Analysis: Notre Dame has more to sort through with its linebackers

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

The questions surrounding Notre Dame’s linebacker unit weren’t answered with confidence at Louisville.

The Irish cycled through three different linebacker combinations in their 35-17 victory on Monday. Junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah manned the rover position for all three combinations for the base defense. Drew White, Asmar Bilal, Shayne Simon and Jordan Genmark Heath rotated through the inside positions.

White (mike) and Bilal (buck) started and lined up for 40 plays across seven drives. The pairing of White (mike) and Simon (buck) received 12 snaps across three drives. Simon (mike) and Genmark Heath (buck) lined up for three drives, 10 plays.

All three rotations had their moments but did not bring consistency. ND should have an opportunity to further explore these combinations in its Sept. 14 home game against New Mexico. With the game likely to be a blowout, a simple trial and error shouldn’t hurt.

Below is a detailed breakdown of the Irish defense, beginning with their linebacker unit.

Linebacker breakdown

Snap count (out of 75): Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (62), mike Drew White (52), buck Asmar Bilal (40), mike/buck Shayne Simon (22), dime linebacker Jack Lamb (13) and buck Jordan Genmark Heath (10).

Bilal (buck)/White (mike)/Owusu-Koramoah (rover): Bilal played a major role in ND’s nightmarish start. He simply wasn't aggressive enough in run support. Collectively, these three linebackers couldn’t fend off running back Javian Hawkins, who Rivals once pegged as a two-star recruit. Run fits were botched by both White and Bilal.

Rushing yards before contact is a metric that reveals a lot about how well a run defense swarms to the ball. The metric measures how many yards are gained before a defender first makes contact with the rusher. If the yards before contact is high, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary can all do a better.

For the sake of being concise, let’s give yards before contact and yards per carry the abbreviations YBC and YPC. Sacks were not a part of the calculation.

Louisville averaged a hefty 6.5 YBC (71 yards) and 10 YPC (110 yards) on 11 attempts in its first two possessions. The Irish made keen adjustments following their poor start. In their 23 rushes over the next 12 possessions, the Cardinals averaged 3.4 YBC (78 yards) and 4.2 YPC (97 yards).

The Bilal/White/JOK trio defended 23 rushes in their seven drives, yielding 5.2 YBC (120 yards) and 7.0 YPC (161 yards). The Simon/White/JOK combo allowed 6 YBC and 6.8 YPC, while the JGH/Simon/JOK trio yielded -0.2 YBC and 2 YPC. The latter two combinations each played just three drives.

White: It was a rollercoaster of a night for White. The 6-foot, 230-pound junior showed flashes — like when he sacked UL quarterback Jawon Pass and recorded a pass breakup on the following play in the second quarter. Still White could not escape from his weaknesses of making plays in space and covering in the open field. 

Even UL tight end Marshon Ford proved to be too quick for White. On a critical third-and-5 in the third quarter, Pass connected with Ford on a flat route. White was tasked with covering Ford but whiffed on the tackle in space. That turned a 2-yard gain into a 37-yard gain.

Bilal: The 6-2, 227-pound graduate senior brings solid athleticism and more experience than all of ND’s linebackers combined. He hasn’t seemed to translate those attributes to success on the inside. Bilal seemed either passive or slow to diagnose plays. He struggled to fend off blocks in the running game. He did not make any big plays.

JOK: The Irish are in good hands at rover. Owusu-Koramoah did not look like a player making his first start and only third appearance in a collegiate game. For the most part, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound junior showed he could stop the run, cover in space and make plays as a blitzer. Owusu-Koramoah had a couple costly missed tackles, but he’s the steadiest among the group.   

Final thought: Buck linebacker Jack Lamb looks like the answer as ND’s linebacker during obvious passing situations on third downs. For all other scenarios, the Irish still need to take a longer look at their inside linebacker positions. 

Secondary breakdown

Snap count (out of 75): Safety Jalen Elliott (73), boundary cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (66), safety Alohi Gilman (64), field cornerback Shaun Crawford (56), field cornerback TaRiq Bracy (29), safety Kyle Hamilton (26) and boundary cornerback Houston Griffith (9).

Dime package: The Irish used their dime defense for all but one of UL’s third downs that required six yards or more to gain.

The package consisted of linebacker Jack Lamb and six defensive backs: Pride (boundary), Bracy (field), Crawford (covering the inside receiver) and safeties Elliott, Hamilton and Gilman. Hamilton tended to line up as the deepest safety, while Gilman would operate in the box. Lamb mostly lined up on the line of scrimmage.

Pass went 1-of-4 for 14 yards against ND’s dime defense. The Irish recorded two fumble recoveries and two pass breakups in the package.

Crawford: Any concerns about ND's field cornerback situation were quieted after Monday. Crawford did not yield a reception against the Cardinals and attracted only one target to his area. Bracy displaced Crawford on ND’s base defense for three drives. Griffith filled in for Pride on the final two possessions.

Hamilton: Gilman and Elliott rarely left the field last season. Hamilton looks like the answer to that problem. He replaced Gilman for two drives and Elliott for another in ND’s base defense. Hamilton shined in his collegiate debut. His lone glaring mistake occurred on a whiffed tackle at the line of scrimmage that resulted in a 15-yard run.  

More numbers: The Irish made adjustments following their first two drives to keep everything in front of them. ND’s secondary mostly operated in man-to-man with press coverage to begin the game. Adjusting to more zone coverage helped the Irish mitigate big plays.

Pass registered 40 dropbacks consisting of 27 passes, including two throwaways, and 13 carries, including four sacks. He completed 12-of-27 passes for 134 yards. Only five of those completions were caught beyond six yards. Five of Pass’ completions came at or before the line of scrimmage. He went 2-of-7 on passes targeted 10 or more yards.

The Irish secondary weren't at fault for the Cardinals amassing 70 yards after the catch. White was responsible for 35 of those yards from his missed tackle. The other 35 yards after the catch came mostly from UL’s quick passes. Pass averaged a paltry five yards per completion.

Defensive line breakdown

Snap count (out of 75): Defensive end Khalid Kareem (51), defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (50), defensive end Julian Okwara (48), defensive end Daelin Hayes (35), nose guard Kurt Hinish (31), defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola (28), nose guard Jacob Lacey (28) and defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji (23).

Pressure count: Tagovailoa-Amosa (3), Ademilola (3), Kareem (1), Okwara (1), Hayes, (1) Hinish (1) and Ogundeji (1). The Irish achieved pressure on 14 of Pass' 40 dropbacks (35 percent). Linebackers Owusu-Koramoah, White and Bilal each accounted for one pressure.

Interior: His stat sheet didn’t show it, but Tagovailoa-Amosa often found himself in the backfield. Jayson Ademilola recorded his three pressures in ND’s first four defensive drives as well. Though they provided solid pressure, the interior defensive linemen could have finished plays better. They seemed a step behind from making a noticeable impact.

Exterior: Okwara and Kareem left a lot to be desired. It seemed like every time both defensive ends blew past their opposition, they were too late to make a play. Finishing plays were the missing element for the Irish defensive line. Okwara, Kareem and Ogundeji were also each called for costly offsides penalties on third downs.

Dime: Tagovailoa-Amosa, Okwara, Kareem and Hayes were the defensive linemen for ND’s dime package. Tagovailoa-Amosa lined up in the middle. Hayes tended to come off the edge while either Okwara or Kareem lined up inside. Okwara registered his lone sack in dime.

Rotation: The Irish used a smaller defensive line rotation than all of last season, playing eight against the Cardinals. ND rotated at least 10 defensive linemen in 11 of its 13 games in 2018. Nine defensive linemen saw action against Michigan and Stanford.

Buck linebacker Asmar Bilal (22) lines up during Notre Dame’s 35-17 victory at Louisville.