Notre Dame Football

Spring Preview: Linebacker

February 25, 2017

It's a transition year at linebacker again for Notre Dame. It's just a different kind of transition. Last year it was more about replacing personnel. This year it's about a switch to a new defense that should bring out new competition.

The previous spring Notre Dame did not have enough bodies to field two units in the Blue Gold game without playing a walk-on. That's not going to be an issue this time around with plenty of scholarship linebackers returning and fighting for reps. Some are going to step forward and others may get lost in the shuffle.

No matter how it shakes out, the linebackers should be the strongest and deepest position group on the defense.

Morgan should take next step

I don't think there are going to be too many who don't expect Nyles Morgan to take the next step and go from a pretty good to a great player. There were some bumps along the way last year, but it was a very strong first season as a starter for him. This year under Clark Lea in Mike Elko's defense, it could be a Marquel Lee type of jump where his tackling numbers, TFLs, and sacks all go up significantly.

Lee was a good player that had a fantastic senior season at Mike for Wake Forest. I think Morgan is capable of doing the same and the tone should be set in the spring. Unlike last year where he he had a lot to prove, this spring is more about showing he can be the man.

The bigger question at Mike is, who will step up behind him? An ideal scenario would be for a younger player to and not force Te'Von Coney or Greer Martini to be Morgan's primary backup. If that happens, then both Coney and Martini can concentrate on playing Buck (more on that later).

If those two are focused elsewhere, then it is likely going to be Jonathan Jones versus Josh Barajas. Jones redshirted last season and this will be the first extended action we see from him. There is definitely a drop off in terms of size and strength from Morgan, but it's going to be interesting to see where Jones is at physically after all we've been hearing about the strength and conditioning staff. I thought he was a very instinctive player in high school and we'll see how that translates now and in this new defense.

Barajas is an enigma heading into 2017. He looked lost at times when we last saw him practice in fall camp and he struggled to make plays versus the inside run last spring. I don't think he is best suited to play Mike, but that is where the previous defensive staff saw him in the long term. Can Lea breathe new life into the former 4 star recruit and will it be at Mike?

I think we'll find out that answer soon. I'm going to guess that Barajas gets a shot at somewhere else, possibly Buck, and that he would appreciate a move.

If neither of these two are the answer, then the two freshman inside linebackers they just signed in February will have to jump into the equation in the summer.

The battle for Buck

Simply based on last season, I would say that Coney has a clear edge to be the starting Buck linebacker headed into spring. The new coaches probably means it's a bit more even now. The good news is that he and Martini should be 100% healthy unlike last spring. Both are capable players and if either of them were to come out and win the job outright, it would likely mean good things for the fall because we know both can play.

The wildcard in the mix is Asmar Bilal. He is the best athlete out of all the linebackers, but showed last season he lacked in other areas which set Coney and Martini apart from him. Has he closed the gap on them in terms of his recognition skills and block destruction? If so, then Bilal could very well leap over both to be the starting Buck. It's a big if, though, and we've got to see it on the field.

It felt like last fall that they wanted Bilal to win the Will linebacker job and he just never did enough to do so.

Buck gets more interesting if they add Barajas or Jamir Jones into the mix too. It could get too crowded if that happens, but I know that the previous defensive staff was high on Jones. Where he fits into the defense (Buck? Drop? Rover?) is a mystery right now.

Looking for clarity at Rover

I don't know what to expect at Rover this spring and anyone who says they do is probably not being truthful. I know what they want from the position, but I'm just not sure who they are going to play there.

Since it's a safety/linebacker hybrid, it would seem that Drue Tranquill would be a great fit. He already seemed to get too big to play strong safety and when he played the Joker (Dime linebacker) in Brian VanGorder's defense in 2015, he really did some things well that are similar to what Elko asks his Rovers to do.

Will strong safeties DJ Morgan and Spencer Perry be moved to Rover? Both seem to have the size and skill set that would make them a fit. My guess is that if they move just one, it will be Perry.

Of course, Notre Dame could also look at moving other linebackers to that spot. Jones is a possibility, but his size could dictate where his spring destination is. The player who I feel could thrive with a move to Rover is Bilal. It would take him away from the muck he has to deal with versus the inside run and allow him to be more of a hit and run type that can blitz and play in coverage. After seeing him move around this winter, I would have to think the Lea and Elko would at least want to give him a look at Rover.

Notre Dame is going to have options at all of these positions. It's going to be fun to see who sticks out at linebacker by the end of spring.
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