Fewer questions at linebacker for Notre Dame, but who will step up at buck?
Clark Lea has proven he can handle question marks.
Notre Dame’s entire linebacking corps consisted of them prior to last season until the Irish defensive coordinator and linebackers coach identified the answers at the 11th hour.
One year later, two of those answers return for the Irish in middle linebacker Drew White and rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Together they tied for the team-high with 80 tackles last season.
The question this year will be who joins White and Owusu-Koramoah as the buck linebacker. Gone is Asmar Bilal, who became a reliable defender as a graduate student last season with 79 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss at a new position.
What Lea knows already is that Owusu-Koramoah won’t be making the move inside to fill that void.
“Ultimately we trust him to do things that truly make him a hybrid,” Lea said. “So he’s plenty capable of playing in the box. But I think the fact that he adds the coverage element and the element in space puts him in the perfect position.”
Owusu-Koramoah, who was named to the preseason watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award for the nation’s outstanding defensive player, recorded 13.5 tackles for a loss, 5.5 sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries while playing the hybrid rover position last season. He was asked to do a lot, and he delivered.
“Anytime you move a position, independent of rover to buck or whatever, you’re always looking at: where is the highest potential impact?” Lea said. “Where is the highest potential ceiling for a player? So we feel like we have him in a pretty good spot that way.”
The breakout season for White and Owusu-Koramoah came in their third year under Lea, which may give the edge to the older linebackers on the roster like senior Jordan Genmark Heath or juniors Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon.
Genmark Heath has the most experience of that trio (42 tackles in 39 games), but his production to date peaked in the Citrus Bowl against LSU as a freshman safety and against Northwestern as a sophomore linebacker while rotating in for a hobbled Drue Tranquill. Genmark Heath only registered 10 tackles while playing mostly special teams in all 13 games last season.
“Jordan Genmark Heath has had a great offseason, and that’s from January on,” Lea said. “This guy has dedicated himself to this competition. He’s dedicated himself to this program. He’s made physical gains and movement gains that I’m so proud of. And I want him coming into camp and fighting.”
Lamb and Simon both had their sophomore seasons cut short with injuries and may have benefited from their competition not being able to make strides in the spring while they remained sidelined.
Lamb made regular appearances in Notre Dame’s dime package in the first eight games of last season before suffering a torn muscle in his hip. He made seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in his limited action. Simon’s role was less regular and mainly on special teams, but he still managed to tally nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss in 10 games before dislocating his right kneecap.
“Shayne Simon, who continues to impress coming off injury, is back full go and I know he’s hungry to compete,” Lea said. “Jack Lamb, who carved out a role last year for us — again coming off injury, he’s anxious to get out there and compete.”
Lea continued by detailing how all four sophomore linebackers — Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau and Osita Ekwonu — are “anxious to compete.”
“That’s not what you wanted in terms of my narrowing down what we’re looking at, but literally that’s where we are,” Lea said.
Juniors Bo Bauer and Paul Moala likely have the edge for backup roles at middle linebacker and rover, respectively. But Lea isn’t limiting himself to relying on only three starting linebackers throughout the season. He’d like to find roles for others and their specific talents, as he did for Lamb last season.
“These guys have rush potential and blitz potential,” Lea said. “And they could help us build up packages, and situationally find roles that way.”
The Irish opened last season using six different linebackers on defense at Louisville. That quickly narrowed down with Bilal, White and Owusu-Koramoah taking command of their positions.
The buck linebacker spot may require its own rotation to start this season, too. With the coronavirus causing an unusual offseason, the competition remains wide open.
“It’s going to be an incredible competition,” Lea said. “They’re all excited for it and they’re all supportive of each other through it. And it’s going to be one of those things may the best man win, and it’s not going to be just one who plays when we finally line up.
“It’s going to be a multitude of guys who contribute in that spot, and that’s what makes for a healthy defense. Like everybody, I’m very excited to see it transpire.
“The one thing I know about it — my inside scoop — is each one of these guys has made themselves better, so it’s going to make it all the more exciting.”
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