Brian Kelly confirmed the worst fears from last week’s news that starting WILL linebacker Marist Liufau suffered a major injury – the up-and-coming playmaker had surgery today and is out for the year. In Liufau’s place is another fast-rising junior, JD Bertrand, who by all accounts had an outstanding camp and would have played regardless. Instead, he’ll play more now, and Notre Dame’s touted linebacker depth took a major hit.
“Out for the season,” Brian Kelly told the media on Monday. “Similar injury to the injury we saw from the young man who played wide receiver for Alabama,” Kelly described the injury, comparing it to that of Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle who came back and played a limited role in last year’s National Championship game following the same injury.
Monday’s news wasn’t exactly unexpected after reports last week suggested that Liufau’s injury was serious enough to cost him his season, but that doesn’t make it sting any less. Marist Liufau was primed for a breakout season after seizing the WILL position in the spring and running away with it. Of all the players expected to make a big leap in Marcus Freeman’s new defense, Liufau was at the top of the list.
With Liufau on the shelf for the season, Notre Dame turns to junior JD Bertrand. The former 4-star recruit and one-time Georgia commit had an outstanding camp and was already set to play a lot this fall. However, his role obviously expands now that he is in the starting lineup.
“Outstanding production. Tough, smart, assignment correct, athletic. He has all the tools to play at a high level at that position,” is how Kelly described Bertrand on Monday. “We lose a very versatile player in Marist. There’s no doubt about it. But JD Bertrand is an outstanding football player as well. Next man up in that situation, and we’ll get a chance to see him play against Florida State.”
As a true freshman in camp, Bertrand made noise very early in his Notre Dame career in 2019, but we haven’t heard much from him since. That summer, Bertrand raised some eyebrows on the Notre Dame coaching staff for being a bit more advanced than maybe they thought he would be coming in. Still, he hasn’t seen much time since then. That was already going to change, though, based on the summer Bertrand had.
Shayne Simon was a part-time starter in 2020 at WILL for Notre Dame, but before Liufau’s injury, he was slotted to be third-string because of Bertrand’s camp. As a result, Simon now figures to have a much larger role than originally planned as well. Considering all the experience Simon gained in 2020 while Notre Dame finished the regular season 10-0, Notre Dame could be in a far worse position than they are right now.
Notre Dame lost a potential dynamic defender who figured to be one of the leaders in creating negative plays, with Liufau lost for the year. Still, they are replacing him with another linebacker who will be more than good enough most weeks for Notre Dame not to notice much of a drop-off.
Where the loss of Liufau will really be felt, however, is against the more dynamic offenses they’ll face like North Carolina and USC and games where creating negative plays could be the difference between winning and losing like Wisconsin. Usually, when there is as much hype around a player in camp as there was surrounding Liufau, a monster season tends to follow. Unfortunately, that monster season will have to wait another year for Liufau. In the interim, Notre Dame does have the depth to withstand the loss, even if they will miss his versatility at various points this season.