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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 13 Paul Moala, sophomore safety-turned-linebacker

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 13 Notre Dame Spring Game

SOUTH BEND, IN - APRIL 13: Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive back Paul Moala (13) looks on in action during the Notre Dame Football Blue and Gold Spring game on April 13, 2019 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Listed Measurements: 5-foot-11 ½, 210 pounds.2019-20 year, eligibility: A sophomore, Moala has three seasons of eligibility remaining, including 2019.Depth chart: After a springtime move forward from safety, Moala remains neck-and-neck with junior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah for the leading role at Rover. Both seem likely to play in a two-man rotation.Recruiting: Moala did not take long to earn his Notre Dame scholarship offer, using a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at an on-campus camp to garner it, and he did not go far from home in choosing the Irish over Iowa, Nebraska and Vanderbilt, being from the neighboring city of Mishawaka, Ind., and Penn High School.

Moala appeared in eight games as a freshman in a special teams role, quickly undercutting those who viewed him as the weakest prospect in his recruiting class. He made only one tackle, but it was simply notable Notre Dame trusted his physicality only a month into his collegiate career.

He then led all defensive players in the Blue-Gold Game with nine tackles, including two sacks, further staking his claim to the Rover role, though it should be acknowledged Owusu-Koramoah had seven tackles.

Moala made his position switch a few weeks into spring practices, but it was one teammates had long projected for him.

“A lot of the other players thought I could transfer to linebacker,” he said after the spring finale. “I don’t know if it was for my skill set, but a lot of them thought it was for my weight.”

Indeed, standing sub-six-feet, Moala’s 210 pounds are more compact than the usual safety’s body type, especially if he gets up to 220 pounds by the fall as he wants to. But bringing that coverage ability to Rover, Moala can better utilize his knack for contact.

“He’s a sure tackler,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in late March, shortly after the position change. “He plays with good leverage, the things that you’re looking for in a guy that controls the perimeter of your defense. He doesn’t get out of leverage on the ball and he’s a sure tackler. He has some things he has to continue to work on, too, but he has some pretty good things going for him right out of the gates.”

“It would be a shock to see Moala break into the two-deep on the defensive depth chart this season. Four veterans are most likely to fill that much with Moala’s classmates — early-enrolled Houston Griffith and incoming Derrik Allen — nipping at their heels.

“Instead, Moala may become a great test case for learning how Notre Dame handles the new freshman eligibility rules as they pertain to special teams focus. An obvious parallel would be now-senior Nicco Fertitta, also a hard-hitting, compact safety. As a freshman in 2015, Fertitta appeared in 11 games and made one tackle. If not for the change in eligibility options, Moala would seem to be on that path this season. Now, though, it could make sense to trot him out on special teams in only four games.

“There are a multitude of questions about how each school and respective coaching staff will handle this newfound eligibility and no two cases will be exactly alike, but a few Irish freshmen are devoted to special teams every year. Seeing Moala’s usage could set a precedent for these instances at Notre Dame in the future.”

The concept of a rotation at Rover introduces a new set of questions when pondering what to expect. In two years with the Rover as a prime piece of the defensive scheme, the Irish have relied on one player at a time. Neither Drue Tranquill nor Asmar Bilal shared action with anyone else, though the latter seemed a ripe possibility for such considering his concerns in coverage.

Neither Moala nor Owusu-Koramoah has a distinct hole in his game a la Bilal’s unproven coverage abilities a year ago. Any job-share would thus be based on keeping their legs fresh more than anything else. While a necessary reason, it is an abstract enough one to leave open the door for one of the two to take over the job.

As a whole, the Rover position should contribute at least 50 tackles (Bilal’s total from a year ago) and a few pass breakups. If those numbers come from Moala and Owusu-Koramoah combined or largely from one of the two will depend on how devoted defensive coordinator Clark Lea is to the idea of splitting reps. It would be a distinct deviation from Notre Dame’s habit, but two years is not much of a sample size.

Moala proved last season he belongs at this level, even if he did so only in special teams coverages. He has a combination of speed and power that will get him on the field eventually, even if Owusu-Koramoah takes over at Rover during the preseason.

The Irish have restocked linebacker depth in the last two recruiting cycles, but Rover has remained a bit of a question mark. Owusu-Koramoah broke a foot early last year, early-enrolled freshman Jack Kiser missed spring practices with a shoulder injury, and while freshman Marist Liufau is clearly a talented prospect, he is a raw one, at that.

The Rover depth chart may be in flux for another season or two, and Moala may become its source of reliability. It is, quite frankly, his best bet at playing time given the depth of young (inexperienced) talent at the other two linebacker spots.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Isaiah Foskey, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end
No. 42: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle
No. 40: Drew White, junior inside linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, junior kicker
No. 35: TaRiq Bracy, sophomore cornerback
No. 35: Marist Liufau, Hawaiian freshman linebacker
No. 34: Jahmir Smith, sophomore running back
No. 34: Osita Ekwonu, inside linebacker, consensus four-star
No. 33: Shayne Simon, sophomore linebacker
No. 31: Jack Lamb, sophomore linebacker
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker
No. 29: Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 27: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 25: Braden Lenzy, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 24: Tommy Tremble, sophomore tight end
No. 24: Jack Kiser, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Mr. Indiana Football
No. 23: Litchfield Ajavon, four-star safety, freshman
No. 23: Kyren Williams, early-enrolled freshman running back
No. 22: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, quarterback-turned-receiver, freshman
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, the only returning starting linebacker
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, three-year starting safety
No. 20: Shaun Crawford, defensive back returning from yet another injury
No. 20: C’Bo Flemister, sophomore running back
No. 19: Jay Bramblett, freshman punter
No. 19: Justin Ademilola, sophomore defensive end
No. 18: Joe Wilkins, sophomore receiver
No. 18: Nana Osafo-Mensah, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, junior receiver
No. 16: K.J. Wallace, freshman defensive back, three-star
No. 15 Isaiah Rutherford, freshman defensive back, consensus four-star
No. 15: Phil Jurkovec, sophomore quarterback
No. 14: Kyle Hamilton, freshman safety, consensus four-star
No. 13: Lawrence Keys, sophomore receiver