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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame has Plenty of Good Options at Linebacker in 2024

April 12, 2024

Jack Kiser has more experience than any other linebacker on the roster, is bigger than ever, and has looked great with that added weight.

Drayk Bowen has been taking control of the defense as the potential starter at Mike.

Jaylen Sneed has made the biggest jump out of any linebacker and has “flipped the switch” this spring.

Jaiden Ausberry’s play has put himself into the position where the staff is looking for ways to get him on the field.

Freshman Kyngstonn Villiamu-Asa is no ordinary freshman. He’s physically ready to play and his ability to learn the defense quickly has been impressive.

Linebackers coach Max Bullough shared these insights about these five linebackers and it should give everyone an idea of just how competitive the position has been this spring.

It’s not common to play five linebackers regularly in a defense that typically only plays with two on the field at one time. Is it possible to play four or five guys? Bullough has been forced to think about it.

“I think that's a great question, and I think that's open for interpretation. I hope to have as many guys ready to play as possible so that we can roll those guys, keep them fresh and get the boys going,” Bullough said. “But no, I'm not married to it has to be these two or three.”

The fact that most of the linebackers are young and lack game experience is also why things have opened up at the position.

“I think It was different last year when I got here because we had guys that have been here forever,” Bullough said in reference to Kiser, JD Bertrand, and Marist Liufau. “I pretty much didn't have to be here. I mean, I did but, you know what I mean, like they're out there, they're doing their thing. We had younger guys behind. It's different this year. We're a little bit more by committee. We've got guys that can move. We're flying around. We're gonna keep them fresh.”

They played four in this same scheme in 2022 with Prince Kollie as the clear fourth guy behind the top three. It was also four last season, but Sneed was primarily utilized as a sub-package pass rusher.

Playing five seems more feasible with some of these players earning snaps on 3rd down. That’s where the versatility for Ausberry, who has been learning the Aztec position DJ Brown played last season, and Sneed could come into play. Bullough talked about Sneed's unique skill set that could allow him to play multiple roles.

“He's really good in base and in space. Right?” Bullough explained. “He's a glorified nickel, he and Jaden, when we're playing Rover. So, he's in space. He's really comfortable coming from outside in. He's obviously able to cover ground in space.

“He's one of our faster guys out there, but he can really do it all. I mean, he covers the back well when he locks in and does it. Then on third down, we get him rushing to pass it. But his versatility in terms of, 'I can cover the back. I'm alright in space, and then I can rush the passer as well.'”

We also know Villiamu-Asa has some potential as an edge rusher too and while that may be a lot to ask him to take on some of that as well as playing inside linebacker, it’s just another way to get a talented player some snaps.

These decisions about who will start, who will rotate, and where they fit doesn’t have to be finalized in the spring. But when Bullough and defensive coordinator Al Golden do have to determine playing time, they know that they can be free to move people around because Kiser has experience playing Mike, Will, and Rover.

”There’s been a big emphasis within the room, like there always has been, about being able to play with different guys, especially when there are a lot of guys trying to get on the field,” Kiser said. “Fortunately, I’m able to flip flop and go back and forth and be able to play with Sneed or Kygnstonn or Jaiden or Drayk. I’m able to play with them and just put them at whatever spot they’re most comfortable with.”

Competition has been a great thing for the group as a whole. All of these players are pushing themselves to be their best and it’s also pushing their teammates to improve as well.

”I think competition really drives success,” expressed Kiser. “It makes you better. We’ve seen that this spring. Everybody has gotten so much better. (They are gaining) a lot of experience.

“These guys are young, so they need the reps and they need the reps with the ones. That’s where you see the real speed. You see the real physicality. It’s important to get those guys in there and we’ve done that. It’s exciting to see.”

Right now there is so much evaluation happening with Notre Dame’s football team. The staff is evaluating players and evaluating what works best for those players this year compared to last year. Al Golden is in the process of figuring out what this mostly young group of linebackers can handle compared to the older group he worked with before.

“I mean, that's what the spring is for, to figure out who you are and what you do best,” Golden declared. “And we're not the ’23 defense. We’re the ’24 defense. We could certainly learn a lot from what we did last year, but you can't really carry it forward, if you know what I mean.

“Each group has its own personality, its own leadership. So, we're waiting for all those things to kind of emerge, and we're trying to decide as we go.”

There’s still a lot to be determined with these linebackers and nothing is set in stone quite yet. The only thing that seems to be certain is that Notre Dame has a group with tons of potential and who plays in what roles will eventually work itself out.

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