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.