At the onset of fall camp, Brian Kelly joked that they didn’t know what to do with all the talented linebackers they had. At the time, I joked that Kelly was tempting fate. By the second week of the season, Notre Dame lost half of its initial two-deep to season-ending injuries. As the Irish enter the final month of the season with an 11-1 record in their sights, how they balance reps at linebacker over the next four games could determine whether or not that goal becomes a reality.
The rash of injuries at linebacker started with Marist Liufau going down with a season-ending leg injury in camp. Liufau was entrenched as the starting WILL and primed for a breakout campaign. Shayne Simon, next on the WILL depth chart, was lost for the season against Florida State. Next, it was backup ROVER Paul Moala in the same game. Before the whistle blew in the season opener, Notre Dame lost three linebackers for the season.
In a typical year, that would have meant throwing true freshman Prince Kollie into the fire early. An early-season trip into the health and safety protocols, however, set the true freshman back and he’s is just now in a position to potentially see reps with the defense though Brian Kelly cautioned that it likely wouldn’t come this week given how difficult the option is to defend if you’ve never seen it.
All the attrition meant a lot more reps for the few linebackers left: JD Bertrand, Drew White, Jack Kiser, and Bo Bauer. Isaiah Pryor has split time lately at ROVER and safety with the depth issues at safety. Xavier Watts moved over to ROVER mid-season, but he too has been working at safety.
JD Bertrand was a tackling machine to start the season but has slowed down considerably while taking most snaps each week with nary a rest. In the first three games, Bertrand racked up 35 tackles with double-digit totals each week. Since then, Bertrand has reached double digits just once. Part of that is teams having more tape on him and understanding his strengths and weaknesses, but a large part is the toll playing most reps every week has taken on him. Bertrand has played over 500 snaps this season and trails only Clarence Lewis in snaps on defense this year.
Over the last two weeks, Notre Dame has scaled back Bertrand’s snaps to keep him fresher in games and for the stretch run. That’s meant more of Bo Bauer, who was already splitting time with Drew White at MIKE, and it could mean more of Jack Kiser at WILL in sub-packages. If the staff can get Kollie ready for live reps on defense, it would even further help.
Limiting Bertrad’s reps this week could be a challenge because the Irish will likely rely on their backers to stuff the Navy triple-option attack. Notre Dame could use Jordan Botelho as an extra backer as they did against Wisconsin’s run-heavy offense to save some reps. Playing Navy isn’t typically a week for linebackers to rest up, though. Next week against Virginia’s high-powered offense, we’re likely to see more of Kiser in for Bertrand in sub-packages.
Notre Dame isn’t going to get any of their injured backers back this season, but they should be able to play Pryor more at ROVER against Virginia and Georgia Tech, assuming they get Kyle Hamilton back at safety by then. Brian Kelly hasn’t been too committal on Hamilton’s return to this point, though.
The good news for Notre Dame is that help is on the way next year, with four elite linebacker prospects set to sign with the Irish next month. All four of Notre Dame’s linebacker commitments are semifinalists (out of just 16 total) for the high school Butkus Award that Prince Kollie won last year. That won’t help the Irish this year, but with a healthy return of Liufau, Moala, and Simon in 2022, the Irish shouldn’t experience the same depth issues next year even if the injury bug hits again with that type of influx of talent.
Until then, Marcus Freeman will need to get creative over the final month of the season – next specifically against the high-powered Cavalier offense though UVA might be without star quarterback Brennan Armstrong when the Irish visit Charlottesville. Either way, Freeman will need to walk the tightrope over the next four weeks with how he balances out the reps at linebacker for the Irish to run the table in November.