Notre Dame Football Mailbag: Does size still matter at linebacker?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

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

We’ll do one more of these for sure next Friday (April 12) and perhaps one more between the end of spring football (April 13) and the start of the three-day NFL Draft (April 25-27).

For those who want to catch up on the mailbags that you missed, we’ve archived them at ndinsider.com/multimedia/chats. 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 or it requires me to perform calculus to formulate the answer.

On to this week’s questions:

Kevin from Pittsburgh: It appears that one of ND’s defensive philosophies has been to get faster and more athletic at the linebacker position through recruiting (which would also make Notre Dame smaller at the linebacker position).

This started with the inception of the rover, and was seen last year with the move of Drue Tranquill to buck. With the potential of Asmar Bilal (227 pounds) at the mike, Shayne Simon/Jordan Genmark Heath (about 230) at the buck, and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah/Paul Moala (about 210-215) at the rover, is that transformation complete and what should we expect in the future?

Eric Hansen: The game is evolving, and the ability to play in space and cover are now requisite for Notre Dame’s linebackers (and at most other schools).

ND’s starting linebackers in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game were Manti Te’o (6-2, 255), Dan Fox (6-3, 240) and Danny Spond (6-2, 248), so yes the size difference is pronounced.

Keep in mind, though, 10 of the 13 linebackers/rovers on the Irish roster have freshman or sophomore eligibility, so they could get bigger as they get older without losing their speed.

Redshirt freshman Jack Lamb (6-4, 227) comes to mind.

The transformation is never complete, because the game will change again — and again. But for now, the Irish are recruiting that position group differently than even earlier in the Brian Kelly Era,

Nick from Barrington, Ill.: Has Ian Book been hitting his deep receivers in stride, which was a weakness last fall, especially vs. Clemson?

Eric Hansen: It’s something he and offensive coordinator Chip Long were determined to put on Book’s agenda this spring. There seems to be a concerted effort in that area in the practice periods in which a receiver or tight end goes one-on-one with a defensive back, less so in 11-on-11 periods.

In those instances I have noticed he has adequate arm strength and accuracy to be better in that area. I think the ultimate test is doing it under pressure and when he’s outside the pocket. I’m hoping we’ll get a chance to see that dynamic during the remaining practices open to the media as well as the Blue-Gold Game.

Three things can help Book in that regard — that the running game in 2019 is a true complement to the passing game and able to keep defenses off-balanced; that the offensive line takes a step forward from last year; and that the young receivers — Michael Young, Joe Wilkins Jr., Braden Lenzy, Kevin Austin Jr. and Lawrence Keys III — continue to develop.

Dave from Granger, Ind.: Eric, we all expect the D-line to be a strength in 2019. On the interior we are hearing a lot from Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Jayson Ademilola and Jacob Lacey. We are even hearing things about Howard Cross and Hunter Spears, who haven’t seen the field, but we aren’t hearing anything at all about Kurt Hinish. I feel like he’s going to be extremely important in 2019. How has his spring been this year? What are your impressions of his importance to this D-line?

Eric Hansen: Dave, Kurt Hinish is one of those guys in spring — running back Tony Jones Jr. and safety Jalen Elliott are some others — who are improving and performing to expectations but aren’t involved in a position battle necessarily, and so they get kind of lost.

Hinish, in fact, is having a good spring, and Brian Kelly has said as much. He absolutely is an integral part of the defensive line rotation and he’ll be a starter.

The questions regarding the defensive line going into spring really revolved around depth at the interior positions. And the fact that a true freshman — Jacob Lacey — has shown so much promise early, would naturally be a story line that garnered a lot of attention.

Same with Tagovailoa-Amosa, who was coming back from an injury. Jayson Ademilola was still kind of an unknown. Howard Cross was originally recruited to play defensive end. So when all of those things started to align positively, steady, reliable — and improving — Hinish kind of gets sidestepped a little.

Erik from Granger, Ind.: Hi Eric, thanks for doing this! Mike Elston has done a tremendous job on both the recruiting trail and in developing his players. How would you rate each of the other assistant coaches and the work they've done so far? Do you expect any of them to improve in the future?

Eric Hansen: For the record, recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told me he thinks this is collectively the best staff Notre Dame has had in terms of recruiting in a long, long time. Player development is so important to Kelly that if there was someone who was lacking in that area, he would not stay on the staff for long.

As far as individual recruiters, there’s an apples-to-oranges effect going on there. Is traveling to and recruiting California equal to doing so in Michigan? Is QBs coach Tommy Rees expected to land offensive linemen and defensive backs? If not, doesn’t that affect his reputation as a recruiter?

Look, it’s easy to see Brian Polian’s long track record as a recruiter. It’s easy to see what Jeff Quinn is doing. You can see how quickly Terry Joseph made an impact. Lance Taylor has made a strong early impression. Can he close?

Sometimes it varies from year to year with a particular recruiter. I would say that DelVaughn Alexander needed to show something in this cycle with wide receivers, and so far the Irish are positioning themselves well for the 2020 class.

I was also curious how Alexander would do with the young receivers this spring, and so far they’ve been one of the feel-good stories to this point.

Ray from L.A.: Hey Eric how are you? I was curious on your opinion of Clark Lea and Chip Long as recruiters of top-tier talent and also on their development of the talent. I was curious if you think the responsibility of being a coordinator hinders the development of their position groups, especially in season.

Eric Hansen: I think they approach recruiting a little differently, though both have their positives. Lea seems to be more invested in every single prospect on defense, while Chip seems to cherry-pick on offense a little more and get involved where he’s needed most.

Part of that may be a product of having one more assistant on the offensive side of the ball as well as the dynamic of each individual recruiter.

I don’t think being a coordinator takes away from their individual position groups (tight ends for Long, linebackers for Lea). I think it would be much harder if the offensive line coach were the offensive coordinator, thought it’s been done.

Jack from Strongsville, Ohio: Enjoy your work in SBT and on the radio. I know this is about football. But kudos to Muffett McGraw. Other than Rockne and Leahy, is there any coach at ND in a major sport that has a better record?

Two national championships and several appearances in the Final Four. Whatever happens against UConn on Friday, she is a true Hall-of-Famer and more importantly a class person.

Eric Hansen: It’s difficult to compare coaches in different sports and in different eras, but Muffet McGraw certainly deserves all the accolades that come her way.

Perhaps one of the aspects that goes underappreciated is her business acumen, how she marketed that team, connected with the community and turned the program into a financial/attendance success before going to Final Fours were commonplace.

Steve from Fort Wayne: Eric, it is frustrating seeing all the “Fake News” in regards to college football national championships. Even NBC listed both Notre Dame and Michigan as both having 11 national titles on their broadcast of the game last season. The NCAA website recognizes Notre Dame as having 13 national championships. When is Notre Dame going to get on board with this issue?

Also, Nick Saban, Les Miles and Mack Brown are all in their late 60s and still coaching and all much older than Brian Kelly. If Kelly can keeps things rolling the way he has, can he be convinced to stay longer? Thank you.

Eric Hansen: Steve, what are you suggesting Notre Dame does to “get on board?” Threaten spankings? It’s bad enough the NCAA vacated games from the 2012 and 2013 season. If they were going to invest energy into something, I’d hope it would be that.

The reason for the inconsistencies are many. Before 1936, there was no AP college football poll, so several organizations awarded national titles — thus giving us multiple national champions. Even in the polls era, there were, at times, split national champions. Sometimes the coaches poll named its national champion before the bowls. Sometimes the AP poll did. Sometimes both did.

Sometimes the people pushing out numbers of national titles aren’t very good at math. It’s something we just need to live with.

To your second question, you mentioned coaches who are now coaching well into their 60s, but there has never been one at Notre Dame who has coached at the school beyond age 59. I don’t think that’s an accident.

There is not a college football coaching job that is more demanding in so many ways than ND, and that includes the grind of national recruiting.

Kelly turns 58 in October. If he fulfills his contract, he’ll be 60 when it runs out. He mentioned recently to Yahoo Sports that he’d like to tack a couple of years onto that, which would make him 62 when he finished.

I think what could change that trajectory is if athletic director Jack Swarbrick was not still at ND during that entire time. Sometimes AD changes just don’t work well for the head coach. Ask Lou Holtz about that.

Sophomore rover Paul Moala is the lightest of Notre Dame’s linebacker group at 6-foot, 210 pounds.