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Notre Dame Football

Young Notre Dame Linebackers Showcase Immense Potential this Spring

April 26, 2023

On Monday, Notre Dame lost sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie to the transfer portal, publicly confirming one of the program’s worst-kept secrets.

Kollie expressed displeasure with his playing time during media availability and missed several practices this spring, including Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game.

It’s unclear how much planning time Kollie would’ve earned in 2023 with the return of fifth-year linebackers JD Bertrand, Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser. 

Liufau and Bertrand finished first and third on the team in defensive snaps played and all made strides to elevate their games in the offseason.

“Kiser has done that,” defensive coordinator Al Golden said. “It has been great to see his progression, being able to play inside and outside. JD, challenged him to lead, continue to lead and be more of a team leader and unit leader, which has been great. Marist has to have the versatility to go on and off the ball. He has improved his edge stuff. 

“All three of those guys have been challenged every day and responded.”

The fifth-year trio also knows Golden’s defense well and will get to operate within the same scheme in back-to-back years for the first time since their sophomore seasons under Clark Lea.

“I think you look at defensively, second year in the same system, same scheme, same coaches,” coach Marcus Freeman said. “A lot of the same players. They're at a different level than they were last year. 

“Last year, they were still trying to figure it out, you know, figure out what this Al Golden scheme is and how to implement and how to run it.”

Kollie’s departure is still a loss. He won the prep Butkus Award in 2020 and entered spring as the only linebacker prospect on the roster from the 2020 and 2021 recruiting classes. 

Yet Freeman remains high on this unit, despite the other five scholarship linebackers on the rosters combining for 48 career collegiate snaps.

Former Fighting Irish safety Kyle Hamilton filled in as a sideline reporter on Saturday. He asked Marcus Freeman which position stuck out to him during the Blue-Gold Game.

“I said the linebackers because we know what JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau can do, right?” Freeman said, “and they didn't play much this game. We kind of got them out of here.”

Rising sophomore linebackers Nolan Ziegler (Blue) and Jaylen Sneed (Gold) led their teams with 10 and seven tackles during the Blue-Gold Game.

Early enrollees Drayk Bowen (Gold), Jaiden Ausberry (Blue) and Preston Zinter (Gold) each flashed. 

Zinter recorded six tackles and two TFLs, which included chasing down a scrambling Steve Angeli in the backfield. 

Bowen registered five tackles and showed the ability to rush the passer when called upon.

Ausberry had four tackles and a TFL, but looked most impressive in coverage, sticking with wide receiver Chris Tyree in the slot, destroying blocks on screens and jumping a route to the flat that he should’ve picked off.

“To see the production of the Nolan Ziegler's, of the Jaylen Sneed's, even those three freshmen all stepped up and made plays,” Freeman said. “That's a deep position, and I'm extremely excited to see how that depth is going to help us as we move into the fall.”

Sneed enrolled at Notre Dame last spring as one of three five-star linebackers in the 2022 recruit class, but he needed to add weight and saved a year of eligibility by playing 39 snaps over three games.

“Me and Freeman had a conversation early in the fall, after fall camp,” Sneed said. “He told me that I was going to redshirt my freshman year. That was hard to take, but he knows best, and I just wanted to keep grinding and, eventually, I got to play at the end of the season. 

“It made me better because I just wanted to grind so much harder because I wasn’t playing.”

Now up to 217 pounds, he’s strong enough to hold up at the point of attack and should thrive in a similar role to Liufau’s, where he’s playing in space and rushing the quarterback off the edge. 

“Sneed made a lot of progress as well,” Golden said. “It was great to see Sneed back out there.”

Ziegler is in a similar position after playing just nine snaps in 2022, but his length at 6-3 and speed should be a major asset to the defense this fall. He’s cable of matching up with tight ends while also playing sideline-to-sideline against outside runs.

“Zieg’s off-the-field approach in terms of his preparation and studying the game has made a big difference for him,” Golden said.

It appears Notre Dame hit on all three freshmen, which will enable the program to overcome injuries at the position and provide fifth-year players with more rest opportunities. 

“I'm extremely excited,” Freeman said, “to see how that depth is going to help us as we move into the fall.”

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