Noie: Saturday a step in right direction for Paul Moala, Notre Dame linebackers

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Crammed in a corner of a crowded interview room at Notre Dame Stadium with questions and microphones aimed his way Saturday was the last place Paul Moala expected to be.

Make that the second-to-last place for the former Penn High School standout.

When spring practice commenced last month, Moala was a backup safety looking to make more of a mark his second time around after his first year, which included one tackle in eight games with a handful of appearances on special teams with an Irish outfit that finished 12-1 in 2018 following a national semifinal loss to eventual national champion Clemson.

Fifteen practices after his first run through spring, which concluded with Saturday’s annual Blue-Gold game, the 6-foot, 212-pound Moala has put himself in position to chase something few expected when his sophomore season arrives in August — a starting spot. That thanks to a late-spring position move that saw Moala the safety become Moala the rover linebacker.

Saturday’s dressed-up practice masquerading as an actual game wasn’t as important for the Notre Dame knowns heading into 2019. Like quarterback Ian Book. He’s good. Like running back Jafar Armstrong. He’s also good. Like wide receiver Chase Claypool and the tag-team defensive end terrors of Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. All of them, also all good.

Maybe better than last year’s version.

Saturday was for all the other guys like Moala and the rest of the rather green linebackers in charge of doing what many believe can’t be done — replace departed seniors Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill, who combined for 209 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks last season.

That’s a lot of stops and a lot of snaps needing to be filled. It’s not a hole. It’s a crater that could swallow many a game plan crafted by defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

Saturday was important for Moala in terms of adjusting to game speed at his new home. Would he process everything he needs to and still make plays? Would he allow his ball instincts to override an inclination to think his way through the first real audition?

Moala handled it like he was back causing havoc through the Northern Indiana Conference on Friday nights. He made a game-high nine tackles, including eight solo stops. He had two sacks for 14 yards. He answered the first of what will be myriad rover challenges.

Number 13 in white also caught the eye of coach Brian Kelly. For the right reasons.

“I’ve been pleased with Paul,” Kelly said. “Paul is a smart player. He’s a good, sure tackler. I feel pretty confident with him out on the field.

“He’s a kid that I think you’ll see playing for us next year.”

Did Saturday’s showing cement Moala a starting spot? Put him on track to become an All-American? Force Irish fans to forget all about all the plays that Coney and Tranquill made? No, no and no, but Moala had to start somewhere. Saturday was a start.

He lined up where he was supposed to line up. He read his pre-snap keys. He was prepared to make plays. He made plays.

“I didn’t play as well as I wanted to,” he said. “There were little things I was really happy about in my performance today, but I’m always looking to improve.”

Needs to improve. Must improve. Moala’s crossed a threshold where there’s no going back. He’s a rover ‘backer now. Maybe a key one. Gotta get better. This summer. This season.

Saturday was just a scrimmage, and a rather uneventful/boring one at that. At times, chatter up on the ninth floor of the press box dissolved into baseball, golf and wrestling, sometimes all at once.

Oh, look, another sack. Another three-and-out. Can that running clock in the second half run any faster?

Don’t tell Moala that Saturday was just some football sideshow.

“You have to be ready to get those jitters out and play come game day,” he said.

Moala learned nine practices into spring that he was moving from safety to rover. Maybe even playing a little more in nickel situations. He embraced a challenge that he knew would challenge him. It took him about four practices to feel comfortable to where he was thinking less and reacting more.

“I was willing to play wherever they thought best would help the team,” Moala said. “You get in the action a little more so that was really exciting for me.”

Lea mentioned late last week that even though spring practice would end Saturday, the work of his linebackers was just beginning. He figured they’d take Sunday off, then be back at work Monday. Watching film. Perfecting technique. Picking the brain of Tranquill who’s still around the Gug. Talking about what they needed to collectively do as a group to be better.

To help offset the losses of Coney and Tranquill and start making sure people know their names. Names like Asmar Bilal and Shayne Simon. Like Jack Kiser and Jack Lamb. Like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Like Jordan Genmark-Heath. Like Moala. Not much is known about them now, but Genmark-Heath believes that’s going to change heading into and through the Sept. 2 season opener at Louisville.

There’s a long way to go before production trumps potential at the linebacker spot. But at least the group took a step Saturday when a step was needed.

“We can take that next step where we can be better than them,” Genmark-Heath said of replacing Coney and Tranquill. “We feel pretty good.”

Prior to Saturday, no linebacker was made available for media interviews through spring. All off limits. On Saturday, nearly all of them were. Almost like the program was saying, here, get to know these guys. Might need to for 2019.

“I’m really excited to play with these guys come fall,” Moala said.

Feeling’s mutual.

“Paul Moala has been extremely impressive,” Genmark-Heath said. “He went to rover and has been a natural. He’s grown into the role and will be a really great rover for us.”

Notre Dame’s Paul Moala (13) tries to stop Jahmir Smith (34) during the Blue-Gold spring game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal (22) high fives Jafar Armstrong (8) during the Blue-Gold spring game Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

“I’ve been pleased with Paul. Paul is a smart player. He’s a good, sure tackler. I feel pretty confident with him out on the field. He’s a kid that I think you’ll see playing for us next year.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly on former Penn standout Paul Moala