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Notre Dame Football

“It’s All Vyper” for Junior Tuihalamaka Going Forward at Notre Dame

April 13, 2023
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On Dec. 15, 2021, Marcus Freeman told reporters that Junior Tuihalamaka possessed a “college-ready frame” as a sophomore in high school. 

He wasn’t wrong. 

Tuihalamaka showed up at Notre Dame the following spring at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and found a role on special teams by the season opener against Ohio State. By week three, he played his first defensive snaps at linebacker against Cal.

Overall, it proved to be a noteworthy freshman campaign for Tuihalamaka who recorded six tackles, made his first career start against Navy, and earned more snaps than the other freshman front seven players, including former top-100 linebacker prospects in Jaylen Sneed and Josh Burnham.

Still, the Notre Dame coaching staff felt early on that their most game-ready freshman linebacker was destinated for another position. 

By the end of the season, Freeman and defensive coordinator Al Golden asked Tuihalamaka to fully commit himself to the Vyper. They sold him on becoming a versatile player like the now-retired New England Patriot linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who frequently rushed off the and dropped into coverage. 

Hightower played at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds while collecting multiple sacks per year and making two NFL Pro Bowl appearances.

Tuihalamaka is still a bit undersized by comparison, but Notre Dame wanted him to be more agile as a linebacker. 

“A year ago, he was in the linebacker room,” defensive line coach Al Washington said. “I don’t think he came to us until late summer. Really, it was double duty during the year. Now it’s all Vyper.”

First, the staff had him add a bit more size, and he’s now listed at 247 pounds. 

Still, giving up linebacker required an initial adjustment period.

“It was tough, but at the same time,” Tuihalamaka said, “I was able to see the vision that Coach Golden and Coach Freeman have for me, so I was able to face the adversity of taking on a new challenge. 

“Besides that, I’m loving what they saw in me, and I’m able to adjust to that.”

Thus far, his biggest adjustment is developing a repertoire of pass-rush moves. He often blitzed in high school, but he never had to long arm or spin past prep offensive tackles. 

Now, Tuihalamaka spends much of each practice facing off against future NFL tackles in Joe Alt and Blake Fisher, which forces him to perfect pass-rush moves in order to be effective.

“It’s like of like a chess game out there,” Tuihalamaka said. “Joe and Blake, they’ve been watching film on me and know I can come off the ball quickly.”

He also dissects his own film with Coach Washington and fellow Vyper Jordan Botelho to improve as a pass rusher. Additionally, he asks veteran edge rushers like Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Isaiah Foskey and Nana Osafo-Mensah for help and studies top NFL pass rushers such as Von Miller and TJ Watt.

“You just can’t always use speed and everything,”  Tuihalamaka said. “Sometimes they want to play mind games, so we’ve got to play mind games with them.”

Tuihalamaka still needs to improve off the ball as well, which is why he frequently joins the linebackers and safeties for individual drills. 

That’s where he develops the technique required to drop into coverage, destroy blocks in the open field and play in space.

“Coach Golden is making sure we’re prepared for any situation,” Tuihalamaka said. “It’s not one position. He wants us to be versatile, just being able to see different looks.”

Unsurprisingly, he’s quickly adjusted to his new position, but the most significant catalyst for doing so wasn’t his size or athleticism.

“Junior is so damn smart—he’s really sharp,” Washington said. “I’ll be honest when he was playing linebacker, stack-backer, he was damn good. He can see it, feel it, he’s instinctual beyond his years. I think that element has been awesome. He’s a guy on the grass that can solve problems and he’s tough.”

Through nine spring practices, Tuihalamaka is in an excellent position to back up Botelho this fall.

On Wednesday, Notre Dame even rotated both players onto the field at the same time for a few reps.

It’s easy to project that Tuihalamaka will earn more playing time in 2023, even if he’s doing so at a new position.

“He’s taking off,” Washington said. “I think he’s progressing really nice, and I have a high level of faith in him, trust in him. So in terms of him knowing what’s going on and willing to fight in tough moments. I’m excited about him.”

 
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