On the most recent episode of the Single High Notre Dame football podcast, special guest Matt Freeman of Irish Sports Daily joining us, and in his parting shots, he said that one thing that surprised him so far in camp was that Notre Dame might have “positionless” linebackers. By that, he meant a combination of deep and defensive creativity from Marcus Freeman will allow Notre Dame to move their backers all over the field.
This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Brian Kelly was positively glowing when talking about his linebackers last week. “Oh, my gosh, where do I start?,” Brian Kelly said last weekend during his first presser of fall camp. “You’ve seen all those linebackers. We’re so deep at that position,” he added.
“If I’ve asked Marcus once, I’ve asked him 10 times, how are we going to get all these guys involved. I should sit next to you guys, and we should put Marcus up here because I ask the same questions,” he would add.
Notre Dame is replacing a should-be 1st round pick (who inexplicably fell to the 2nd round) in Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah so conventional wisdom says to expect a drop-off at that level of the defense. However, the development of some of the younger backers who weren’t quite ready for prime time in 2020 has Notre Dame with a glut of talent at the position. And those youngsters are ready for playing time now.
“We’re deep there, so when you’re deep at a position, you’re trying to be creative. You’re trying to look at situations where can somebody play situational, can somebody be in our three-down package, can we maximize them there,” Kelly said last weekend.
“We’re seeing the same things you guys are seeing from that perspective. When you look at the depth chart, and you look at how well J.D. Bertrand is progressing and the size and weight that Liufau has put on, and you know the guys that have already been in the program.”
The one lock in the linebacking corps right now is Drew White. He’s the MIKE, and he will likely play exclusively at the MIKE. After being an afterthought in his recruiting class, he’s developed into one of Notre Dame’s best players. And when White needs a breather, there won’t be a huge drop-off when Bo Bauer steps on the field. On Friday, White was named one of seven captains for the 2021 season.
After White, though, expect to see a lot of movement, a lot of packages, and a lot of combinations.
Marist Liufau is listed as the starting WILL on every depth chart you will see, but Freeman mentioned on our podcast that he was getting some looks at ROVER. With Liufau’s length – and added size after bulking up to 230 lbs – he could be an absolute error off the edge as a blitzer.
Remember this play from last year?
Liufau did that at 210 lbs. Now he’s 230 lbs and is ready to be unleashed on opposing offenses.
Behind him, JD Bertrand has been talked about the last two summers, but we haven’t seen much of him yet. It sounds like his time could be now. Shayne Simon, a personal favorite of mine, had one of the best games we’ve seen from a linebacker not named Jeremiah or Jaylon in years against Clemson but then fell off. There hasn’t been too much buzz about him early in camp, but we’ve seen him play at a high level against an elite opponent.
Things are a bit more unsettled at ROVER. Most in the media seem to think Jack Kiser is a lock to start, but we haven’t heard much positive or negative about him so far. Paul Moala is fully recovered from last year’s injury. Former Ohio State transfer Isaiah Pryor is up to 217 lbs and will be in the mix as well. Then there is true freshman and 2020 prep Butkus Award winner Prince Kollie. In any other year, Kollie is probably already getting reps with the 1st unit.
All of this depth will give new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman a lot of options, and options are something he loves. When he was at Cincinnati, he constantly had guys coming in and out and lining up all over the place to keep defenses guessing. He has the same flexibility with Notre Dame’s linebacker depth this year. Liufau can easily play ROVER with Bertrand at WILL and White at MIKE in power lineups. He can bring Pryor off the edge against teams that want to air it out like USC.
A narrative has been quietly forming that former defensive coordinator Clark Lea wasn’t a great recruiter because he didn’t get as many big-name recruits as Freeman has been landing already, but let’s not forget that all of these backers Kelly and Freeman have been raving about, were Clark Lea recruits. They might not have had the pedigree coming in as say Jaylen Sneed or Joshua Burnham, but Lea had an eye for talent and this year’s backers are proof of that.
Notre Dame might not have a human highlight reel at linebacker again this year like they did the last two years with Owusu-Koramoah. Still, they have more able bodies at the position that should give Freeman enough options to give opposing offenses headaches, and that is an exciting position to be in.