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Where Notre Dame was, is and will need to be vs. Clemson: Linebackers

Florida State v Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 10: Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a goal line stand against the Florida State Seminoles in the third quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on November 10, 2018 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

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A dozen wins, 11 months and a Playoff berth have clouded how different Notre Dame’s defense — and thus, season — could have looked if not for two separate decisions made by Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney following the 2017 season. More accurately speaking, Tranquill announced his intention to return 53 weeks ago, at last year’s postseason awards banquet, but Coney’s clincher did not come until January.

At that point, the Irish defense knew it had two linchpins to rely on in the middle. Playing through injury and fatigue — as much credit as Tranquill gets and deserves for fighting his way onto the field despite a myriad of maladies, Coney should get just as much for surviving a season sans suitable substitute — they led Notre Dame’s defense. Thinking of going through 2018 with both pursuing NFL dreams instead should induce an Irish shudder.

Tranquill’s move inside to Buck linebacker created the unavoidable consequence of moving the only question mark at this position outside to rover. Tranquill and Coney both played well in 2017, there were no concerns about them on the inside in 2018. If they developed further — particularly Coney in pass coverage — all the better for the Irish.

The same could not be said for senior Asmar Bilal, in large part because he had not yet gotten much run. Be it a failure to grasp the playbook, not turning instincts into reality, or a stacked depth chart — or a combination of all of the above — Bilal had not made any distinct impressions before this season. His 18 tackles last year were anonymous enough, one could have been forgiven for thinking freshman Shayne Simon might usurp Bilal at rover this year; the two had made about the same number of big plays in an Irish uniform to date.

But Bilal has instead emerged. He is not the realized talent that Coney and Tranquill are, but he has certainly flashed this season. Once on the field, Bilal eradicated those concerns.

“Those instincts sometimes require repetition. Real, live repetition,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Bilal began the season with 25 tackles in the first five games, handling coverage duties along the way. “The more he plays, he sees things better, and he is a gifted athlete.

“He had always been, but a little bit slower in reacting. He’s now closing that reaction time down with much more instinctive movements. That’s just attributed to playing time and a young player getting more reps is starting to show the skill set that he has.”

With Bilal, Notre Dame does not worry about its base set.

Te’von Coney: 107 tackles with 9 for loss including 3.5 sacks; four pass breakups, one interception and one fumble recovery.Drue Tranquill: 75 games with 9 for loss including 3.5 sacks; three pass breakups and one fumble recovery.Asmar Bilal: 46 tackles with 3 for loss; one pass breakup.Jordan Genmark Heath: 14 tackles.Bo Bauer: 10 tackles.Jonathan Jones: 6 tackles with one for loss.Shayne Simon: 4 tackles with a half for loss; one pass breakup.

More of the same from a refreshed Coney and a recovered Tranquill and, through little fault of his own, perhaps a little bit less of Bilal.

No one would expect Bilal to easily cover a genuine slot receiver. As USC peppered the Irish defense with the short game, both Bilal and Tranquill struggled in that regard when the Trojans could get them matched up on Amon-Ra St. Brown or Michael Pittman. Notre Dame’s struggles at nickel back forced defensive coordinator Clark Lea into those situations.

Less of Bilal would mean more of senior Nick Coleman, which will be best for the Irish defense against Clemson’s array of receivers, namely Hunter Renfrow.

“We like what Nick Coleman has done; he closed the season really well, playing well,” Kelly said Saturday. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence. We’ve gotten some situational work done, [and] Nick Coleman has really claimed that position by virtue of his play in November.”

Inexperienced, though with plenty of talent on hand to throw at the problem until someone separates from the rest.

There is no other way to put it. Losing Coney and Tranquill will leave a huge hole for Lea to fill. Bilal will likely follow Tranquill’s move from a year ago and head inside, splitting the huge hole into two smaller ones, half on each side of Bilal.

That could lead to Simon and classmate Jack Lamb (or Bo Bauer or any of a few incoming options) getting a chance early in their careers. Continued development could put current sophomore and former safety Jordan Genmark Heath into the starting discussion. Otherwise, expect current junior Jonathan Jones to serve as a stopgap.

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