Blue and Gold Illustrated

BGI April 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 30 of 55 APRIL 2019 31 man, they want to know what to ex- pect. They want to see a depth chart. "I don't want to see one. I don't know why we need to determine this up until we're teeing it up — and even then this unit has to keep evolving. We're going to line up and play our first game, and by game five or game eight we need to be better. We'll see how that looks and how the parts shift. "If I can get a guy who ends up being a two to push himself up until the point his number is called, we'll be better for it when we need the next man in. I don't anticipate mak- ing any decisions up until the point we have to. "Everyone has bought into the fact that linebacker is going to be an open competition. … They're going to earn what they get." If the players earn the trust to play, Lea could envision a liberal rotation somewhat similar to the one the line had last year. "This defensive system was built on let's play as many guys as we can, because there are two effects there," Lea said. "One is it keeps your unit rested, and two I think there is this collective buy-in that goes on when they know they have ownership — even if it's 10 or 15 reps (in a game). "Knowing that you're going to be on the field, it just pushes everything forward in preparation." Although such competition is a "dream scenario" to Lea, he also is realistic that rotations cannot be forced. "If we can't do it because perfor- mance suffers, that's something we have to confront," Lea said. "It's the quality and the experience of depth." POSITION SHIFTS Just like Tranquill moved from rover to Buck linebacker for the 2018 campaign, fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal is making the same transition this spring, after starting 10 games at rover last season. The change could allow him to maximize his experi- ence and physical qualities. "Everything tightens down a little bit at Buck," Lea said. "You can allow a guy to have such physical tools to experience success if he takes to it. We know what he can bring to the table at rover. "This is a time for experimenta- tion and shifting the parts and pieces around to find the best mix." The move also allows highly touted sophomore Shayne Simon an opportunity to seize the rover spot, after also cross-training at Buck last season. "Shayne was identified earlier as having the skills and physical traits that would allow him to be a factor," Lea explained. "My job is to not just roll the ball out with Shayne but con- nect with him and identify the areas that he has to improve. He can be a dynamic player for us. "Is he there now? No, but that's why we practice." Another sophomore, Houston Griffith, is being presented an op- portunity to thrive at the boundary cornerback spot that was vacated by Love. Griffith, the top-ranked Irish re- cruit in 2018, played at nickel last fall, and Lea believes the boundary spot is tailored to his strength. "He's got skills at that position that can be elite," said Lea, who also was thrilled to pick up former quar- terback and running back Avery Da- vis as a "free agent" to compete at cornerback. Compared to last year when the starting defense was more veteran dominated, this group will need much more polishing and season- ing. The first objective is not to create paralysis by analysis amongst the younger players. "You drill down and try to create conceptual awareness, and when you do that you create an environment where a guy can perform uninhib- ited," Lea said while emphasizing the reliance on natural instincts. "We learn to speak first before we learn grammar. "I want that for these young play- ers. When the ball goes out, it's like playing pickup basketball. "Every year you look at who you are and what your skill set is. You shade calls around what you do well." That's what can result in "system- atic" improvement. ✦ "Even though we don't have in-game experience at several positions, we have system experience. We have smart people and capable athletes." DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR CLARK LEA The End Game Defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Ok‑ wara returning to Notre Dame as seniors instead of turning pro — which both considered — might be as crucial to the 2019 defense as it was in 2018 with the trio of tackle Jerry Tillery and linebackers Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney. Kareem acknowledged he had "long, deep conversation" with his parents, in addition to his coaches, before making the decision. The 30‑3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff aided the thought process. "I just felt like I had more to give to this uni‑ versity, to this team," Kareem said. "Finish my degree for one, and finish what we started last year. That loss left a sour taste in our mouths. "I just want to come back and win it all." Replacing Tillery will be the primary task up front, and a three‑man interior rotation with juniors Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa‑ Amosa, plus sophomore Jayson Ademilola, will be pivotal to overall production and efficiency. "I feel like we can be one of the best D‑lines in the country," Kareem said. "… This is one of the focal points of the team." Another season in Matt Balis' strength and conditioning program and two healthy ankles also have Kareem upbeat. He injured his left ankle in the 2018 opener versus Michigan, and two weeks later incurred a high ankle sprain on his right one which inhibited his mobility and full potential much of the campaign. "I didn't really have the time to recover," Kareem said. "We had to play. … I've played football since I've been like 6, so I know get‑ ting banged up and having bruises and injuries are part of the game." Kareem and Okwara were two of the eight SWAT captains named this winter, which pro‑ vided even greater motivation. "That pushed me to do everything the right way," Kareem said. " I tried to do that already … it's good pressure, though. I like it. Just be better overall and be the same guy day in and day out." — Lou Somogyi Senior end Khalid Kareem believes Notre Dame will feature one of the top defensive lines in the country this year. PHOTO BY ANGELA DRISKELL

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