SOUTH BEND — Replacing Drue Tranquill and Te'von Coney from a playoff team is going to be tough. Notre Dame hopes to find their replacements in the next four weeks.
Linebacker was a position head coach Brian Kelly said he'd be paying attention to the most as he spoke Friday ahead of the start of fall camp. The first practice for the Irish is Sunday on the campus of Culver Academies.
"Like any team going into the '19 season, we're going to have some things we have to work on in preseason camp," Kelly said. "We've got some question marks, but we believe that we have players that can step in and play at a very, very high level."
Tranquill and Coney were forces in the middle of a stout Irish defense in 2018, combining for 209 tackles — 18.5 for loss — and 7.5 sacks. Coney had 16 tackles and Tranquill 11 in the final game last year, a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals. Both Tranquill and Coney are in the NFL now, with Tranquill going to the Los Angeles Chargers and Coney to the Oakland Raiders.
One player expected to take on a larger role in the linebacker position is graduate senior Asmar Bilal. He was sixth on the team in tackles in 2018 with 50. As the only returning starting linebacker, Bilal will be asked to be a leader for the younger linebacking corps.
During spring practice, players like junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, sophomore Shayne Simon and sophomore Bo Bauer received a lot of playing time. Those three had seven, six and six tackles in the Blue-Gold spring game back in April, respectively.
Along with those three, junior Drew White and freshman J.D. Bertrand were guys Kelly noted could see considerable playing time in 2019. White filled in for an injured Tranquill against Navy last year, totaling six tackles in the Irish's 44-22 win over the Midshipmen.
"Drew White would definitely be in that mix. J.D. Bertrand is physically able to be thrown into that mix as well. He's shown himself physically to be one of those guys, but we've got to go see him with the pads on," Kelly said. "So if you want to pencil him in as another add to that mix, and then everybody that was competing in the spring."
Work to find Coney and Tranquill's replacements began in the spring and continued over the summer. The focus for the fall, however, will be getting everyone enough reps to know who's fit to start for the Irish in their season opener Sept. 2 against Louisville.
"I have worked our schedule to make sure we get more reads for key linebackers to see them flow to the football," Kelly said. "That's an important part of our evaluation, giving them the opportunity and giving (defensive coordinator) Clark (Lea) enough evaluation to both chart to see how their production is, as well as see it and make some evaluations as to how that's all going to pan out."
With star players returning at the defensive line, cornerback and safety positions, the middle of the Notre Dame defense will be the unit's biggest question mark. Kelly expects the challenges of fall camp to be good for the linebackers as a whole.
"The linebacker position is going to be exciting. We've got a lot of good players there that have to be able to show themselves and have some production," Kelly said. "Again, we're going to put them in a number of positions to do so. So that will be one that requires a lot of attention but one that we're looking forward to."
Austin Hough can be reached at email@example.com or 574-533-2151, ext. 325. Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinHoughTGN