There have been good days and bad days this spring for new linebackers coach Clark Lea.
There are days when the 35-year-old Lea leaves the practice field feeling good about where his group is at. There have been other days when he's reminded of just how far they have to go.
"Each guy has had wins and loses along the way," Lea said.
Notre Dame’s defense struggled mightily in 2016, but it returns a deep and versatile group of linebackers. Only James Onwualu is gone from last year’s linebacker unit, but the future is bright for Lea’s group.
“As a group it’s a humble group of workers,” Lea said of the linebackers. “They’re smart, they’re sharp and some of them have played a lot of football. Part of my challenge is not necessarily hitting the eraser on everything they’ve learned as players over the years, but harnessing it and funneling it into an understanding of how we want to execute our defense.”
Senior captains Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini are currently the starters at the Mike and Buck positions, respectively. At Rover — a hybrid linebacker/safety position — junior Asmar Bilal and senior Drue Tranquill are getting most of the work.
Junior Te’Von Coney is competing with Martini at Buck and junior Josh Barajas is behind Morgan at Mike. Sophomores Jamir and Jonathan Jones are still progressing in the defense as reserves, Lea said.
“You’d like to have a guy learn a position,” Lea said. “It’s easier for them to cross train or for them to do both as you move forward. Get them through spring knowing one.”
A player like Barajas has learned both the Mike and Buck positions, but the situation is still fluid. The 6-foot-2, 239-pound Barajas was a four-star prospect but has yet to make an impact with the Irish.
“We’re going to get through spring and see where we are and see where the need is and move parts and pieces then to figure that out,” Lea said.
Lea, who coached under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko at Bowling Green (2012) and Wake Forest (2016), said the process of getting to know the Irish linebackers has been fun.
“This is where my job starts is the relationship part of it,” Lea said. “You’re always looking to build trust, and that starts with us having conversations not related to football. Getting to know these guys where they’re from, their backgrounds, their families and then trying to build a culture within the unit that has us pushing as a group towards excellence every day.”
Six practices into spring ball hasn’t given Lea the best idea of what he has to work with. He said he entered the 15-practice spring season with no expectations, and wants to see his players go full speed in scrimmage situations to see what he’s working with.
“The one thing that I haven’t had a chance to do is really see these guys cut loose and play football free from the burden of thinking, because the defense schematically is all new,” Lea said. “I’m excited as we get into this week and next week as we’ve kind of grooved some understanding of our base packages to watch these guys go play.
“Fundamentally we’ve got a long way to go. These guys are working hard, but we’ve got some ground to cover from now until game one where we’re playing the position at a high level fundamentally.”
• Talk about it inside Rockne’s Roundtable
• Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes
• Learn more about our print and digital publication, Blue & Gold Illustrated.
• Like us on Facebook.