Examining the new rover position and how it melds with Notre Dame's personnel

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That Mike Elko was shopping for a house right after National Signing Day, and not a rental, seems like a good sign for a guy who had plenty of opportunity to discover reasons for second thoughts about moving to South Bend.

Instead, the new Notre Dame defensive coordinator soaked up all kinds of first impressions as he barreled toward the March 8 opening to Irish spring football practice, with his optimism now as pervasive as his to-do list.

Perhaps one of his biggest pleasant surprises was that ND had existing personnel to fill the pivotal “rover” position in Elko’s base 4-2-5 defensive scheme. It’s a safety/outside linebacker hybrid that, by design, wreaks more havoc behind the line of scrimmage than he does on deep pass routes.

Safeties Drue Tranquill (6-foot-2, 225), Spencer Perry (6-2, 204) and D.J. Morgan (6-2, 200) will get the first auditions at the positions this spring. Incoming freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6-2, 205) — specifically recruited late in the cycle to play rover — joins the competition in June.

The beauty of the 4-2-5 is it takes some octane away from no-huddle/high-tempo offenses in that they conceivably can’t trap you with the wrong defensive personnel on the field, something that occurred fairly regularly to ND under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The rover position itself brings some diagnostic issues for opposing QBs, because the rover can line up in so many different places and can do so many different jobs once the ball is snapped.

The soft spot in the 4-2-5 conceptually is the power running game. Notre Dame’s defensive coaches think they have that covered against teams that lean that direction, because some of their now-inside linebackers (think Asmar Bilal, Greer Martini, Jamir Jones) have the skill set to play rover situationally if the occasion calls for it.

“It would be a bit of a misconception to say that the rover couldn’t be a bigger-bodied player,” new Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea confirmed. “And we’ll still be able to sub out on third downs to get a smaller coverage player in the game if we need to.

“Size isn’t the factor. We want length and we want athleticism. If we can do both those things, then all the better.”

Wake Forest, in 2016, used two players to man the position with two slightly different body types. Thomas Brown, a 6-3, 225 senior, garnered most of the snaps at rover. Redshirt sophomore Demetrius King (6-1, 215) was also in the mix.

Combined they had 96 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and five sacks — all more than any Notre Dame player amassed individually in 2016. Brown had four pass breakups and four QB hurries as well, while King had a forced fumble.

At Bowling Green under Elko, Gabe Martin, as a sophomore, led the nation’s No. 6 defense in 2012 with 70 tackles as a rover. The 6-1, 229-pounder, currently a reserve inside linebacker with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, added 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, four QB hurries and two forced fumbles.

“You definitely play in a lot of space,” Martin said of the rover experience, “but at the end of the day, he (Elko) puts you in position to be successful. It allowed me to make a ton of plays. It was just up to me to make ‘em.

“He gave a lot of opportunities to young guys when he first got there,” Martin continued. “Young guys got an opportunity to play, and by the time we were able to start understanding what it is we were trying to accomplish, everything clicked at the right time. I feel like we just started rolling.”

Beyond the rover position, here are some issues and developments that will help shape defensively the 15 spring practice sessions that conclude with the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 22:

The bottom line

Notre Dame’s defensive line, underproductive in 2016 in terms of both stopping the run and producing sacks, remains the epicenter of potential overall team improvement or continued disappointment in 2017.

Both Elko and Mike Elston, the latter back coaching the ND defensive line after two seasons with the linebackers, feel there’s both adequate talent and depth to make a significant more forward.

The first order of business is sorting out who’s playing what position.

There are many players who could play inside or out (Jay Hayes, Khalid Kareem, Jonathan Bonner, to name a few). And both the end positions and the two interior line positons are a bit more interchangeable than in the old scheme, so those personnel decisions also have to be worked through.

“There will be some movement and some guys going different places because of the scheme,” Elston said. “And I think it’s all positive. Two things I’ve addressed with the defensive line is accountability — doing things the right way — and a bigger care factor. That’s what I’ve challenged them with.

“I think there’s tons of tools here and young men who have great ability. We just need to get it out of them.”

That includes the five incoming freshman defensive linemen — Darnell Ewell, Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kurt Hinish, Jonathon MacCollister and Kofi Wardlow — with Ewell and Tagovailoa-Amosa seemingly the most college-ready.

“With Ewell, I think in terms of his personality, you see a really mature kid,” Elko said of the 6-4, 310-pounder from Norfolk, Va. “And that really is the starting point if you’re going to come in and handle college and play early.

“We’re going to push him and we’re going to drive him, but we got to allow him to develop and make sure he realizes it’s not going to happen the second he sets foot on this campus.”

Another safety dance

It’s conceivable that Tranquill, the incumbent starting strong safety last season, could end up abandoning the rover experiment at some point and returning to his familiar position, but it appears the Irish will open spring with a pair of sophomores manning the top of the safety depth chart.

The curveball is they’re likely to flip-flop responsibilities from 2016, with Jalen Elliott now a free safety and Devin Studstill lining up at strong safety. In 2016, Studstill was the first Notre Dame freshman since eventual All-American Bobby Taylor in 1992 to start six or more games at free safety.

“We want to take advantage of (Elliott’s) speed and his range at free safety,” defensive backs coach Todd Lyght said. “He played free safety in high school, and I think it would be a little bit easier for him.”

Lyght said cornerbacks Ashton White and Nick Coleman will both get a look at safety, with at least one of them expected to stick.

Lyght, meanwhile, will have some help coaching the secondary in this, his third season with the Irish. Elko will work with the safeties, while Lyght will take the cornerbacks.

“I think it’s going to be beneficial for our players,” Lyght said, “in that the cornerback and the safety positions are so different.

“When you’re limited in time in practice for individual periods, the position-specific drills are so critical for their development.

“To gain all that extra valuable time, as opposed to splitting the time in half and trying to get all the work done, is going to be great for our players. And I think you’ll see drastic improvement in the back end.”

Jones-ing for a linebacker

When the Irish recruited the younger brother of former Notre Dame nose guard Jarron Jones, the presumption was that it would only be a matter of time before the outside linebacker grew into a defensive end.

And when the outside (strongside) linebacker position was eliminated in the 4-2-5 this winter by the addition of the rover position, it seemed even more of a probability that 6-3, 225-pound Jamir Jones would begin the evolution into a defensive lineman.

“I am going to fight to keep him as long as I can,” said linebackers coach Lea, who had the Rochester, N.Y., product in camp one summer when Lea was coaching at nearby Syracuse.

“You don’t see guys who can move the way he moves, with his length. I know that he’s still growing. He’s getting bigger. When I first saw him, I hardly recognized him from when I’d seen him in high school, but he could do a lot of things for us at the second level.”

The Irish have nine players competing at two linebacker positions, with Jones likely in the mix at the Buck (weakside) position.

“He’s athletic enough to maybe play out in the field a little bit,” Lea said. “He’s certainly long enough to. And certainly I could see him being a dynamic player in the box. We had a tall middle linebacker at Wake Forest who had a ton of success.

“I’m excited to work with him. I’m certain I can find a place for him to fit.”

Will Notre Dame strong safety Drue Tranquill (23) find a new position, at rover, this spring in new defensive coordinator Mike Elko's 4-2-5 scheme? (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)