Mike Elston Leads New Look Irish Linebackers

Notre Dame’s youth-filled linebacker corps remains a work in progress this spring with two key pieces sidelined by shoulder surgeries.

Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston has two pieces in place among his smallish group this spring. And those two competitors, James Onwualu (strong side) and Nyles Morgan (middle), will in all likelihood carry starting positions from today into and through the fall.

He likewise has a pair of redshirt-freshmen learning on the job in Asmar Bilal – currently running with the first unit on the weak side – and Josh Barajas, at present No. 2 in the middle.

Last but the opposite of least is Elston’s crucial missing pair, Te’Von Coney and Greer Martini, and their collective absence has thrown a bit of a wrench into the proceedings.

“Right now, if Te’Von were healthy, he’d be running out with the Will linebacker where Asmar is,” Elston offered. “He has a very good foundation of knowledge, he wouldn’t have a lot of mental errors which we’re seeing right now from a young guy like Asmar who didn’t get the reps (last year). So we’d have, with our first group, pretty solid linebackers with James, and Nyles, and Te’Von, and then Greer could be anywhere.”

Elston wasn’t exaggerating in regards to Martini. There are six principle positions for a linebacker in Notre Dame’s defense: Will, Mike, Sam, Nickel package ‘backer, Dime package ‘backer, and the “Joker,” the latter generally manned by safety Drue Tranquill.

Martini could play or compete at all next fall and has done so to date over his first two seasons. (Throw in another vs. triple-option offenses but that’s a story for another week.)

“He’d probably be running at Sam with James and also getting some Dime work, because he has the athleticism to be on the field in coverage, so he’d maybe replace Te’Von on third down at the Will/Dime position,” said Elston in a hypothetical. “That tentatively would be the plan if they were both healthy. The fall could be similar, but who knows at this point?”

WELCOME TO THE VARSITY

At this point in the spring the Will position belongs to Bilal, and though the first half of spring ball proved challenging, Elston believes his speedy former Scout Team Player of the Year winner will come through it a better player for his efforts.

“Asmar is drinking through a fire hose, learning everything,” said Elston. “We’re not slowing down because everyone else around him needs to get the install, but he and Josh are struggling a little bit. They’re getting tons of reps; they’re getting the package thrown at them. We can re-install it for the summer for the OTAs and we can reinstall it again for the fall.

“I think Asmar’s growth through 15 practices will be great,” Elston continued. “So will Josh’s. Unfortunately Te’Von and Greer need these reps, too.”

Instead the latter duo’s reps are solely of the mental variety.

“Greer is learning all three positions anyway as we’re sitting in the meetings and talking about it,” said Elston. “And Greer’s a very good learner. Te’Von is a good learner as well. He listens to what we’re saying to Nyles, to Asmar; Greer is listening to all three plus our nickel and our dime stuff.”

For Bilal and Barajas, focusing on their singular job responsibilities and executing thereafter is tough enough.

“We kept Asmar in our meetings when the scout team met (last season),” said Elston. “So he’s not hearing this for the first time. But getting the reps, this is really his first time.

“Josh was playing outside linebacker (on the scout team) a year ago. For the spring we moved him inside. Josh has a nice physical nature to him when he wants to so, it’s a good position for him. At times he’s overanalyzing things and learning and trying to execute and thus not playing as physical as you want your Mike linebacker to play at Notre Dame. I think that’ll come with him getting reps.”

HOMEWORK…MORE OF IT

Plenty of such reps are available through the Blue Gold Game on April 16, but it’s not during the spring’s final six practice sessions where Barajas, Bilal, or any of Elston’s young charges can make up the most ground.

“There growth begins now,” said Elston in reference to post-practice. “We just walked off the practice field and there’s 150 reps for them to learn from – whether they were in them or not.”

Elston and the Irish staff make that homework readily accessible. Players can come into the Gug to study or do so anywhere they can find Wifi as practice film cut-ups are uploaded and available through their I-Pads.

“If they don’t watch all the reps (on film), and spend extra time on it, then they’re not going to grow. So what they do from the moment they walk off the field until the next practice, they have to spend more time on their trade, on football.”

Time well spent this spring could translate into early career successes next fall.


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