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Questions at linebacker position offer opportunity for breakout star

| Friday, April 12, 2019

With the losses of Te’Von Coney and Drue Tranquill, Notre Dame is returning a depleted linebacker corps heading into the 2019 season.

The Irish will host their annual Blue-Gold spring game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, and the linebacker position will be a focal point for defensive coordinator Clark Lea and the rest of the Irish coaching staff.

Graduate student Asmar Bilal returns as the only starter from last year’s squad, a team that ranked 13th overall in the nation in terms of scoring defense, giving up an average of 18.2 points per game. While Bilal is the only constant among Notre Dame linebackers from last year, he will be playing a different position for the Irish in 2019, transitioning from rover to inside linebacker heading into the fall.

Emma Farnan | The Observer
Irish graduate student linebacker Asmar Bilal tackles the ball carrier during Notre Dame’s 45-23 victory over Virginia Tech on Oct. 6.

Lea said he believes the linebacker corps in particular is “in a very different place” since the start of the spring season.

“That’s part of the evolution of the unit, and there are also still strategic moving of parts and pieces just to try and figure out the best combination,” he said. “I think if we’re doing the right thing coaching-wise and coaching it conceptually, the ability to move people around becomes an advantage.”

While Lea said the Irish are “better-equipped, better-skilled from where [they] started” this spring, the defense is still up in the air in terms of where each player will end up on the roster.

“If you look at our room, its an interesting makeup just in terms of the multiplicity of position,” he said. “We’re still a work in progress and have a long way to go, but slowly but surely the picture is clearing up, and I think Saturday will be an important part of that.”

With plenty of pressure in terms of who will be protecting the middle of the field next fall, the young core of rising sophomores Bo Bauer, Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon and rising juniors Jordan Genmark Heath and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will be battling to determine who sees the field.

In terms of the rover position, Owusu-Koramoah has been getting the most playing time, followed by rising sophomore safety Paul Moala. Having size and athleticism at the rover position is something that enables the playbook to be expanded, especially in base situations.

Touching on whether or not there was a “sure” starter out of the group in advance of next season, Lea was hesitant to express whether any decisions made now are going to be final, but noted that Bilal is “going to be a factor for” the Irish after doing “a great job this spring.”

“He’s a guy that I think — physically and in terms of his game experience — I think enhances the unit. … This is going to be how hard can we work at it,” Lea said. “The minute the spring game is finished, these guys are gonna have to maybe take Sunday off, and then on their own get back to work on Monday and work in earnest through the summer. Though we’re a little bit uncertain right now, in our room we’re really excited about where we’re headed, and so it’s each man individually taking the ownership of his own improvement — and you can do that in the summer time.”

Lamb has also impressed the Irish coaching staff as of late and could find himself on the field in passing situations, Lea said, while the more experienced Genmark Heath can swap in for running downs.

“He has a natural instinct in coverage that we’re going to use to our advantage, plus his length,” Lea said about Lamb’s progress over the course of the spring. “When you start dropping a guy who’s 6-[foot]-4 into the middle of the field, the dig window tightens — especially when he has a great awareness of what’s going on behind him, and he’s shown a knack for that.”

Lea said he has high expectations for Lamb.

“I don’t treat Jack like a first-year player because he enrolled early,” he said. “We’re going to have some urgency with him to see where we can get him so that we’re not limiting him to just what he does really well. Maybe there’s another layer in there where he can become a really good first- and second-down player as well.”

Lamb is currently in competition with Genmark Heath and Bauer for reps, and a clear favorite has yet to emerge. Lea said he and the rest of the coaching staff will be creative and strategic in terms of who sees the field more and will be keeping an eye out to determine which guy is ultimately going to take the bulk of the plays on the field. While Bauer is more physical than Lamb and Genmark Heath is a better run-stopper, Lamb’s size and athletic potential may end up tipping the scales in his favor.

Another talked-about linebacker this offseason has been Shayne Simon. The 6-foot-3 rising sophomore out of West Orange, New Jersey, has a combination of speed, athleticism and agility that makes it difficult for Lea and the other Irish coaches to keep him off the field. As a former safety, Simon initially moved to the rover position before realizing it wasn’t the best fit for him. Realistically, Lea said, Simon is athletic enough to produce wherever the coaching staff places him on the field, and he will be making a major impact wherever he ends up.

“His physique, his body-type, just when you look at him physically and how he’s grown, we don’t want to put any limitations on him. … We see him as a factor in the box,” Lea said. “Right now, he’s slid in to play some [inside linebacker] for us just as a way to get him box experience and get him reps. Obviously I think he’s a guy that can do both, and his experience even last year playing a little buck will help if we need to slide him over.”

While there is still plenty of work left to be done, Lea said he and the rest of the Irish coaching staff are pleased with where the linebacker corps is at right now and are hoping the competition at the position will only heat up heading into the season.

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