Notebook: Paul Moala enters Notre Dame linebacker carousel with audition at rover
SOUTH BEND — Nearly every move in Notre Dame’s linebacker carousel in spring practice correlates to another one.
With defensive coordinator Clark Lea set on trying almost any combination to replace departed starters Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, the possibilities seem endless. A shift at one position can open the door at another.
On Saturday at Notre Dame’s sixth spring practice, safety Paul Moala entered the linebacker competition at the rover position thanks to a shift elsewhere. The opportunity came as sophomore Shayne Simon started taking reps at buck linebacker. That moved junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah into the rover spot with the No. 1 defense and gave Moala a new role with the No. 2 defense.
But the move of Moala wasn’t only created out of a necessity at rover, said head coach Brian Kelly.
“We’re taking our time and effort out here and putting guys in that first and second rotation, because we want to try to leave the spring with a sense and idea of guys that can compete for us against the top teams in the country,” Kelly said. “This isn’t just spin the wheel. We have to be able to try guys at different positions, but also have an eye towards ‘This guy could do the job for us, too.’”
The 6-foot, 210-pound Moala appeared in eight games last season as a freshman and recorded just one tackle. The local product from Penn High School earned his opportunity at rover by proving in practice to be a capable tackler in space.
“He’s shown a real propensity to get his nose to the football,” Kelly said. “Really good tackler. So we’re looking at somebody that when you’re in big spaces like that, you have to be a really good tackler. He’s shown that over the first week or so.”
On Saturday, Notre Dame’s defense included a starting linebacker unit of graduate student Asmar Bilal at mike, junior Jordan Genmark Heath at buck and Owusu-Koramoah at rover. The second unit included senior Jonathan Jones at mike, Simon at buck and Moala at rover. Sophomores Bo Bauer (mike) and Jack Lamb (buck) also rotated in with the second defense.
The mixing and matching won’t end any time soon, but the open practice allowed for reporters to monitor the development of those players. Owusu-Koramoah batted down a pass intended for Cole Kmet. Lamb took down running back Jafar Armstrong after a catch in the open field. Moala was in position for a tackle for a loss on quarterback Phil Jurkovec.
Simon recorded a tackle for a loss on running back C’Bo Flemister. The 6-3, 230-pound linebacker could seemingly push to start at either rover or buck.
“He’s a big-bodied guy that can add some more competition to that position,” Kelly said of Simon playing at buck. “We’re just trying to find the right players at the right position. We really like everything about him. We need to get him more film work and more technique work inside to see how he fits there.”
The 6-2, 215-pound Owusu-Koramoah, who also fared well in a special teams coverage drill, has worked his way back from a broken foot last September.
“He’s always been an explosive player,” Kelly said. “It’s just been working on the other things (like being) assignment correct. He gets a little bit out of his lane here and there. We think we have a good complement with him and Paul out there. Paul’s very assignment correct. They’re a good balance.”
Notre Dame’s defense had its hands full trying to defend junior tight end Cole Kmet. He caught at least three touchdowns in work on the goal line in 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 settings. Kmet also caught multiple passes in scrimmage settings including a throw from quarterback Ian Book down the sideline for roughly 35 yards.
Kmet was a frequent target when the Irish finished the last 40 minutes of practice outside at the LaBar Practice Complex on a sunny day in South Bend with temperatures reaching into the 40s.
“He’s going to catch a lot of footballs,” Kelly said of Kmet. “He’ll be a guy that we’ll actually game plan and certainly look at how he touches the football each and every week. We didn’t do that last year.”
The Irish are also working on finding roles for young receivers. Sophomores Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Joe Wilkins Jr. and Kevin Austin Jr. have all been impressive at times with reporters in attendance for the last two practices.
“We’ve been really happy with them all,” Kelly said. “They’ve all shown the ability to make plays. The one thing with Lenzy is his toughness. We like his toughness. He’s shown that play-in and play-out he’s going to stick his nose in there and get some tough yards for us.
“We like Keys. They have to just be more assignment correct. You probably heard me hollering at Keys out here. He has a tendency to just misalign here and there. He’s going to get through that. These are all kids that have consistently, practice after practice, made plays.”
Kelly has been more careful with offering praise for Austin. When Kelly was asked Tuesday to identify leading candidates for contributors at wide receiver beyond Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, he didn’t mention Austin. A reporter asked Kelly about Austin specifically Saturday.
“He’s an extremely talented player,” Kelly said. “I don’t think you leave at any practice and not say he’s extremely talented. You all know that there’s more than just talent in this evaluation process of guys that are going to play. He needs to bring more to it than just talent.”
Big shoes to fill
Ovie Oghoufo might not find much playing time in a rotation at defensive end in 2019, but the former linebacker made a strong case for time on special teams Saturday.
The 6-3, 230-pound Oghoufo was the star of a coverage drill that required one player to run through or around three blocks in a row before tackling a dummy. Oghoufo, who didn’t play at all as a freshman last season, ran over an attempted block on one rep. He later made a nice block to stop Lamb’s pursuit of the tackling dummy.
In a scrimmage setting, Oghoufo also tracked down Lenzy on a sweep. Moments like that led to Kelly comparing Oghoufo to senior defensive end Julian Okwara.
“He’s a young Julian Okwara. He’s very twitchy,” Kelly said. “He’s probably physically a little bit stronger than Julian was at this time, but they’re on a similar career path. We think he’s going to be the next guy that steps in when Julian moves on.”
Out for class
The Irish were missing a few starters from practice Saturday: left tackle Liam Eichenberg, safety Alohi Gilman and wide receiver Chris Finke. They all had class obligations that excused their absence.
With Eichenberg out, junior Aaron Banks slid outside from left guard to left tackle. Junior Josh Lugg replaced Banks at left guard. Lugg has essentially become Notre Dame’s sixth man on the offensive line.
Gilman hasn’t been a full participant in practice yet as the Irish are being careful about a minor injury with him. His absence has allowed ample playing time for Derrik Allen, DJ Brown and previously Moala at safety alongside Jalen Elliott. With Moala playing at rover, the Irish used walk-on Patrick Pelini on the second-string defense.
Finke was replaced by Keys at slot receiver.