Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Making sense of linebacker lotto this spring

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Welcome to the latest edition of Notre Dame Football Not-So-Live Chat/Mailbag.

And thank you for embracing the new format. I’d still like to do something live at some point this spring, perhaps a video chat and perhaps sometime after the Blue-Gold Game in mid-April.

For those who want to catch up on the mailbags that you missed, we’ve archived them at If I don’t answer your question in a particular week, it’s often because it’s been asked and answered in a recent mailbag.

And speaking of common questions, the curiosity about backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec is, far and away, the topic that has come up the most this spring. Thank you for being creative in the different ways you’ve tried to get me to probe the topic. I addressed it in story form earlier this week.

On to this week’s questions:

Matt from Augusta, N.J.: Hey Eric. My question is on the linebacker position. With all the shuffling around, like moving Simon off the rover, and moving Paul Moala to rover, it seems that defensive coordinator Clark Lea is not seeing what he wants with some of the players already on the roster.

They have highly recruited players in Bo Bauer and Jack Lamb, and veterans Jonathan Jones, Drew White, and Jordan Genmark Heath, who from the looks of it do not have the inside track for a starting job.

Did they move Simon inside because he projects better there? Is Moala playing that well that he allows them to move Simon from rover, which up until a few weeks ago he was destined to play? Or are the other veteran players simply not ready, or being passed up? Also with the freshman linebacker class coming in, our numbers seem high at the position. Any thoughts? Thanks, love the chats and info.

Eric Hansen: Thank you for the feedback on the chat/mailbag. There are a lot of questions there — all good ones — and a lot of layers to the answers. Let’s try to simplify it.

Linebacker recruiting in the post-Manti Te’o Era, particularly during the Brian VanGorder years, had more whiffs than hits along with high attrition, schematic misfits and a good number of players who grew out of the position.

Some of the best inside linebackers post-Manti were a converted safety (Drue Tranquill), a one-time walk-on (Joe Schmidt) and a converted outside linebacker (Jaylon Smith). One of the best outside linebackers during that stretch was a converted wide receiver (James Onwualu).

A strong recruiting/development model for the position group is in place now. The only drawback is it doesn’t come with microwavable powers. And that’s why you see the large number of scholarships committed to the position (13) and a collective lack of experience (10 of the 13 will be freshman or sophomore eligibility in 2019).

By 2020 this investment should start to pay off, and that includes on special teams, but there will be growing pains (and perhaps some attrition) in the meantime. One of the big factors in ND’s ultimate bottom line this season is how quickly and thoroughly Lea can mitigate those growing pains.

Lea and head coach Brian Kelly feel like the best way to nourish that process is a mass open audition, at least to start the spring, with the goal of getting the best players on the field come September.

You don’t move Moala to rover unless you think he has a chance to start or be a key rotation player. The same philosophy applied when Avery Davis moved to cornerback and Jarrett Patterson moved to center.

Simon is clearly one of the best athletes, but the challenge is determining where his athleticism fits the best. Don’t expect position group clarity to be tied up neatly by the end of spring. But as I wrote recently, at that time there should at least be a semblance of which players the staff feels are worth most of the first-team reps to evolve their games.

Harvey from Philly: Eric, with our kicker and punter graduated, are you worried about kicking game? Go PHILLIES.

Eric Hansen: Only worried if I misspell their names. Now Brian Kelly being worried? That’s another matter.

Worried might be too strong of a word for it. You really get a better sense of the specialists when they’re practicing outside, so the last few spring practices will tell us more.

I do think freshman punter Jay Bramblett being on campus early was a smart move for the player and the team. I do think June-arriving walk-on Harrison Leonard has a chance to win the place-kicking job over junior Jonathan Doerer.

Not only was Justin Yoon extremely mechanically accurate, he was extremely mentally strong. And until I see these kickers have to make the kicks under the bright lights, the practice kicks are too incomplete of a picture to form a strong conclusion, not that I’ve been bowled over to begin with.

Ryan from Gatlinburg, Tenn.: Hi Eric, love the new format. Two questions:

1) Darnell Ewell — how come this guy can't seem to put it all together. I was so excited we landed him. Now I feel like it was a wasted scholly.

2) What position would you play today if Brian Kelly recruited you? I'm thinking you're a 3-technique?

Eric Hansen: Ryan, thanks. Darnell Ewell is an intelligent, brutally powerful athlete who lacks instincts to excel at his position. He’s not lazy, not toxic, not uncoachable. Because of that last sentence, I don’t think it was a wasted scholarship. Sometimes things just don’t work out.

What position for me? I’d say tackling dummy, but Notre Dame actually has fancy remote control ones of those which can actually simulate 4.7 40 speed. I probably could be Kelly’s get-back guy, keeping him from getting too close to the officials during games when he is unhappy with a call.

Joe from Baileys Harbor, Wis.: Very pleased you've gone to this new format for questions. … Our O-line recruiting has been excellent, with many favorable comments from recruits.

I have heard there is not as much emphasis on fundamentals as with Harry Hiestand, yet the recruiting has thrived. Is this consistent with what you've seen/heard? Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Joe, thanks. It is certainly the narrative I have heard. I’m not sure it’s entirely fair.

Harry Hiestand set a standard for offensive line play, created a culture that is alive and well today, and developed top draft choices with incredible consistency.

The best thing Jeff Quinn did when he took over was stay true to himself and not try to be Harry Hiestand. I think that’s one of the reasons he is such a strong recruiter. In fact, I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good he is at recruiting.

Having said that, Jeff was on the Irish support staff, both as an analyst and part of the strength-and-conditioning staff, for part of Hiestand’s run at ND. He learned from Harry and yet brings different strengths to the table, particularly from an analyst’s perspective.

To your specific question about teaching fundamentals, I’m not sure there’s any line coach that does it as well as Harry. Can Quinn and Hiestand take different paths to excellence? Absolutely.

The upcoming season will be a fair gauge in which to determine how good Quinn is as an on-the-field position coach at this stage of his career.

Chris from Fairfax, Va.: I have been reading encouraging reports about the offensive line play in spring practice. How good do you think they can become? Can they have a line that will impose their will and run it when the defense knows they are going to run it. Thanks.

Eric Hansen: Identifying Jarrett Patterson as a strong starting center candidate before spring practice started and his ability to look the part every practice since can’t be overstated in the big picture.

I think this line will be better than last year’s, but not as good as the Joe Moore Award-winning unit of 2017. As long as it stays healthy, the line should be even better in 2020, with all five starters being eligible to return.

A big key to the collective improvement this season are guards Tommy Kraemer and Aaron Banks, and so far, there’s a lot to like about the progress they're making.

Dave from Granger: Eric, if you had no previous knowledge of Notre Dame football and were just dropped on this planet at the beginning of spring practice 2019, who would you say are the three best players on offense and three best players on defense?

Eric Hansen: We’re talking a late-March snapshot and not past performance or projected ceilings, by the way you phrased your question. In that light, on offense, I would say 1. Cole Kmet, 2. Chase Claypool, 3. Kevin Austin on offense. On defense, 1. Troy Pride Jr., 2. Julian Okwara, 3. Khalid Kareem.

Just for fun, the lists would look slightly different if I took into account other factors. On offense, it’d be: 1. Cole Kmet, 2. Ian Book, 3. Chase Claypool. Honorable Mention: Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey. A guy who could be on this list by the end of the spring: Jafar Armstrong.

On defense, it would be: 1. Julian Okwara, 2. Alohi Gilman, 3. Troy Pride Jr. Honorable Mention: Khalid Kareem and Jalen Elliott. A guy who could be on this list by the end of spring: Houston Griffith.

Kevin from Dallas: Hi Eric. My question is about kickoffs and onside kicks specifically. As onside kicks are getting harder to recover with the rule changes on kickoffs, can teams do a rugby-style kickoff for kickoffs, which would mean a drop kick but potentially give us more hang time to run down and catch. Surely there is someone from Australia on campus that could be a walk-on or someone from our club rugby team that could do it. Thanks and love the chat/non-chats.

Eric Hansen: Kevin, drop kicks are still legal on kickoffs and place kicks. One problem is getting both the distance and the hang time on a standard kickoff using that method. Another problem is consistency on controlling the direction of the kick. It would be too easy to kick it out of bounds or kicking it too low, which would leave you susceptible for long returns.

There have been a handful of college teams in recent years that used the drop kick as a trick play to execute an onside kick, and Seattle Seahawks punter Michael Dickson — from Australia — executed a drop kick on a standard kickoff last season against the Bears, though the Seahawks happened to be kicking from the 50.

I did check, and there are no Australian nationals on Notre Dame’s rugby team. Bottom line, I applaud you from thinking outside the box, but I don’t see this as a help to the Irish special teams.

Isaiah from South Bend: Eric I really appreciate all the great work you do covering ND sports!

Questions: My concerns as of late revolve around the holding up in the interior front line of our defense. Do you believe that the interior D-line will have adequate depth/size to hold up over the course of the season?

Do you believe the inside linebackers will be able to hold up against tough running teams such as Georgia, Michigan?

Eric Hansen: Isaiah, thanks for the kind words. The interior defensive line has performed well so far this spring, and I get the sense that the coaches are really impressed by early enrolled freshman Jacob Lacey, both in the present and what he could turn into.

You don’t have the dynamic star in Jerry Tillery, but there’s a strong rotation of talent at both positions, and that includes a defensive end kicking inside in some of the packages.

By the time August rolls around, injured early enrollee Hunter Spears and sophomore Jamion Franklin are expected to be ready to contribute, and June arrival Howard Cross III is both expected to have a role inside and see action as well.

With regard to the linebackers, I think there’s talent there. There’s too small of a sample size at this point for me to assess how they’ll hold up against the run or the pass.

Bruce from Dayton, Ohio: Hi Eric, since you have been able to see a few practices, what are your thoughts on running backs coach Lance Taylor? In what areas do you feel he can get the running back group to improve?

Eric Hansen: My initial impression is that Lance’s greatest early impact would come on the recruiting trail. And so far, that is exactly what’s happening. Not only is Notre Dame getting elite running back prospects to visit, the Irish have a good shot at landing a couple of them in the 2020 cycle.

Now keep in mind, former running backs coach Autry Denson wasn’t lacking when it came to the development piece. In that area, I need to see more and hear more from Taylor. We have not had the opportunity to interview any of the running backs yet, so there’s no feedback there. Offensive coordinator Chip Long, though, says he has been impressed with the way the players have responded to him.

Alan from Bound Brook, N.J.: What offensive line position is early enrollee John Olmstead working at in drills? He is a big old boy who is capable of playing all of the interior line positions. Also, how is his adjustment to the college game progressing in your opinion? I coached him in high school in New Jersey.

Eric Hansen: If you coached him, then hat’s off to you. All four of those early enrolled freshman offensive linemen (Zeke Correll, Quinn Carroll, Andrew Kristofic and Olmsted) look like they belong, and all four have gotten second-team reps at some point this spring.

That doesn’t mean all four will emerge as second-teamers at the end of spring, but they’re all getting valuable experience.

Olmsted has been working at guard. I’d say the one who is the most advanced from a technique standpoint is Correll and the one who’s physically the most ready is Carroll, but again all four show promise.

Frank from Fairfield, Calif.: What player or position group are the most important to the Irish having another run to the playoffs?

Eric Hansen: Players? I’d say Ian Book and Julian Okwara. Position groups: I’ll answer it not because they’re the most important, but the most unsettled, and that’s linebacker and running back.

Dave from Iowa: Mark, love your coverage on football. One question of concern: When you say Jurkovec is a long way behind Book, is that because he isn't as good as the five-star rating? Can’t believe it takes 2-3 years to learn Kelly’s offense? No disrespect to Book, but the fact that he isn't even being pushed scares me. Freshmen seem to be able to play at other programs, but not in Kelly’s offense. Again, I have no problem with Book starting but a five-star kid should at least make things interesting.

Eric Hansen: Mark?

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea has plenty of numbers in the linebacker corps, but does he have potential stars?