portion of practice energized players more than a certain special teams drill. In the drill, three blockers separated one punt coverage player from a tackle dummy. The latter’s objective was to tackle the dummy, which was positioned behind the three blockers protecting it.
Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” echoed in the Loftus as Irish players registered thunderous hits and pancake blocks. Oghoufo delivered both of the sort. Owusu-Koramoah made some noise after running through a few blocks.
The Irish trekked outside for the final eight periods of practice. This allowed for more special teams opportunities. Early enrolled freshman Jay Bramblett booted his lone punt 42 yards.
Junior Jonathan Doerer missed his lone field goal attempt of 42 yards. Doerer connected on 7-of-9 kicks — two of which were extra points — during the beginning portion of practice. A poor hold from senior Nolan Henry hindered one of Doerer’s misses.
Injured players: Rover Jack Kiser, defensive tackles Jamion Franklin and Hunter Spears, linebacker Drew White, offensive linemen Colin Grunhard and Trevor Ruhland, cornerbacks Shaun Crawford and Donte Vaughn and receiver Javon McKinley were limited to sideline work.
Recruits: The following 2020 targets were seen at practice.
• 2020 targets: running backs Tirek Murphy and Chris Tyree, linebacker Cody Simon and offensive lineman Zak Zinter.
• 2021 targets: offensive linemen Blake Fisher and Landon Tangwell.
• 2021 prospects: quarterback Branden Miller and receiver Deion Colzie.
• Former Irish running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and linebacker Te'von Coney also attended ND's practice. Adams was seen speaking with Murphy on the sideline.