2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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94 ✦ BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW LINEBACKERS I n each of his first two seasons as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, Clark Lea had a prepared and convenient plan to fill the open Buck linebacker position. In 2018, he shifted former starting rover and fifth-year senior Drue Tranquill — who became a stalwart at Buck during a run to the College Football Playoff — into the spot. In 2019, it was fifth-year senior and for- mer rover Asmar Bilal's turn to make the switch, and he acquitted himself well with the second-highest grade (behind end Kha- lid Kareem) on defense from Pro Football Focus. The top two tacklers from 2019 return with seniors Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover and Drew White at Mike — two first-time starters last year who thrived. Un- like in 2018 and 2019, though, Lea said he has the prototype at the hybrid rover — part linebacker, part safety and part nickel — spot with the freakishly athletic Owusu- Koramoah. "He's represented everything we want at that rover position: can play man to man, he blitzes, he's disruptive on the perimeter, makes the perimeter screen game a chal- lenge," Lea said of Owusu-Koramoah, who paced the team in solo stops (54), tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (5.5). "We expect those skills to continue to enhance." Consequently, other than running back, there is not a single position in 2020 that might have more competition for a starter's role than Buck linebacker. In the lone spring practice, senior Jordan Genmark Heath was with the first group, but juniors Jack Lamb and Shayne Simon were sidelined while rehabbing. Lea believed Simon, formerly a rover, was just beginning to blossom at Buck before a dislocated patella versus Navy required major surgery. Lamb was a regular in sub packages, mainly versus the pass, before hip surgery also shelved him last November. The sophomore quartet of Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser, Osita Ekwonu and JD Bertrand could cross-train at the spot as well. If junior Bo Bauer — last year's Special Teams Player of the Year — will vie for reps at Mike, then maybe White can also work at Buck. The intense competition for action, including No. 2 rover and junior Paul Moala, is creating ownership. "We're getting to the point now where we feel like we have capable depth," Lea said. "Let's find a way to create roles, create rota- tions — and we still haven't been able to do that. …That's not something I can say we're definitely ready for. That has to be earned and proven, but I think we're getting close. "These guys don't work year-round to then watch the game. They all want to play. When you're able to get them involved, they will go a little further in their preparation. It's just human nature." He expects linebacker to have more fig- ures contributing in 2020 because of natural progression — similar to White and Owusu- Koramoah becoming mainstays last year. "Our challenge as coaches is to develop the third Buck linebacker to become as com- petent as the first and second, and maybe there's a smaller margin that separates the two," Lea said. Passing the buck won't be an option. ✦ THE BUCK STOPS HERE Finding the third starter while building depth will be the Irish priorities Senior Jordan Genmark Heath is one of numerous contenders at the vacated Buck linebacker position. PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS

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