Position group breakdown: linebacker
Observer Sports Staff | Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Going into the 2019 season, the state of the linebacker position was much like the state of the cornerback position is going into 2020. Hopefully the corners can replicate the surprise leap the ‘backers made then, and hopefully the latter will only get better with another year of tutelage by defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea.
Position group: Linebacker
Depth Chart: rising sophomores Jack Kiser, Osita Ekwonu, Marist Liufau, J.D. Bertrand; rising juniors Bo Bauer, Jack Lamb, Shayne Simon, Paul Moala; rising seniors Drew White, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Jordan Genmark Heath
Key 2019 Departures:
Bilal was a graduate student last season and his performance embodied that of the linebacker position as a whole. In 2018 the linebacker rotation was dominated by Drue Tranquil and Te’Von Coney, so Bilal, many hoped, would leap in his fifth year, and he didn’t disappoint. The Indianapolis native had a career year. He recorded personal bests of 79 tackles, 48 unassisted, 10 tackles for loss, two pass breakups and one fumble recovery.
His 79 tackles were third on the team behind fellow linebackers Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and his performance on senior day against Boston College earned him the game ball. While his absence will be felt on the defensive side of the ball, the Irish are fortunate enough to have a stable of linebackers ready to step up.
Key 2020 Contributors:
Despite being a bit of an unproven player, having only stepped in for an injured Drue Tranquil against Navy in 2018, White took over the starting Mike linebacker role last season and did not disappoint. He tied for the team lead in tackles with 80, 48 of which were unassisted, and he showed great versatility in both run and pass protection. With another year of tutelage by Clark Lea, albeit a shortened one due to the cancellation of spring practice, White could become an even sounder play-caller on the defensive side of the ball.
Owusu-Koramoah tied White with 80 tackles on the year but beat him out with 54 unassisted. He also led the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and tied defensive end Khalid Kareem for the team lead in sacks at 5.5. His breakout may have been even more unexpected than White’s, given that he didn’t record a single tackle in only two games played in 2018.
Shouldering the all-important Irish rover position, Owusu-Koramoah displayed tremendous athleticism last season, athleticism which allowed him to record the aforementioned stats as well as four pass breakups, the same number as starting safeties Jalen Elliot and Alohi Gilman combined. Much like White, with more time under Lea’s mentorship, Owusu-Koramoah could make noise among NFL scouts in his senior campaign.
Jordan Genmark Heath
If nothing else, Genmark Heath is consistent. In three seasons with the Irish, he’s played in all 13 games each year, recording 16 total tackles each of his first two seasons and 10 in the most recent campaign. He also recorded his first and only tackle for loss last season against Michigan. While White and Owusu-Koramoah — the other two linebackers in his class — have taken off, Genmark Heath is still trying to gain his footing and will look to replicate the leap Bilal took last season.
One of Notre Dame’s more volatile players, Bauer was a mainstay of the Irish special teams unit, recording a team-leading 13 tackles while on special teams. He recorded 28 tackles on the year, good for the fourth-most among linebackers, as well as two tackles for loss, a blocked punt and a blocked kick. However, his lack of discipline on defense held him back. Coming off of a late-season injury, Bauer is in a similar boat to that of Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, as the spring practice time would be very beneficial to him establishing a larger role in the linebacker rotation.
Jack Lamb & Shayne Simon
Lamb and Simon are grouped together because each posted similar numbers before their seasons were cut short by injury. Lamb recorded seven tackles, two for loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in eight contests before tearing a muscle in his hip. Simon posted nine tackles, 1.5 for loss, in ten games before suffering a dislocated patella. Assuming both make a full recovery, either has a good opportunity to vie for playing time in a crowded position group.
Hailing from Mishawaka, Indiana, Moala is a homegrown player for the Irish. He recorded 14 tackles and one touchdown in 12 games last season. His score came against Navy as he broke past the line of scrimmage and intercepted a pitch — though it counted as a forced fumble and fumble recovery — then took it 27 yards to the house. Head coach Brian Kelly spoke positively of Moala and said he could play his way into the linebacker rotation.
Marist Liufau & J.D. Bertrand
Liufau and Bertrand both played in four games last season to maintain their redshirts. Their contributions were almost exclusively on special teams, although it speaks highly of Liufau in particular that the four games he contributed in were against, arguably, the four toughest opponents for Notre Dame: Georgia, Virginia, USC and Michigan. With little to no spring practice time, it’s uncertain how these rising sophomores will be able to worm their way into more action.
Hayden Adams — Sports Editor
Clark Lea. ‘Nuff said.
I don’t mean to act as though there’s no uncertainty at this position because outside of Owusu-Koramoah and White there most definitely is. However, I’m banking on an excess of talented players with a position coach and coordinator who to this point has proven he is one of the premier young defensive gurus in college football.
Bauer may be a loose cannon, but dang it if he doesn’t lay it all out there for his team. Liufau hasn’t got much experience, but I have faith in the faith the coaches put in him by throwing him to the wolves on special teams. As for the other mostly unproven players — namely Bauer, Simon, Lamb and Moala — once again, I trust that if Lea could squeeze as much potential out of Bilal as he did, he should be able to establish a more-than-dependable rotation. A
Jimmy Ward — Associate Sports Editor
No one has ever considered Notre Dame ‘Linebacker U,’ but if Clark Lea‘s trend of producing something out of nothings continues, they just might have to. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White certainly aren’t nothings and will provide coverage all over the field.
However, the depth is just not there right now. I expect a lot of subs in the first couple games of the season until it is determined who is best prepared for the role. White and Owusu-Koramoah can’t carry all the weight and with the offensive powers the Irish are set to face next season, they will need more than one or two guys to step up and carry some of the load. With arguably one of the best secondary squad in the country, the pressure isn’t necessarily all that urgent, but if the Irish want to come away with big wins against Wisconsin or Clemson, this group will need to find their groove sooner rather than later. B-
Aidan Thomas — Sports Writer
The Notre Dame defense has been steadily getting better since the staff overhaul in 2016, and a major factor in that rise has been their linebackers. This was especially evident last season when the Irish entered with huge questions at the position, only to see their linebackers fuel their success with 39 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led from the rover position with 13.5 tackles for loss and 16 quarterback pressures, and with some solid returning talent and a spectacular coaching staff in place, the Notre Dame linebackers ought to be key contributors to what looks to be another excellent Irish defense. A-