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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame 2023 linebacker trio pushes each other on and off the field

February 10, 2023

Notre Dame’s 2023 linebacker trio of Jaiden Ausberry, Drayk Bowen and Preston Zinter enrolled in January.

They’re already a month into their college careers, adjusting to the grind of advanced coursework and 6 a.m. workouts designed by the director of football performance Matt Balis, who’s known for exposing freshmen to new levels of exhaustion. 

“There's no easy day here at Notre Dame,” Zinter said. “Coach [Marcus] Freeman actually told us that, and I realized, ‘yeah, every day has been a challenge.’ You're going to get pushed to your limits every single day, which is good. That’s why we're working to be one of the best teams in the country. 

It’s early, but they’re already manifesting a future where all three roam the middle of the Fighting Irish defense together.

“We all try to push each other on and off the field,” Ausberry said. “We try to stay close. We study the playbook together and ask questions together, just staying together is really going to help us in the future when we’re juniors or seniors all three starting together.”

The bonds they’re establishing will pay off soon enough, but the path to immediate playing time is overgrown and meandering due to the return of fifth-year linebackers Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau. 

Rising junior Prince Kollie, who earned a consistent role in the back half of 2022, also stands in their way. The same goes for second-year linebacker Jaylen Sneed, a former five-star recruit who played a season-high 17 snaps in Notre Dame’s 45-38 win over No. 19 South Carolina in the Gator Bowl. 

Before the freshmen linebackers can even contemplate an on-the-field role in 2023, they’ll need to immerse themselves in the nuances of coach Al Golden’s defense and the three different linebacker positions: Mike, Will and Rover. 

“Right now, Coach Golden is teaching me, Drayk and Preston all three linebacker positions,” Ausberry said. “Probably after that in spring ball, we’ll get a sense of what linebacker [spots] we’ll be playing.”

Bowen won the 2023 Butkus award as the nation’s top prep linebacker and arrived at Notre Dame the most prepared physically at roughly 230 pounds. But this spring he will devote a significant portion of his time to the Fighting Irish baseball program while he also heals a knee injury that plagued him through the fall. 

Ausberry entered Notre Dame as a consensus four-star prospect and the No. 59 overall player in 2023, per ESPN. 

“I’ll probably start at Rover considering my weight,” Ausberry said. “I’m like 215. Eventually, I’ll get to 230, 225.”

Of the three, Zinter is the most likely to switch positions down the road. At 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, he has the length and athleticism to play defensive end at Notre Dame. He actually played an outside linebacker role similar to Vyper as a junior in high school before moving to inside linebacker this past fall. 

“There has been some talk about, on heavier downs, where I might get moved up on the line if there's a five-man front and all that kind of stuff,” Zinter said. “But right now, I'll focus on all three linebacker positions.”

Until spring practice begins — likely in mid-to-late March — most of their education will come in the film room.

“It’s different because, in high school, you’re really just watching games,” Ausberry said. “I guess you can see what the offense is running but now you watch cadences, how the O-line blocks, how they get up to you in the trenches, all types of stuff.

“You even watch your own film on defense, like where your help will be. In college, you’re really paying attention to all the details. In high school, you’re just seeing what the plays were.”

In addition to Golden, the freshmen linebackers are leaning on the elder statesmen like Kiser, Bertrand and Liufau, who’ve already begun to show them the ins and outs of playing linebacker at the college level. 

“It's an advantage having them all back,” Zinter said. “Because now, they've been a great help in learning the playbook. We'll go down there after classes into the linebacker room and just go over the plays and all that kind of stuff. That's been a great help. They're all older guys, and they've all started.”

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