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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Roster Review | Linebacker

February 25, 2023
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It was an underwhelming season for the linebacker unit last year at Notre Dame. That one sentence pretty much sums it up.

Things weren’t as bad as it seemed to many fans, it rarely is, but expectations were not met. The group can and should be better in 2023.

With a change in philosophy under Al Golden, base became a nickel defense. That meant two linebackers on the field and the player who was listed as the starting Rover, Jack Kiser, rarely played that spot. It was mostly Mike and Will with JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau as the starting group.

Bertrand was better in just about every area in 2022. The shift back to his natural position helped him as well as having two healthy wrists this season. The missed tackles dropped substantially and he was better in coverage when not asked to do things he is incapable of doing.

He still can get engulfed by bigger blockers and isn’t a great player in space, but he took a nice step forward as the starting Mike linebacker. When he was out of the lineup, either for suspension or injury, they missed him.

Expectations were sky high for Liufau after there was so much hype about him heading into the 2021 season. Perhaps those expectations should have been tempered when we kept hearing about him not being fully available as he was working back to a full workload during fall camp.

He was very strong in coverage and had small flashes of brilliance at times, but those moments were too few considering his lack of production when it came to havoc plays or stuffing the run.

The question now flips to whether or not he can become the player he was projected to be a couple of years ago. Is he going to look like the twitchy, instinctive playmaker that we saw in the spring and summer of ‘21 after another year recovering from a serious leg injury? Or is he someone who is just holding a place until another linebacker can step up and take the starting Will linebacker job?

After a bit of a rocky start adjusting to playing more exclusively in the box, Kiser looked a lot more comfortable as the season progressed with his ability to be effective as a blitzer and his consistency as a tackler. He mostly played Mike after Bo Bauer was out for the season with an injury and that is probably his best position at the next level.

Could he legitimately beat out Bertrand or could he end up starting beside him at Will? I don’t think either is out of the question, but he’s going to be a solid player for the Irish in whatever role he has.

Everyone hoped to see more of Prince Kollie last season and it took a while before that started to happen. The speed and athleticism shined when chasing down players in space once he got that opportunity, but watching him closely shows why the coaching staff was reluctant to give him a bigger role.

After playing as a Swiss Army knife for his high school, it’s still been an adjustment for him diagnosing the run as an inside ‘backer.

This is a huge spring for him. He could end up pushing for a starting job if things start to click. If they don’t, then some of the younger linebackers on the roster could potentially leap over him on the depth chart.

Out of the top-50 linebacker grades from PFF for Power 5 linebackers last season, 10 of them were in their first or second season. Only one of those players was selected as first or second team all-conference.

That nugget is there to make everyone aware that it’s rare for a freshman or sophomore to make a significant impact at one of the most difficult positions to play on the field. Then again, Jaylen Sneed is a rare athlete with the potential to be a difference-maker.

His talent is obvious when watching him. This spring will not only be about development, but also be about Notre Dame finding the right fit for him. It was encouraging to see him featured as a 3rd down pass rusher against South Carolina and his best role might be playing as a hybrid defender rather than a traditional linebacker. He also might be the kind of athlete that can allow them to play him as a big nickel like Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was at Rover.

Sneed is right near the top of the list for players to watch this spring.

Is Junior Tuihalamaka going to be at Vyper or will he stay at his natural Mike linebacker position? He might get more snaps at Vyper so that might be what dictates where they place him.

Nolan Ziegler redshirted last season and the former high school safety should see a lot more reps this spring than he did as an early enrollee. No one is really talking about him at the moment, but that could all change in a few months.

Will Schweitzer’s status is unclear. He missed last season with an injury and we’ll see if he is healthy to participate during spring ball.

All three of the linebacker signees are on campus already as early enrollees. If they’re going to earn reps, they better be exceptional.

It’s more likely going to be a year of development for Drayk Bowen, Jaiden Ausberry, and Preston Zinter (who may end up at Vyper). Then again, there might be a need to shake up the linebacker unit like a snow globe and then see where everything falls. One of them might be someone who ends up jumping the line.

This spring and summer will be about finding out who are the best two linebackers and who are the best four? Will the players who weren’t in that group last year get a chance to insert themselves into the battles for those spots? It’s happened before.

Shayne Simon was supposed to be the next guy until he wasn’t. Jack Lamb was the sub-package specialist until he wasn’t. Greer Martini was starting over Te’von Coney at Buck until he wasn’t. We’ll have to wait and see how it plays out with this group.

Questions need to be answered and their top-two and top-four need to be better than they were in 2022.

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