Notre Dame defensive flux continues with LB Paul Moala out for the year
Notre Dame has lost some defensive depth with junior Rover Paul Moala out for the rest of the season after tearing his Achilles on Saturday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed Monday.
Following Notre Dame’s 42-26 win against Florida State, Brain Kelly admitted he initially thought the first-half injury was ankle-related before being warned it was more serious than that. Moala limped off the field, clearly favoring his right leg, but under his own power.
Moala made one tackle against the Seminoles, bringing his season total to seven, after making five in the season opener against Duke. While he backs up senior Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, in the midst of a star-turn, Moala’s play has been consistent enough to force playing time elsewhere as much as defensive coordinator Clark Lea could manage. That often included special teams, three of those opening five tackles coming via kick and punt coverage work.
In his place backing up Owusu-Koramoah, Notre Dame (3-0, 2-0 ACC) will turn to Ohio State graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor, per Kelly. Pryor arrived in South Bend as a safety but was working at Rover by the end of preseason practices.
“As he’s learning the position, we’ll also employ kind of what we did last year, a nickel situation there,” Kelly said. “We could also play with a third linebacker, so we have some options there.”
Current-junior Jack Lamb excelled in that nickel role last season before a hip injury ended his season and jeopardized his career. He made three tackles against South Florida, but has played sparingly otherwise. While Lamb still seeks to get back to 100 percent from that struggle, classmate Bo Bauer has shown up in a few nickel situations in the first few games.
That is a role once unforeseen for Bauer and his near-manic energy. Toning his intensity down about 60 percent this season, though, has opened up Bauer’s chances.
“I took my energy from about a 10 to a 4 and was able to focus while doing that,” Bauer said Saturday after notching four tackles including two for loss. “I was really able to spend extra time understanding what my purpose was and where I was supposed to go, and I just slowed everything down. Through that process, I wasn’t expecting [the nickel duties] at all, but an opportunity was presented and I continue to try to capitalize on that every day, every practice, every rep.”
Before the year, the Irish may have expected either sophomore Jack Kiser or classmate Marist Liufau to back up Owosu-Koramoah. Both were recruited with Rover thoughts in mind, but — at least in part because of Owusu-Koramoah’s rise and Moala’s dynamic moments in limited chances — they have worked at Buck this year, Liufau splitting a shared role with junior Shayne Simon until they were both unavailable against South Florida and Kiser stepped in to make eight tackles. Then Kiser was unavailable against Florida State, robbing the world of the chance to decipher the Buck rotation with three worthwhile contributors.
“We have to have a mindset that allows us to play a lot of players, and they have to have some flexibility at the position that they play so we can get the best players on the field,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t be shocked to see guys playing one or two of those different linebacker positions, because we have to get them on the field.”
Kelly said he expects both Kiser and senior defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa back available this week, presuming everything goes as planned. All not-so-vague indications suggest the pair were out this weekend due to either positive coronavirus tests or subsequent contact tracing.
Even with Pryor learning, with Kiser on hand, with Bauer stepping forward in passing situations, with Simon and Liufau trading flashes, perhaps the most likely outcome of Moala’s injury will simply be more Owusu-Koramoah.
“In our sub-package, you don’t take him off the field,” Kelly said. “He can be a pass rusher for us, as well. He’s been an effective pass rusher in our dime package. He just gives us a lot of versatility and a guy that can play on all downs for you and do a lot of different things for our football team.”
Don't appreciate Kyle Hamilton rubbing it in that media hasn't seen a single practice this year. In discussing Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, "You guys don’t get to see it, but he does that every day in practice. ... He shows you guys every Saturday, but he shows us Monday to Sunday."— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 11, 2020
More Owusu-Koramoah, along with the return of three cornerbacks limited last week, should help Notre Dame avoid another defensive performance like Saturday’s, which while acceptable and victorious, fell short of Lea’s lofty standards as the Seminoles gained 405 total yards and converted 3-of-3 fourth-down attempts (though, it has to be said, went just 2-of-14 on third down).
“It’s not the kind of defense that Clark has put out there, nor the kind of defense that I want to put out there,” Kelly said. “There are some factors that were unique in that we had a lot of those guys that were not practicing during the week, and it showed.
“You’ve got to practice this game to be at your very best and so it showed. There were some uncharacteristic defensive lapses that occurred that we don’t normally see. We will address those and our guys are aware of them. They’ll be corrected for this weekend.”
The No. 4 Irish host Louisville (1-3, 0-3) at 2:30 ET on NBC on Saturday.