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Notre Dame Football

Position Outlook | Linebacker

January 31, 2021
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Notre Dame isn’t considered “Linebacker U”, but perhaps it should be. They just had their third Butkus Award winner since 2012 in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The only other program with two during that time is Alabama.

JOK made a copious amount of plays in his two years starting at the Rover position and replacing that in 2021 won’t be easy. However, Notre Dame may be able to do it by committee with every other linebacker in the two-deep returning and they made a good amount of plays as well.

We can start with Mike linebacker Drew White, who is in line to be a three-year starter at the position. He raised his game up last season finishing second to JOK on the team in tackles for loss with nine and he was a much more effective blitzer than he was in 2019.

He’ll never be the biggest guy or an elite athlete, but his instincts are strong and he’s been a very effective two-down linebacker.

Clark Lea had Bo Bauer come in as the sub-package inside linebacker and he did well in that role. We’ll see if he can keep it with plenty of internal competition pushing him, but Bauer has already proven he can be more than a special teams player for the Irish.

I don’t know if he’ll ever be someone who can carry a tight end down the seam and Lea never asked him to do that in his role. I don’t believe Marcus Freeman will ask him to do that either. He provides quality depth and his strengths as a pass rusher stand out.

JD Bertrand is behind those two at Mike and while it may be easy to pencil them in, the same could have been written about Lamb at this time last year. We’ll see if he can make a move to get in the mix.

It might be more difficult for Osita Ekwonu. It’s not even certain he’ll stick at linebacker. He did take reps at running back last year and might do so again. He also may be someone who they take a look at as an edge rusher given his size and there’s more potential to compete there.

Will linebacker is going to be very interesting to watch in ‘21. Shayne Simon played the most snaps last fall, but they went down late in the year as Marist Liufau was on the field for almost three times as many snaps over the final two games.

Simon had his best game of his career against Clemson in the first matchup, but that was an exception for him. He missed too many chances at making stops by lunging as a tackler. His play in coverage was much better, but that didn’t make up for not being strong at defeating blocks or diagnosing plays.

This is a new year and a new coach for Simon. It’s his last chance to establish himself, though. He needs to have a great spring.

Liufau got better and better as the season progressed. Though he played less than Simon, Liufau doubled him up in terms of Stops according to PFF. He also flashed violence as a blitzer that helped spark the defense against North Carolina and he drastically improved his reads and ability to shed blocks.

He has to be considered the front-runner to start at Will heading into the spring.

I know that Jack Kiser is a favorite of many Notre Dame fans based off the strength of his performance against USF where he had a dominant performance. Many wanted to see more after that, but there were only three other games where he played more than 20 snaps the rest of the year.

His athletic potential is exciting. He did have look a bit lost in coverage at times and that may be the primary reason why he never became a regular in the base defense. Kiser is someone to watch as a breakout player this season and he could move to the nickel linebacker spot (formerly Rover) to get onto the field if he doesn’t move up the depth chart at Will.

That nickel linebacker spot is going to be one of the most intriguing position battles on the team this spring. JOK was such a unique player and his talent won’t be easy to replace.

If he’s fully recovered from his Achilles injury, Paul Moala would appear to be the logical replacement for JOK. The problem is that it’s unlikely he is going to be able to be a full participant in spring with his injury occurring in October. That should give a chance for either Isaiah Pryor or Kiser this spring to compete for that open job.

Pryor only played garbage time in his first season after transferring from Ohio State. Kiser worked there as a freshman and has the athletic profile that fits there more than any other returning linebacker.

Of course, true freshman Prince Kollie arrives in the summer and could disrupt that competition. He should be physically ready to compete, but picking up the defense will be the biggest question for him when he arrives on campus.

Kahanu Kia always looked like a redshirt candidate and with so many players returning, it would be difficult to see that not happening. He’s someone who lined up at multiple spots for his high school so it will be interesting to see where Freeman slots him this year.

The big unknown is Freeman and how having a new coach and coordinator could impact the competition at every spot. He inherits plenty of talent to choose from. We’ll just have to see who separates themselves from the pack.

 
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