Replace and Reload: Rover/Linebacker

Breaking down how Notre Dame must replace and reload at rover now that Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is off to the NFL
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There isn't a bigger loss on the Notre Dame roster than rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who departs after a brilliant two-year starting stretch that ended with him earning unanimous All-American honors.

To make matters more concerning, there is no clear heir apparent at the position like we see at so many other positions where the Irish must replace a top player. We continue our replace and reload series by looking at how Notre Dame reload at the rover position.

WHAT WAS LOST

Owusu-Koramoah didn't play a single snap of defensive football during his first two years on campus. He more than made up for that, as Owusu-Koramoah racked up 142 tackles, 24.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks, seven pass break ups, four fumble recoveries and five forced fumbles the last two seasons.

He led the Irish defense with 11 tackles for loss in 2020, and beyond the numbers he was a game-changer. Opponents constantly game-planned to avoid him, but even then it was incredibly difficult to keep Owusu-Koramoah from making big plays. His brilliance was never more evident than in the win over Clemson.

After missing a tackle early that led to a big play for the Tigers, Owusu-Koramoah responded with a fumble recovery that he took off the hands of Clemson back Travis Etienne before racing 23 yards for a touchdown. On the very next possession, Owusu-Koramoah stripped the ball from wideout Amari Rodgers to give the Irish the ball deep in Clemson territory.

Following the season he earned unanimous All-American honors, won the Butkus Award (nation's top linebacker), won the ACC Defensive Player of the Year and was a first-team All-ACC performer.

That's the shoes that whoever that steps into his spot must fill in 2021. Of course, we don't even know if the position will be used the same way under new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman.  

WHO RETURNS

The primary backup to Owusu-Koramoah this past season was grad transfer Isaiah Pryor, who still has two seasons of eligibility remaining thanks to the NCAA rule that granted everyone an extra season.

Pryor's primary action this season came on special teams, where he played 228 snaps according to Pro Football Focus. He finished third on the team with four special teams tackles.

Pryor played in just five games on defense after moving to rover from safety. The senior transfer played just 63 snaps (PFF) and registered three tackles. Pryor had some quality moments at rover, but it was obvious he was still learning the spot after playing safety his first three seasons in college. 

Another year of experience at the position should benefit Pryor, who has the range, length and strength to handle the position. Playing rover also limits how much deep range Pryor has to play, which better suits his game.

Notre Dame needs him to see a lot of growth at the position this offseason, but the encouraging thing is he does have traits needed to play the position at a high level, assuming he can pick up the nuances of the spot.

Had he not missed most of the season with an Achilles injury, junior Paul Moala would have been the primary backup to Owusu-Koramoah. He also would have been a part of the rotation and likely would have played more snaps than Pryor, who was new to the position. 

Moala had some impressive moments at rover that season while playing 104 snaps, which included picking off an option against Navy and returning it 27 yards for a touchdown. It was about as impressive as Owusu-Koramoah's return against Clemson.

If he is completely healthy and back to full speed I have little doubt that Moala will bring a lot of value to the 2021 defense. The problem, however, is that Achilles injuries can be very tricky, so until he proves he can his full range of motion back and get his explosiveness back he remains a question mark.

POSITION CHANGE NEEDED

Notre Dame needs to add depth to the position, and it needs to add players that have the skills to challenge Pryor and Moala for the starting role. Figuring out who to move depends largely on what direction Freeman is going to take the defense. Will he run a 4-2-5 similar in personnel to what Clark Lea ran, which would require more of a linebacker type of body? Or will he go with the kind of personnel he used at Cincinnati, which would mean a more traditional linebacker in a 3-3-5, or more of a safety player in a 4-2-5 alignment.

I'm going to make a suggestion for each look.

If Freeman wants a more traditional linebacker hybrid than moving one of Marist Liufau or Jack Kiser to the position would make a lot of sense. Who to move depends on who Freeman views as the player least likely to compete for the starting weakside linebacker position against Shayne Simon. That player would then move, and the other would stay and challenge Simon for the starting role.

Kiser's range and instincts would fit the position extremely well, while Liufau's length, range and coverage experience would also fit well at the position.

An outside the box player could be rising junior cornerback Cam Hart. If Freeman decides to go with a more hybrid safety type of player it would make a lot of sense to look at Hart here. He's extremely long (6-2 1/2), he's athletic, he's physical and he's not the most comfortable player in coverage on downfield routes.

Hart has the athleticism to and range to play corner, but he doesn't look overly comfortable playing the ball and his route recognition when he flips his hips still lags behind. As a rover, Hart would be in a position where his athletic traits would suit much better, assuming he can develop the necessary block destruction skills. 

NEWCOMERS

The one benefit for the incoming freshmen on defense is that everyone will be learning a new defense this spring. At the very least they will be learning how Freeman wants to run the defense should he decide to adopt similar terminology to make the transition a bit quicker.

That means freshman Prince Kollie could get a chance to make a faster push up the depth chart than originally expected. Kollie was a two-way player in high school and he has a lot to learn from a technical standpoint on defense, but he's rangy, athletic and his natural instincts are impressive.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. How will the rover position be used, and what will it be called - With a new defensive coordinator coming on board we really don't know how this position will be used, or what it will be called. Until we get that answer it's difficult to really know what will happen at the position.

2. Who moves to the position to challenge - No matter how it is used, the depth chart must be filled out, and if you are going to move a player you need to move someone who has the tools to compete for the starting role. There are plenty of intriguing options, and we should start to get our first hint when we get to spring ball in March.

3. Will one player emerge as "the guy" or will it be a rotation - Owusu-Koramoah ate up all the snaps at rover, which makes sense. He was just too good to take off the field. Will we see a player eat up the majority of the snaps in 2021, or will we see more of a rotation? Will it be a rotation of similar players, or will it be a rotation built on who matches up best against a specific opponent. It should be interesting to see how it develops.

Past Replace and Reload Features

Replace and Reload: Tight End
Replace and Reload: Boundary Receiver
Replace and Reload: Field Receiver

Replace and Reload: Strongside End
Replace and Reload: Drop End/Vyper

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