Recruiting: Notre Dame Has A History Of Turning Athletes Into Linebackers

Brian Smith

Many linebackers started their high school and possibly even college careers as running backs or safeties. Notre Dame utilized this method many times over the years, and the Class of 2021 could be another opportunity to improve the roster through this process.

Heading into spring practice, all eleven Notre Dame scholarship linebackers possess eligibility beyond the 2020 season. It would be a prime reason why Notre Dame did not sign a linebacker in the 2020 class.

Historically, former Irish linebackers have played many positions prior to the transformation of playing linebacker. Coming out of Fayetteville (N.C.) Douglas Byrd, Kinnon Tatum (1993-1996) was a highly coveted prospect. He turned down several programs down South to attend Notre Dame. He did not come to South Bend as a linebacker, but he left as one.

A 6-0, 185-pound safety, Tatum played with a fire that few could match. He was more than a hitter; Tatum was a guy that everyone expected to have a ‘wow’ hit during a game. That’s why then head coach Lou Holtz moved Tatum to weak side linebacker from safety. He thrived for the Irish until being drafted in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers.

When Tatum left, the Irish added another talented athlete.

Anthony Denman (1997-2000) was a jack of trades for Lufkin (Texas) High School before donning the gold helmet for the Irish. Coming out of Lufkin, Denman was about 6-1, 195-pounds, but he possessed the frame to add weight.

He played on both sides of the football, lining up at running back, quarterback and even fullback. It was his athleticism that led him to play linebacker at the college level. He became a captain and one of college football’s biggest hitters before a NFL career with Jacksonville, Cleveland and Buffalo. By the time Denman reached the NFL he was roughly 235-pounds.

From Texas to Florida, the Irish found another former running back to move to linebacker.

Playing for one of Florida’s tradition-rich programs in Sarasota (Riverview), Courtney Watson (1999-2003) toted the football as a running back. He had the prototypical tailback build at 6-1, 205-pounds. After enrolling at Notre Dame, the Sunshine State product transitioned to linebacker.

He thrived. Watson earned All-American honors in 2002, as he was one of college football’s fastest linebackers. Watson’s speed and football instincts worked well in the early 2000s, and it would work in today’s college football world as well. Watson picked off four passes in 2002, a big part of the reason he earned those All-American honors.

After his collegiate career concluded, Watson was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

If one remembers James Onwaulu (2013-2016) coming out of St. Paul (Minn.) Cretin Derham Hall, one would also remember that he was a wide receiver. At 6-1, 205-pounds, he was powerful and athletic, but not a burner. He was moved to linebacker as a sophomore for the Irish, and he shined in that role. Onwualu led the Irish with 11.5 tackles for loss in his final season (2016).

The process for Drue Tranquill (2014-2018) to end up at Buck linebacker was a long one. A 6-2, 210-pound safety when he enrolled, he played free safety to begin his Irish career. The former Fort Wayne (Ind.) Carroll player then moved to strong safety. Next was a move to rover. Finally, as a fifth-year senior for Notre Dame, he moved inside.

During the 2018 season, Tranquill racked up 86 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. That stellar performance allowed Tranquill to become the Los Angeles Chargers fourth round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. The former Notre Dame standout registered 75 tackles during his rookie campaign.

We saw it again in 2019 with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. At Hampton (Va.) Bethel, Owusu-Koramoah lined up all over the field. He played wide receiver, quarterback, safety and he would come down in the box and rush the quarterback. When Mike Elko and Clark Lea were hired after the 2016 season they made Owusu-Koramoah a priority, and they viewed him as an athlete that could move to linebacker.

Owusu-Koramoah led the Irish defense with 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, and he tied for the team lead with 80 tackles.

Notre Dame’s current rover depth chart is comprised entirely of players that played safety and offense in high school. Expect that trend to continue, and tomorrow I’ll have a breakdown of Class of 2021 players that play other positions that project well to rover and linebacker for the Irish.