Notre Dame Notebook: Linebackers Finding Their Roles
Beginning with the 35-17 victory at Louisville on Monday night, the Notre Dame inside linebacker situation or rotation is no longer so much about who, what, where and when — but how.
In other words, the coaching staff is now confident in where the players have been aligned and defining their roles in specific down-and-distance situations. Now it comes down to how they can execute consistently.
Among the two starters, junior Drew White made his No. 1 debut at Mike, while fifth-year senior Asmar Bilal made the transition from rover in 2018 to Buck this season, similar to the graduated Drue Tranquill last year.
However, whereas Tranquill and fellow graduate Te’von Coney monopolized about 95 percent of the snaps last year on defense, there is much more liberal rotation this year. Sophomores Shayne Simon (Mike) and Jack Lamb (Buck) both were regulars versus Louisville, with junior Jordan Genmark Heath (Buck) also seeing duty,
White is specifically a downhill first- or second-down player tailored to Mike, while Lamb’s forte for now is coverage on third down passing situations.
“There's clearly still competition, but there are also specific skill sets that we think that these guys have that we want to take advantage of,” head coach Brian Kelly explained. “There's clearly for us some work out there now that we've been able to evaluate from this game that allows us to move forward with a little bit more of a plan than we had maybe before coming into this game.”
White particularly began to settle in — as did the collective defense — after a rough first quarter. Over the final 49:08 of 60 minutes, the unit allowed only three points and 220 yards total offense.
“He showed the traits we're looking for from that Mike linebacker,” said Kelly of White, who had five tackles (two for loss, with a sack), and broke up a pass. “He did some really good things for us. There are certainly some things that he experienced that he'll get better at, but he played with a confidence and a fluidity at the position that we think he's going to be able to build on and play at a really high level for us.
“We're not asking the Mike linebacker to leave the box and play out over a receiver. We're asking him to play a lot more within the box structure, downhill, knocking off linemen. So there's got to be a physicality and he's got to be somebody that is getting the defense lined up. He's making calls, so there's a cerebral part there that we're looking for with the Mike.”
At Buck, it’s more about playing in space and getting involved in coverage. The common thread for any position on defense, though, is assignment correctness and finishing tackles.
“If they have all those other things but they're not assignment correct and can't tackle the football and get it down on the ground, it doesn't matter if they have all the athletic ability in the world,” Kelly said. “…They clearly have defined who is Mike and who is Buck — and now it's just to continue to develop them.”
Stay tuned for more competition.
• Junior running back Jafar Armstrong missed the last three-and-a-half quarters with a soft-tissue injury that will involve an MRI examination today.
“He felt some discomfort in the groin/ab(dominal) area, so we want to make sure," Kelly said. "He's had a sports hernia injury that was repaired in high school, so we feel good that there's no structural damage … we'll have some more information as we move through the week.”
• On his 34-yard reception that set up Notre Dame’s final touchdown, senior receiver Chase Claypool landed on his shoulder and was examined by team doctors, but Kelly said on Tuesday “we came out of the game with no other injuries.”
• Junior starters Cole Kmet at tight end and Michael Young at wide receiver both are progressing from collarbone breaks, especially Kmet, whose injury occurred Aug. 8. Kmet is scheduled for a CAT scan this week that will dictate whether he can be cleared for full go in practice next week in preparation for the Sept. 14 New Mexico game.
Young will have an X-ray later this week as well that will provide information on whether he can take the next step of running and catching the football. His injury occurred Aug. 17.
“He's about a week or so behind Cole Kmet in terms of that process,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the offensive line did a “solid” job leading a 230 yards rushing attack, but missing on a half-dozen third-and-short situations, including two on third-and-2 and two more on third-and-1, did result in some self-reflection.
“Every third and short needs to be evaluated in terms of our game plan as well,” Kelly explained. “It's not just on the players, because those are loaded boxes and some of it comes down to individuals making plays against unblocked [players] as well. …
“Are we calling the right plays? Do we have the right personnel in the game? Are we going to what we consider our strength — and we're kind of learning all that in the first game so we can refine what our third-down package looks like moving forward.”
And In This Corner…
Senior Donte Vaughn had a strong first two weeks of training camp and appeared on the cusp of locking down the field corner spot. However, an injury to Vaughn opened the door for fifth-year senior Shaun Crawford to earn the starting spot, and he acquitted himself well despite missing last season with a torn ACL.
“It's just a competitive situation,” said Kelly of not playing Vaughn, even though he dressed for the game and warmed up. “We haven't lost confidence in Donte at all. It's just that Shaun Crawford is a guy that we wanted to continue to get reps and play him. We like his overall sense and playing the wide-field corner as well with TaRiq Bracy.
“Houston’s [Griffith] been playing into the short field because we've played Donte to the wide field. You'll see Donte this year. It's just this week, it didn't pan out for him to be in the game plan.”