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Concannon: next staple of the Irish defense may be hidden within the depth chart

| Friday, September 13, 2019

The 2018 Irish were stout against the run. Te’Von Coney, Jerry Tillery and Drue Tranquill were key pieces that allowed just 139.5 rushing yards per game, good for 33rd in the FBS. These players have all moved on and against Louisville, the holes they left behind turned into running lanes as the Irish conceded 249 yards on the ground.

Last year’s team conceded that many rushing yards just twice — once of which was against Navy’s triple option, an offense which only attempted 12 passes the entirety of the game. Even the Cotton Bowl only saw Clemson rush for 211. Once the Irish take a sizable lead against New Mexico (and if that never happens, there are even bigger issues) the coaching staff needs to mix and match defensive personnel and schemes together to improve what didn’t work against Louisville.

Against Louisville, the defensive line snaps were distributed between junior Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa (48 snaps), junior Kurt Hinish (35), sophomore Jayson Ademilola (28) and freshman Jacob Lacey (28). For a team still figuring out its defensive personnel and replacing a first-round pick in Tillery, the spread of snaps showed the coaching staff giving multiple guys opportunities to earn time, something one would hope to see this early.

Ann Curtis | The Observer
Irish senior safety and captain Alohi Gilman returns an interception during Notre Dame’s 36-3 win over Syracuse on Nov. 17 in Yankee Stadium.

We did not see this same dispersion of snaps at linebacker. Junior Drew White, graduate student Asmar Bilal and junior Jeremiah Owusu-Kramoah got by far the most work. Granted that defensive linemen rotate more considering the physical requirements of the position, I would have liked to see more linebackers get opportunities to prove themselves — especially once the game got out of reach for the Cardinals.

The team will likely roll that same trio out this week, a group that got decent but not exemplary results week one. White and Bilal combined for just nine tackles, a figure that Te’Von Coney would routinely surpass on his own last season.

It was only one game, and last year’s team certainly did not reach its peak until several weeks into the season, but I would love to see some competition. Junior Jordan Genmark Heath has drawn praise from the coaching staff and performed well last season in a spot start against Northwestern. Sophomore Jack Lamb got reps in the summer time and performed well according to many, both should get a chance to prove themselves in game action.

These are just two players who could warrant in-game reps from the coaching staff that largely were not given against Louisville. Lamb and Heath received 13 and 10 snaps respectively, while White and Bilal received 53 and 41. Sophomore Shayne Simon also received 22 snaps playing behind Bilal. I would like to see a more even distribution of snaps against New Mexico, especially if the Irish get out to a lead.

One could argue that the team should keep the unit that performed the best in summer training on the field. While I agree with that and by no means think the current group are incapable of bonding into a solid unit, why not use this game to give reps and see what kind of linebacking playmakers are lurking on the bench?

Perhaps a star could emerge in game action, and that will be a necessity if the team is to get a win in Athens in two weeks. Georgia averaged 238.8 yards per game on the ground last season. They return four out of five starters on their offensive line, including projected NFL Draft top-five left tackle Andrew Thomas. The Irish cannot win in Athens without at least a respectable performance against the run.

There is a recent history of finding hidden gems. Tranquill failed to crack the ESPN top-300 recruits coming out of high school, and Coney barely did registering at 295th in his class. Few expected these players to blossom into superstars. They proved themselves by getting opportunities in games, and who knows what a Genmark Heath could show if given a full series?

Of course, the next Te’Von Coney could simply be Asmar Bilal or someone else who is already starting. If that is the case, then that’s even better — but the Irish cannot be afraid to embrace the fact that their next elite run-stopper may be buried in the depth chart as of now. The fate of the Georgia game, and the team’s College Football Playoff chances, may depend on it.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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