The shift from a 4-3-4 defense to a 4-2-5 opens up a variety of changes and corresponding questions as the Notre Dame defense transitions under coordinator Mike Elko with Mike Elston shifting to the line, Clark Lea arriving from Wake Forest, and Todd Lyght directing the back end.
Lea will handle the Buck and Mike linebackers spots as well as the Rover – a hybrid position created by Elko a few years back to take advantage of a physical, athletic player who doesn’t quite have the speed to play safety and consistently cover wideouts in space.
That person for Notre Dame looks to be Drue Tranquill, although Asmar Bilal and perhaps even Greer Martini could factor into the position. Eventually, if not at the start of spring drills, Spencer Perry will get a look at the Rover. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who signed with the Irish on Feb. 1, was recruited by Notre Dame to play Rover.
Whereas the Irish played young linebackers in 2016, which frequently created maneuvering room for opposing running backs in September, the 2017 Notre Dame defense features ample ability, experience and productivity.
Nyles Morgan returns as Notre Dame’s leading tackler (94). He led the Irish with a modest four sacks, although that should change with Elko’s challenging multiple looks.
Martini, a stabilizing presence, figures to compete with Te’von Coney at the Buck position after combining for 13 starts, 117 tackles and 8½ tackles for loss.
With Tranquill – 79 tackles (second on the team), one interception -- expected to make the move to Rover, the Irish linebacker corps is one of the more experienced units on the ’17 squad.
Like the departure of Joe Schmidt after the 2015 season, the loss of James Onwualu to graduation takes some operative skills away from the defense. Onwualu knew what he was doing, where everyone else was supposed to be, and how to positively impact the Irish defense, particularly after the coaching change was made after Week Four in ‘16.
Onwualu finished third on the team in tackles (75), first in tackles for loss (11½) and first in leadership.
There’s a significant separation at the linebacker corps of veteran players (Tranquill, Martini, Morgan and Coney) and the less experienced with Bilal the exception to the rule.
Bilal didn’t start a game in ’16, but played in all 12 and saw his time increase as the season progressed. He recorded 29 tackles, three tackles for loss and a sack. He gives the Rover-Buck positions flexibility, possessing the physical tools to be an off-the-edge presence in Elko’s defense.
After the top five, it’s red-shirt sophomore Josh Barajas, who arrived at Notre Dame as a Sam linebacker in the old defense, shifted to the Mike behind Morgan once he was healthy in ’16, and figures to be No. 6 in the linebacker pecking order.
It remains to be seen how Elko/Lea employ sophomore Jamir Jones and red-shirt freshman Jonathan Jones.
The one certainty is Morgan at the Mike. There’s a nice combination of skills from which to choose between Martini and Coney at the Buck with Martini perhaps providing a situational Rover on run downs.
The most intrigue will come from the Rover position where there’s a scramble to understand how Elko will employ what became a real weapon for his Wake Forest defenses.
The goal – and what Elko was able to achieve in his previous stops – is to make the linebacker corps an aggressive and diverse unit that forces offenses to account for them in a variety of alignments, thus opening up pass-rush opportunities for the defensive line.
This is critical for the Irish, who had 14 sacks in ’16 compared to the 41 posted by the Demon Deacons. It’s an extremely high probability that Notre Dame’s sacks/tackles for loss (just 61 in ’16) will sharply increase.