Notre Dame Football Could Make Replacing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah At Rover Linebacker In 2021 A Group Effort
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Notre Dame Could Make Replacing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah A Group Effort

The first step in replacing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is understanding that you do not simply replace Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.

Not beyond position designation, at least. Notre Dame will have someone in his vacated rover linebacker spot, which defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman is keeping from predecessor Clark Lea’s scheme.

That player won’t, though, be an athlete on his level, be expected to match the production or perhaps even have the on-field demands the 2020 Butkus Award winner did. In fact, Notre Dame might turn to multiple players to help fill the void Owusu-Koramoah leaves.

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish football junior linebacker Jack Kiser
Junior Jack Kiser is one candidate to replace Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at rover. (Notre Dame Athletics)

“We’re going to do things that allow us to get another linebacker on the field,” Brian Kelly said. “I don’t know that we’re replacing the kind of player that we had with Owusu. You’re going to see a combination of players out there.

“If it were strictly a rover situation, you’ll see [Isaiah] Pryor, you’ll see [Paul] Moala. You’re going to see [Jack] Kiser out there. At times, you might see three linebackers. It’s a combination of all those things.”

Reading the tea leaves there, one wonders if rover will not be the every-down position that it was with Owusu-Koramoah manning it the last two seasons. Owusu-Koramoah made the rover a staple as much as the role made him one.

With Owusu-Koramoah’s versatility that allowed him to slide between duties as a slot defender, a traditional linebacker, a blitzer and a nickel back, Lea rarely had to substitute for him. Last season, he played 328 snaps in the slot, 215 in the box and 88 on the defensive line, per Pro Football Focus. The 2019 distribution is similar: 352 slot, 218 box, 107 defensive line.

Will Freeman’s takeover and the lack of a spitting image of a probable first-rounder change the vision for the position? Will Notre Dame find a player at rover it trusts to wear all the different hats Owusu-Koramoah did?

A committee involving the three players Kelly mentioned seems like a plausible direction, with each playing in situations that highlight their strengths and leaving the field in areas where they struggle. Each brings a different skill set. Kelly and Moala also hinted that some linebackers are cross-training at multiple positions in Freeman’s defense.

“There are a lot of other guys who are working at rover and a little bit of Will,” Moala said. “Some playing Mike and a little bit of Will. We’re very versatile in the linebacker group.”

In the practice video Notre Dame has provided, Kiser has been a frequent first-team defender. He worked at rover a season ago, with occasional in-game appearances there. Most of his snaps were at the former buck linebacker position – now called Will. He was a productive run defender, but his week-to-week snap count vacillations can be traced back due to coverage hiccups.

Moala was Owusu-Koramoah’s backup until he tore his Achilles in October. Kelly said he could return to seven-on-seven work sometime in April, but won’t be fully ready until fall camp. He was a high school safety recruited to play rover in Lea’s defense.

“I’m definitely more geared toward working in the rover position,” Moala said.

Pryor was a safety at Ohio State and transferred to Notre Dame as one, but he shifted to rover in September after making little noise in the fall camp safety competition. His defensive snaps last year were in mop-up duty, but he was a special-teams mainstay and displayed some explosiveness. He was in the rotation at safety at Ohio State in 2018, but fell out of it in 2019. He had ups and downs as a tackler and in coverage.

Notre Dame doesn’t have to find the answer this spring, especially with Moala not at full go. It can be decided in August when he’s back. The Irish would, though, benefit by leaving the May 1 Blue-Gold Game with some clarity on who they can trust at rover and what they have. The position and its place in Freeman’s defensive vision can further take shape from there.

For the rover contenders, the first step was (and still is) learning Freeman’s demands and playbook differences. Freeman indicated in February he’s not changing too many terms, deciding he’d rather make himself learn what the players already know instead of the other way around. That lines up with his overall directives to his players: play free, fast and fun.

“Defensive-wise, it’s not too hard to get down.” Moala said. “Freeman emphasized he doesn’t want us thinking out on the field. He just wants us playing smart.”

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