Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea doesn't want a linebacker depth chart
Clark Lea doesn’t want to create a depth chart for his linebackers.
Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator has no interest in delineating starters and reserves six months before the Irish open their season. With so much inexperience at the position group he leads, there’s too much work ahead to have any answers.
“I don’t anticipate making any decisions up until the point we have to,” Lea said following Notre Dame’s third spring practice Thursday, the last before the Irish went on hiatus for spring break. “Even then, it’s how you set the target. The season’s about your defense, your unit, evolving the entire time. We just want guys to keep pushing and keep competing the entire time through.”
Lea wants to develop starters, but he also wants to develop depth. If he can do both, he’d like to have a rotation of linebackers.
“The split of that rotation is determined by what we feel like the separation in performance is,” Lea said. “This defense, this system, was built on ‘Let’s play as many guys as we can.’”
Last year, a rotation at linebacker was virtually nonexistent. Inside linebackers Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill rarely left the field when healthy. When rover Asmar Bilal was replaced, it was typically by another defensive back and not another linebacker.
That trio provided plenty of production. Together, they finished with 259 tackles, 21.5 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries, nine pass breakups and one interception.
With Coney and Tranquill off to the NFL, the position group will look much different this season — even if that look has yet to be determined.
“I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” Lea said. “I know that we have capable people. We just have to keep coaching them until we’re having to put them in positions to win.”
For spring practice, Lea said he’s grouped linebackers together to work as a unit and create chemistry and competition. At the first practice on March 2, the first linebacker unit consisted of junior Drew White at middle linebacker, graduate student Asmar Bilal at buck and sophomore Shayne Simon at rover.
Even with the uncertainty of a position shift, the 6-foot-2, 227-pound Bilal seems most likely to stay in the starting lineup whether he sticks at his new spot or not.
“Asmar has shown a physical presence,” Lea said. “To the field (side) in that rover position (he) stretched himself in terms of spatial play in coverage. Then all of a sudden you transition to buck and everything tightens down a little bit. You can allow a guy that has such physical tools to experience success if he takes to it.”
Bilal logged the first starts of his career last season. His presence kept Simon on the sidelines despite coming to Notre Dame as a highly recruited prospect. The 6-3, 230-pound Simon still saw action in nine games on special teams and in limited defensive opportunities. Clark said Simon, who trained as a rover and buck linebacker as a freshman, will learn from his experience and the sting of not playing as much as he hoped.
“I love Shayne,” Lea said. “Every time we talk and I challenge him in certain ways, it’s always like, ‘I just want to play, coach. I just want to play.’ My job is not just to roll the ball out with Shayne. I need to connect with him and identify the areas he has to improve because there’s a guy that can be a dynamic player for us.
“Is he there now? No. That’s why we practice.”
The 6-0, 225-pound White made a meaningful cameo in Notre Dame’s 44-22 win over Navy when he replaced an injured Tranquill. He totaled six tackles in his first significant playing time with the Irish. Still, he only played in four games last season and recorded two other tackles in his three other appearances.
The list of competition at linebacker is as long as it is inexperienced. Senior Jonathan Jones, junior Jordan Genmark Heath and sophomores Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb all figure to compete at the inside linebacker positions. Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who missed most of the 2018 season with a broken foot, could emerge as competition at rover.
Lea said an important part of his evaluation of young linebackers comes in his interaction with them when they’re reviewing film or correcting mistakes. Lea wants there to be two-sided conversations to prove that those linebackers are engaged, understand the lessons and have a mastery of the defensive scheme.
“We want to be a physical presence in the game,” Lea said. “We want guys that can play in the backfield, that can read their keys, diagnose and play fast through the line. We want guys that can hold and maintain body position in their gap and win on offensive linemen. That’s important. That is a technical skill and a physical want to.”
The linebackers at Lea’s disposal are smart, capable athletes, he said. It’s up to him to get them to understand the defense on a deeper level.
“The nature of a young player is to learn the scheme like a line in a playbook,” Lea said. “Then when you watch them play, they’re playing that line. I want them to engage in the game. I want there to be a free form to their play that’s structured by what the call is but they’re relying on instinct.
“I heard this recently attributed to like learning language. This is very unscientific for me. We learn to speak first before we learn grammar. I kind of want that for these young players. When the ball goes out, it’s like playing pickup basketball. You don’t need someone to tell you to help when the ball’s on the other side. You’re just getting in position.”
Lea manages to sound as much like a college professor than he does a college football coach. But the way he explains his teaching methods will be best measured through his pupils. He still has six months to get it to show.
“Am I pleased with where we are? Like no,” Lea said. “That’s because I know what it’s going to take, we know what it’s going to take, for us to accomplish what we’re out to accomplish. I’m excited about the competition. They’re excited about the competition. They’ve embraced it. We’ve had a lot of fun getting that started.”