Numbers Settling, But Questions Remain at Linebacker for Notre Dame

With the return of Bo Bauer for a 5th year and Kahuna Kia off for a two-year mission, Notre Dame's LB appears settled numbers wise, but beyond that it will be an interesting spring.

The flurry of news related to the 2022 Notre Dame football roster didn’t stop on Monday, with a pair of linebackers making their decisions for the coming season known. Bo Bauer announced his return for a 5th year at Notre Dame while freshman backer Kahuna Kia announced he would take his two-year Mormon mission, as initially planned, with the intention of returning for the 2024 season. And with that, the linebacker room at Notre Dame looks settled from a numbers standpoint. Beyond that, though, the group should look different in 2022.

Bo Bauer didn’t start at MIKE for Notre Dame this fall, but he played a lot in a near timeshare with Drew White. Playing all 13 games, Bauer collected 47 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 5 pass breakups, and 1 INT featuring a 79-yard return. All but his TFL total were career highs. However, the most surprising development of the season for Bauer was his improvement in pass coverage. When he was recruited initially, Bauer was seen as a throwback MIKE that would struggle in coverage. Bauer, however, emerged as Notre Dame’s best cover linebacker in 2021. By returning, he will challenge for the starting MIKE position this fall.

Kahuna Kia played in eight games for Notre Dame this fall and collected seven tackles along the way. He didn’t play a ton, but he did show glimpses of playmaking ability against Navy when he saw his most extensive action. The plan all along for Kia was to take his mission after his freshman year though we have seen players like Manti Te’o have similar plans only to change them. The plan is for Kia to return to the Irish after completing his mission and rejoin the team for the 2024 season.

Notre Dame’s linebacking corps was a MASH unit in 2022. Marist Liufau, Shayne Simon, and Paul Moala all suffered season-ending injuries by the end of week one. All three were expected to be in the two-deep this year, with Liafau a potential breakout star. Freshman Prince Kollie, the 2020 prep Butkus Award winner, suffered an early-season setback related to COVID that stunted his development and wasn’t seen much til mid-season.

Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, and Drew White held down the linebacking corps as best they could in 2021, but the wear and tear on all of them was evident by mid-season. White ended the year playing through a labrum injury. Bertrand was barely able to come off the field, and the snap volume wore him down. Isaiah Pryor became a full-time ROVER in 2022 and had 42 tackles in a reserve role, but his size limited his use at times.

Since the season ended, Notre Dame already lost both Shayne Simon and Paul Moala to transfer, meaning the Irish lost five scholarship linebackers from the 2021 roster. Still, the unit should see a significant boost in 2022, thanks to the return of Liufau and a mass influx of talent in the freshman class. In addition, Notre Dame signed its best linebacker class since the mid-90s last month, and all four of them enrolled early at Notre Dame this week.

Now that the numbers appear settled at linebacker, many questions remain about who will play where and what the two-deep will look like. Liufau at WILL and Bauer at MIKE seem like the only givens, but even then, there were even reports out of fall camp that he was lining up all over the field before his injury.

We could see some shuffling of positions from the returning backers. For example, Bertrand might be better suited for MIKE and Kiser for WILL. Prince Kollie could conceivably play all three positions, and where he fits in might be determined by where everyone else settles in and where he can get on the field the fastest.

Then there are the four freshmen. Jaylen Sneed is a composite 5-star backer though he measured in just under 200 lbs on Notre Dame’s official release. Could he add enough weight and be a day one starter at ROVER? Perhaps. Junior Tuihalamaka checked in at 229 lbs. Could he figure in the mix at MIKE? Maybe.

It wouldn’t surprise me at all if the starting trio in Columbus was some combination of Kollie, Liufau, and Bauer at this point, given what we’ve seen from him in coverage. That would mean that two starters from 2021 would move to backup roles, though, which would be surprising in almost any other instance except when you consider how decimated the corps was in 2021.

It will be an exciting spring season for Notre Dame at the linebacker position – especially since there will be a new defensive coordinator and linebacker coach in place by then, with Marcus Freeman now the head coach. Despite the questions that remain, however, all of the pieces are there for the linebacking corps at Notre Dame to be a much more effective unit than it was in 2021 despite some expected roster attrition.

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  1. Marcus…let’s hope he’s as good a recruiter as they say, ‘cause he was really passive on the sidelines at Fiesta. Like someone gave him a lanyard/pass and told him not to get in the way. Hey MF, take a look at Kirby’s involvement with the winning Ga pick 6. Kelly’s not there to second guess you anymore. It’s your team, establish a sideline personality, please. This losing shit is getting long in the tooth!

    1. There aren’t too many people who would look like a savvy old fox after a head coaching career of just 5 weeks. And spolier alert: don’t expect him to look like it in September, either.

      This is the risk of not making the splashy announcement of a big coaching name…like every school down south does.
      For me, Freeman has one clear checkmark, and it’s a big one: he’s not Brian Kelly.

  2. So here’s how objective and honest football rankings are:
    For 2022, Georgia’s early rank is 3rd. ND is 7th.
    Just think about that…..words fail.
    Complete contempt for football fans doesn’t even come CLOSE to describing this utterly next-level bullshit.

    So….who cares? Well, ND entering 2021 being wildly over-ranked is precisely how it hung around in the Top 10 the entire season…. despite not ONCE proving it ever belonged there.

  3. Jameson Williams has an ACL tear. Throws all his NFL draft plan, schedule, and possibly his financial future, into real doubt.
    But he can take some solice knowing he’s surely now SteelFanRob’s hero….a “Real Alabama Man” !

    With his strong opinion on the “character test” that sticking it out through the bowl game is, he’ll surely take it on himself to help Williams aevery way he can. Like a “Real ND Man!”

  4. After watching the NC, I’m more convinced than ever that recruiting the best players is what gets you there, as is evidenced by Georgia’s and Bama’s recruiting classes and the numbers they send to the NFL. Spectacular catches with the game on the line, pressure D’ and winning one-on-ones, speed on the edges to contain offensive stars, and broken tackles to get to the first down are what I saw, not any innovative D’ and O’ schemes.
    I remain anxious to see how Freeman recruits (so far, so good according to the ‘ experts’) as that will determine how much of a chance ND will arrive among the elite. If it doesn’t work out, Freeman will not leave the cupboard bare. I saw Saban in defeat praise his Heisman QB and all-world LB, unlike Kelly who would throw his players/coaches under the bus seemingly after every big loss, and there were many. Losing the big game and often by a lot was predictable; seeing Kelly pout and blame was even more predictable. Kelly had way more excuses than big wins. Whatever the Freeman era brings, I am so relieved that Kelly is gone, replaced by a HC that recognizes to be among the elite, you must recruit the elite, and who accepts responsibility for his team.

    1. a) ND isn’t going to get the kids tht played last night. So just forget that.

      b) Not in any way typical, but Georgia took a completely overlooked nobody, and coached him up into a national champion QB.
      ND *COULD* do that.

      Kelly did the exact opposite. And if he didn’t sneak off 6 weeks ago, everyone here would still be fine with that.

  5. Helluva game.

    1) Saban pulled a Kelly at the end of the first half, wasting a full 22 seconds before finally calling a defensive TO.
    The old fox is finally slipping..?!

    2) Going for two turns out to be too cute.. Again: Both teams tried it and failed. Georgia would have eventually led by 9 points had it just kicked the single there….a two-score lead, running the ball well with 5 minutes left = game over.

    3) ND ends up ranked 8th…..about twice as high as deserved/earned, but no surprise.
    Realty check: ND played only 2 Top 10 teams, and lost both times. The rest of ND’s opponents were doormats.
    ND is not a top 10 team.

      1. Give TAMU time; with their NIL strategy,
        they’ll buy their way back among the elite.

      2. NIL is just the Law of Unintended Consequences at work.
        TAMU is just the most successful at it so far.
        Don’t hate the player, hate [the idiots in charge of] the game.

      3. ….while ‘Ramon’ saves up all his football insights for Janaury 11.
        And even then can only post a sad insult.

        Hey, are you Rhonda’s twin sister?

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