Analysis: Notre Dame wakes up to a linebacker situation in which its beauty is its ambiguity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — You know that dream where you haven’t been to class all semester and then are suddenly tasked with having to take a final exam, only to wake up with a racing heart and a sweaty pillow?

That’s kind of what Notre Dame’s linebacker situation has looked and felt like over 15 spring practices and the first 15 of August training camp, save the dramatic and convincing emergence of junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah as the No. 1 rover option for the nation’s ninth-ranked college football team.

Turns out, the Rubik’s Cube look of perpetual rotating bodies and combinations ceased being an elongated experiment days ago and became the desired template to move forward with against Louisville, Sept. 2 at Cardinal Stadium, and beyond.

In other words, a linebacker depth chart that takes algebra to explain is now on purpose.

“The thing that I’m excited about is we have a talented group where everyone has the ability to have a role in the game,” defensive coordinator/linebackers Clark Lea offered Wednesday after practice.

“It’s going to be all hands on deck. The guys are bought into it and they’re supporting each other. And we talk every day, ‘It’s compete with each other and not against.’ It’s been a good camp, and we’re starting to get a good picture of where the pieces fit.”

Lea admits the new direction isn’t an original idea. He watched defensive line coach Mike Elston infuse the Irish D-Line culture that not only do you build depth, you use it.

The extent to which that theory actually worked is one of the biggest reasons Notre Dame made its first College Football Playoff appearance last December.

The extent to which Lea can microwave the process a bit with the 13 linebackers on the roster — 10 of whom are freshman or sophomore eligibility — is going to be a pivotal factor whether Notre Dame matches the Vegas over/under figure for number of regular-season wins (9) or pushes toward a higher ceiling.

“I think this team, it’s going to be about the basic tenets of football,” 10th-year head coach Brian Kelly proclaimed. “We’re going to have to run the ball well and stop the run. We’re going to have to play with a physicality.”

In terms of the linebackers’ role in the “stop the run” edict, Kelly threw out five names for the two inside linebackers spots, which largely line up with the bodies that have taken most of the reps when the media has been invited to practice this month — Drew White, Asmar Bilal, Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon and Jordan Genmark Heath.

“All those guys together have been all doing good things,” he said, with Owusu-Koramoah and the backup rovers also implied. “They’ve all gotten better at their craft and what they do.

“Now, different packages, down and distance, you’ll see different faces. But I guess what I’m saying is, we’ve got a better feel on who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are. It’s not just like, ‘Let’s pick a guy.’ ”

It better not be.

Though the Irish play only one team in their first six games that finished higher than 60th in rushing offense or 81st in total offense in 2018, the outlier is third-ranked Georgia, which the Irish visit in game three (Sept. 21).

The Bulldogs had the nation’s No. 16 rush offense and No. 18 total offense last season and may have the best offensive line in the nation. The outcome in Athens, Ga., will undoubtedly shape ND’s ultimate postseason destiny.

Elite run defense universally has been a coveted trait of college football teams. It’s one of the most consistent predictors for teams that play for championships and win them.

Among the last 30 AP national champs in college football crowned since Notre Dame won its most recent, in 1988, all 30 have ranked 40th or better nationally in rush defense. Twenty-seven of 30 ranked in the top 25 in that category and 19 of the 30 in the top 10.

All seven of ND’s post-World War II national champs, with the NCAA first charting team statistics in 1946, finished in the top 20 in run defense, and six of the seven finished in the top 10.

Only two of Kelly’s previous nine Irish squads finished in the top 40 in that critical category, and both of them (2012 and 2018) put together unbeaten regular seasons and played their way into the national title discussion.

“We have the people we need to do it and we believe in the guys that we have to anchor the box and to be competitive against everyone we’ll play,” Lea said of how he figures the Irish will fare against the run.

“I have to do a good job of putting them in good positions, and I have to do a good job of accentuating their strengths and game planning. If I’m able to do that, I have complete faith in their ability to go out there and finish.

“It won’t be perfect, and just like every game will have ebbs and flows, the season will have ebbs and flows. But it’s just this constant push to identify who you are.”

Lea would have had to figure this all out a year ago, but he was able to persuade Drue Tranquill to come back for a fifth year and Te’von Coney his senior season. Together they combined for 209 tackles, 7.5 sacks and eight pass breakups in 2018 as the starting and finishing Irish linebackers.

They also almost never came off the field, which didn’t allow for much in-game evolution for their successors.

Among the 13 successors, last year’s starting rover — grad senior Asmar Bilal — has 97 career tackles. The other 12 don’t have that many combined. Six of the 13 have zero.

The most intriguing of the contending inside linebackers may be White. Despite being the leading tackler for national prep power St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., as a senior and playing on three straight Florida Class 7A state championship teams, he’s been largely an afterthought ever since.

The now 6-foot, 230-pound junior was a two-star prospect per Rivals when he verbally committed to the Irish and finished the cycle with three-star status.

Once he arrived at ND, White was recruited over, plopped on the scout team seemingly for good and wasn’t part of anyone’s long-term plan until Tranquill suffered a high ankle sprain against Navy last October.

White impressed in his surprise relief role and went into spring as a real contender to win the middle linebacker job, only to suffer a shoulder injury early in March that knocked him out of the rest of spring practice. When training camp started in August, White had to work his way up from the bottom of the depth chart.

“What has given Drew a chance to be involved is I think he’s got incredible self-awareness,” Lea said. “I think he’s knows exactly what his strengths are and what his weaknesses are, and he doesn’t shy away from that.

“He’s got a really, really nice knack for finding the ball, a really good football instinct. That helps a lot too, because as you’re still taking reps and learning the package, you’re able to find the football even when you’re making a mistake.

“The other thing about Drew is that guy’s a winner. He’s fought through adversity, hasn’t wavered, hasn’t backed down. Has been counted out maybe 100 times. And there’s something to be said about someone who’s that resilient.”

ND is so confident about the future of the position group that when paired with tight overall numbers in the 2020 recruiting class, the Irish coaches elected to pass on pursuing any linebackers, including Simon’s talented little brother, Cody, who eventually committed to Ohio State.

That’s not to say there will be clear starters, clear No. 2s, clear scout team linebackers any time this season or next. Apparently ambiguity can be a good thing if directed and processed the right way.

“It’s constant competition,” Lea said, “this constant feeling that ‘I have to come and interview for the job I want every day. That I have to prove and re-prove day in and day out.’

“And I think that ultimately shapes us as competitors at the highest possible level.”

Notre Dame rover Jeremiah Owusu- Koramoah runs a drill during practice on Wednesday.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea walks along the field during practice on Wednesday.