Notebook: Injury to Owusu-Koramoah heightens urgency for Notre Dame to build defensive depth

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The next step for a Notre Dame defense that has shown few apparent soft spots two games into the season is building strength in its numbers.

Particularly at the linebacker/rover positions.

And that was before the news broke that backup rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had suffered a broken foot in practice this week and will be lost for the season. ND head coach Brian Kelly, whose eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) host Vanderbilt (2-0) on Saturday (2:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV), shared the news Thursday after practice.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound sophomore already took a redshirt year in 2017. He played in both Irish games this season, but he had not registered in the stat column.

All of which adds urgency to the development of the promising trio of freshman Bo Bauer, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath and — especially — freshman Shayne Simon.

The 6-foot-3, 222-pound Jersey City (N.J.) St. Peter’s Prep product is an understudy at two positions, rover behind senior Asmar Bilal and buck linebacker behind grad senior Drue Tranquill.

Tranquill and senior middle linebacker Te’von Coney have played every defensive snap in both games, including the school-record 97 last Saturday against Ball State. Bilal also has been an ironman of sorts at rover, but he often comes off the field on third downs, replaced by an extra defensive back (nickel).

“It’s no secret, Coney and Tranquill are playing a lot of snaps,” Kelly said. “It’s crucial that those (young) guys continue to grow. As we evaluate them in practice, it can’t be, ‘Well, they can line up in one defense and we can get them on the field.’

“That’s not good enough. We could do that right now. We could have done that last week. We’ve got to get them to run our defense, so we’re building that to the point that if they have to play, they can run our defense in all facets.”

Genmark Heath, a backup at the buck, played 12 special teams snaps against Michigan, but suffered a knee contusion in the game, according to Kelly. That limited him to a smaller role against Ball State (five special teams snaps), though Kelly said the 6-1, 225-pound converted safety was back to full strength this week.

Bauer debuted against Michigan on Sept. 1 and has one special teams tackle this season. Simon’s first game was Saturday in the 24-16 win over Ball State, making his first career tackle on kickoff coverage.

“I think Bo’s making really good progress,” Kelly said of the 6-3, 225-pounder. “I think getting him in some special teams work, gaining some confidence there, has really helped him at the linebacker position.

“(Simon) is going to have to play sooner or later, so each week is getting him closer and closer to if something happens, he’s got to play at a high level for us.”

Personnel matters

• Sophomore tight end Cole Kmet, a co-starter with senior Alizé Mack, will miss Saturday’s game with a high ankle sprain that he suffered against Ball State.

Grad senior Nic Weishar and sophomore Brock Wright figure to see increased roles because of Kmet’s absence.

• Speaking of Weishar, he has been selected to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, one of 11 players in the FBS so honored for “extraordinary commitment to making a lasting impact off the field.”

Weishar and his family started The Andrew Weishar Foundation, which was created to honor the memory of Andrew Weishar and his legacy of helping others to live with faith, courage and strength. Andrew, an older brother of Nic’s, died of cancer in October of 2012.

The foundation provides immediate resources, including financial assistance, to families with adolescents or young adults stricken with cancer. So far the foundation has provided 150 families with grants totaling more than $800,000.

• After the Irish surrendered a 99-yard kickoff return in a 24-17 win over Michigan, Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian made some significant changes on the kickoff coverage team for Ball State.

“It was a little bit about seeing some guys in roles that had not gotten much playing time that we really wanted to evaluate,” Kelly said. “So you’re going to see some changes on that team (for Vanderbilt). Some of the guys made that team based on their performance against Ball State.”

• Freshman Joe Wilkins Jr. was elevated from scout team this week and impressed the coaching staff with his work at slot receiver, Kelly said.

Time for a change?

On Saturday, for the first time since late in the 2010 season, a game at Notre Dame Stadium will feature a 2:30 p.m. EDT start time.

No one seems to know exactly why. and if they do, they’re not eager to say it publicly.

“There are numerous factors that go into determining the start time of the broadcast, including programming commitments, competition on other networks, and South Bend considerations,” an NBC spokesperson said earlier this week.

“Given those factors, we worked with the university and felt it was best to have three 2:30 p.m. ET starts this season.”

And then again, there are no guarantee there will be any 2:30 starts in 2019 or beyond.

The three this season are Saturday’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup between the eighth-ranked Irish and Vanderbilt, an Oct. 13 home matchup with Pitt, and a Nov. 17 Shamrock Series off-site home game at Yankee Stadium against Syracuse.

Last week’s Ball State game had a 3:30 start time. The other three home games — Michigan, Stanford and Florida State — all got 7:30 p.m. time slots.

The popular speculation is the 2:30 starts were a concession to Notre Dame for accommodating a school-record three night games at home this season.

When the TV relationship between Notre Dame and NBC first began in 1991, the university insisted on 1:30 p.m. kickoff times, with rare programming exceptions (Navy-ND was at 4 p.m. in 1991). In 1992, every one of the home games adhered to the 1:30 edict.

But in 1993, there started to be a mix of 2:30 games, with only the loss to Boston College late in the season getting a 1:30 start. and the games eventually started to migrate into 3:30 time slots to compete head to head with other networks.

The most recent game to start at 2:30 in Notre Dame Stadium was a 28-3 Irish rout of Utah on Nov. 13, 2010.

Podcast Gold

Former Notre Dame offensive lineman and current ESPN personality Mike Golic Jr. joined us this week on the Pod of Gold Podcast to talk offensive line play.

Here’s a sampling of the insights he shared:

• On his overall impression of the Irish offensive line: “They’re going through that process of learning how to accurately communicate the looks toward one another, so that you’re all on the same page.

“This group, to me, has so much more on their plate than we used to, just because of what a man blocking team Notre Dame has become. … We ran three running plays my senior year. So having to communicate through these looks, especially in situations with a lot more moving parts, I think takes some time.”

• On the prospect of potential personnel changes or shifts on the line: “I think it’s still early enough to give this group time together, because continuity among an O-line is invaluable.

“We started the same five my entire senior year and were fortunate to have no one injured the entire season.

“Offensive line to me is the art of understanding where you’re giving and receiving help. The longer these guys can work together, the more looks through the same set of eyes at game speed they get, the more it’s going to benefit them as the season goes on.”

Notre Dame rove Shayne Simon (33) was one of eight Irish freshmen who saw action Saturday in No. 8 ND's 24-16 survival of Ball State at Notre Dame Stadium.