ND FOOTBALL POSITION BREAKDOWNS: Linebackers look to build off strong 2019 season

Notre Dame linebacker Drew White, 40, gets ready to make a tackle against USC during the Fighting Irish’s 30-27 victory Oct. 12, 2019, in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame only had one spring practice before everything was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. So, where do these cancellations leave coach Brian Kelly’s squad?

Let’s take a look at each position and see how the Irish fare heading into the summer.

The linebacker position came into the 2019 season with a lot of question marks but left as the biggest surprise group for the Irish. Three new starters — Asmar Bilal, Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah — all shined in starting roles. With Bilal now in the NFL, White and Owusu-Koramoah will look to lead the group in 2020.

RETURNING STARTERS

In 2018, Bilal was the starting Rover for the Irish as they made a trip to the College Football Playoff. With the graduation of Drue Tranquill, though, an opening at Buck was created. Bilal was moved to Buck in 2019, creating an opening at Rover.

Owusu-Koramoah stepped in at Rover and shined. The sophomore started all 13 games for Notre Dame, recording 80 tackles and 5.5 sacks, both tying for the team lead. The Rover is more of a hybrid position, requiring the linebacker to cover most of the field as both a run and pass stopper. Owusu-Koramoah more than proved he was capable of playing the position, and the now-redshirt junior will have up to two more seasons to start and hone his craft at the position.

Meanwhile, White was tasked with replacing starting Mike linebacker Te’von Coney from the 2018 team. White was used sparingly two seasons ago, only notably making an emergency appearance when Tranquill was injured in the Navy game. The Boca Raton, Florida, native only had eight career tackles entering 2019.

White multiplied that number by 11 last year, co-leading the team with 80 tackles. Known for his ability to stop opposing teams’ rushing attacks, he had strong performances against Michigan (11 tackles) and Navy (10), both who ran the ball a lot against Notre Dame last season. He, like Owusu-Koramoah, has two years of eligibility left as a redshirt junior. The Irish coaching staff should have a lot of confidence in those two as they return following breakout 2019 campaigns.

REPLACING BILAL

Behind Bilal on the depth chart at the end of the season was junior Jordan Genmark-Heath. The 6-foot, 225-pound linebacker appeared in all 13 games, even starting the season opener against Louisville. Originally brought in as a safety, Genmark-Heath made the move to linebacker in the 2018 season. For his career, Genmark-Heath has 41 tackles.

The top option to replace Bilal at Buck, though, is junior Shayne Simon — who was the backup to Bilal before dislocating his patella in the win over Navy. Mostly getting playing time on special teams as well, Simon had nine tackles in 2019. He started the season as the backup to White at the Mike position before moving to Buck on the depth chart.

The Buck is usually the player who’s making sure the defense is aligned properly on each play.

It was a role Tranquill served in 2018 and Bilal in 2019. While Genmark-Heath and Simon have appeared in numerous games in their careers, their production hasn’t been substantial. Can either of them take the next step like White and Owusu-Koramoah did last year? That remains the question for the Irish entering the summer.

BACKUPS

Behind the three expected starters are some players with varying playing experience.

Someone who could contend for serious playing time is junior Bo Bauer. A backup to White in 2019, Bauer also left a presence on the special teams unit. He appeared in all 13 games as a linebacker or special teams player, tallying 28 tackles. He may move to the Buck position and challenge Genmark-Heath for a starting job come fall camp.

Another player who is coming off injury is redshirt sophomore Jack Lamb. He tore a hip muscle in the game against Virginia Tech, causing him to miss the final five games. He was used a lot on special teams and in the nickel defense in 2019, leading him to record seven tackles and one sack.

Owusu-Koramoah’s backup all last season was rising junior Paul Moala, who converted from safety to the Rover position. Moala had one of the highlights last year, intercepting a lateral from Navy quarterback Perry Olsen and running it 27 yards for a touchdown. His versatility is a plus for the Irish, as he can play multiple positions on defense. It will be interesting to see how involved he is on defense in the 2020 season.

Austin Hough can be reached at austin.hough@goshennews.com or at 574-538-2360. Follow him on Twitter at @AustinHoughTGN.

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