Blue and Gold Illustrated

April 2017

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

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Page 28 of 63 APRIL 2017 29 LINEBACKERS Q uestions about experi- ence and proven produc- tion abound on the defen- sive side of the ball for Notre Dame, but the one spot where the Irish return talent, experi- ence and proven production is at linebacker. Notre Dame returns 386 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks at line- backer, and the only questions the group faces this spring are which experienced player starts and how quickly can the group adapt to defensive coordinator Mike Elko's system. Senior Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan has slimmed down this spring, dropping from 245 pounds to 238, which should help him flourish in Elko's aggressive defense. Morgan will be tasked with playing a more downhill game under Elko, which should help him produce far more than the six tackles for loss he racked up last season and should allow him to build on his sack total. A battle will rage all spring, and likely into the fall, to see who starts beside Mor- gan at the Buck linebacker spot. Junior Te'von Coney manned that spot last sea- son, but senior Greer Martini is very hard to keep off the field. Both defenders are smart players who use their instincts to overcome a lack of ideal athleticism. Junior linebacker Asmar Bilal has no such concerns. Bilal's athleticism is without question his greatest asset. No linebacker on the roster can run and move like him, but he has yet to show the instincts of his position mates. If that part of his game catches up to his athleticism, he could be poised for a breakout season. BY THE NUMBERS 0 Interceptions registered by Notre Dame linebackers each of the past two regular seasons, although Joe Schmidt did pick off a pass in the 44-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, 2016. 11 Sacks recorded by Irish line- backers last year among the 14 total by the team that ranked 118th out of 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. 158 Career tackles by Nyles Mor- gan, the most among any re- turning Notre Dame defender, with three of the top four all linebackers. POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH The Buck linebacker could be handled by committee again with Te'von Coney and Greer Martini, depending on what style of offense is faced — but junior Asmar Bilal (29 tackles last year, three for loss) is the X-factor. The 6-2, 229-pound Bilal could line up at the rover position or also compete for action at Buck if needed. He provides the maneuverability to cover tight ends and more, but also the physicality and in-the-box tackling to handle the run. WHO'S GONE James Onwualu The senior captain had a quality 2016 at the Sam position, leading the Irish in tackles for loss (11.5), placing second in sacks (three), and finishing third in overall tackles (75) and passes defended (five). WHO'S BACK Senior Nyles Morgan He paced Notre Dame last season in tackles (94) and sacks (four for 31 yards) as the starting Mike after playing almost exclusively on special teams the year prior. His 16 career starts tie safety/rover Drue Tranquill for the most on that side of the ball. Senior Greer Martini He joins Morgan and Tranquill as de- fensive captains. His 55 stops at the Will spot (now known as Buck) in 2016 were the fifth most on the squad, and his seven tackles for lost yardage last season were the most among any returning player. Junior Te'von Coney The first-time co-starter at Will with Martini finished fourth in tackles with 62 and is competing to keep a major role in the new defense under coordinator Mike Elko. TOP NEWCOMERS Sophomore Jamir Jones The younger brother of 2012-16 Irish de- fensive lineman Jarron Jones joined class- mate and wide receiver Chase Claypool as a special teams mainstay last year. Be- cause of the veteran group at linebacker, he is probably a year away from having a greater role, but he is already up to 243 pounds on a 6-3 frame and could even find himself on the line down the road. 2017 SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW Returning Returning Year-End Year Starts Tackles Tackles 2016 27 208 323 2017 35 377 — QUOTABLE "He leads sometimes by his emotions, and we want that to be more balanced on a day-to-day basis. He's doing a great job of holding players accountable, communicating with them effec- tively, and that's been a great maturation process for him over the last few months." — HEAD COACH BRIAN KELLY ON SENIOR CAPTAIN NYLES MORGAN BALANCING HIS FERVOR WITH POISE AND CONSISTENT PRODUCTION NYLES MORGAN PHOTO BY RICK KIMBALL NYLES MORGAN

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