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Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 8 Marist Liufau, senior linebacker returning from a dislocated ankle

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game

Apr 23, 2022; Notre Dame, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Marist Liufau (8) signals to his teammates in the second quarter of the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Listed measurements: 6-foot-2 ¼, 229 pounds.2022-23 year, eligibility: A senior, Liufau still has three seasons of eligibility remaining, a phrasing that is borderline common this offseason, albeit one that still takes a moment to comprehend.Depth Chart: Liufau will start for Notre Dame in five weeks at Ohio State. As the lead Will (weakside) linebacker, there is little proven depth behind the Hawaiian, namely only sophomore Prince Kollie.Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect and the No. 36 outside linebacker in the class, per, Liufau was chased by the teams that one would expect to pursue a Hawaiian. USC, Oregon and Washington State led the way, falling short to the University in the Midwest known for its Hawaiian imports, largely courtesy of former special teams coordinator Brian Polian.

Liufau played in four games as a freshman, preserving a year of eligibility that then became redundant when he lost all of the 2021 season to a dislocated ankle. In 2020, Liufau made 22 tackles in 10 games, highlighted by a combined 12 tackles in the final two games of the season, a sneak peek at the ascension coming from Liufau in the following summer.

That rise very much did happen, as Liufau inspired loud whispers from Notre Dame practices of an undeniable breakout season before a dislocated ankle cost him the entire fall.

RELATED READING: Near end of preseason camp, ND loses promising LB Marist Liufau for season

Does Anthony Travel have a specific vacation package aimed at Hawaii? Could Liufau somehow benefit from one?

First-year Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s comments about Liufau as he returned to full-go in practice this spring echo Brian Kelly’s thoughts from last preseason. First, a refresher on Kelly’s mid-August comments in 2021:

“He’s playing within himself a lot better in terms of what he’s asked to do,” Kelly said. “... Marist would tell you that he played outside the lines a lot and that was probably one of the things that he knew he had to get better at. … He’s a versatile player, he can pass rush off the edge, he can cover guys, he can play in the inside. He can do a lot of things for us.”

Now compare that to Freeman’s thoughts in mid-March:

“He’s a super versatile player,” Freeman said. “... He can play Vyper (end) if you need him to. Last year he was one of our most dominant pass rushers on third down in fall camp. He brings in energy, he brings a physical demeanor.

“Marist has to continue to improve his physical actions. You can play as hard as you can, you can bring a type of energy, but if you can’t control your body to accomplish your job, then you’re out of control. That’s the challenge for Marist.”

The biggest difference between Kelly’s remarks in 2021 and Freeman’s in 2022 is the ordering of the praise. Liufau has gone from overly-aggressive but versatile to versatile but overly-aggressive. Perhaps the best and most-recent example of such was Liufau’s interception in the Blue-Gold Game in April. Forcing the turnover came first, but then he drew a penalty for his celebration.

Editor’s Note: As this series is always targeted to finish before Notre Dame begins preseason practices, this projection was obviously written before Liufua suffered that injury in the preseason.

“Liufau took 206 snaps in 10 games in 2020. He should see more playing time moving forward, and thus more than 25 tackles, but predicting further is difficult without having a better idea of how Freeman’s scheme will translate to South Bend. …

“Irish linebacker recruiting picked up last cycle and has only gained steam the last few months, but Liufau should have plenty of an edge on those incoming players. Whether or not (Shayne) Simon is around into 2022, Liufau should get a chance to dominate at Will linebacker before his time at Notre Dame is up.

“Of course, any Hawaiian starting at linebacker in a gold helmet will elicit certain comparisons, ones that are unnecessary and not necessarily applicable given the differences between middle and Will linebacker duties.

“But becoming another Hawaiian contributor at Notre Dame will only further strengthen that recruiting corridor jumping over the West Coast powers.”

An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty should never be expected, but one feels rather likely coming from Liufau at Ohio State in five weeks. Depending on the circumstances, it may be hard to fault Liufau.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 02: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Marist Liufau (8) looks on from the sidelines with his crutch supporting him during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Cincinnati Bearcats on October 2, 2021, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He was set to break out in 2021, and instead he had to struggle through watching road games from his own couch. Liufau has admitted that frustrated him immensely. Perhaps that should have been assumed, but in this case, one suspects Liufau was more aggravated than most would be.

He plays with that sense of aggravation. In front of 105,000 fans in his first chance to reclaim that break-out path, Liufau might deliver a late hit or celebrate a play a bit too exuberantly. A flag will fly.

And Notre Dame will be glad for it, simply because it means Liufau is not only back on the field but back in all ways.

He practiced before the Fiesta Bowl, and Liufau was active all spring, culminating with three tackles in the Blue-Gold Game, but nothing erases an injury from memory like a play on a fall Saturday.

Once that is in his back pocket, the sky might be Liufau’s ceiling. His flashes in 2020 — most notably at North Carolina on Black Friday as his blitzes flummoxed Sam Howell — gave an idea of what could come from Liufua when fully incorporated into the defense. He can keep up with any running back out of the backfield, he is big enough to cover tight ends, and he is dynamic enough to shoot through a gap and catch an unsuspecting quarterback.

Liufau’s season should not be measured by tackle numbers. Rather, only his moments of disruption will define how much of an impact he has. Between forcing fumbles, deflecting passes and tackles for loss, Liufua should knock the opposing offense off schedule at least a dozen times this season.

To put that vague description into context: Notre Dame defended approximately 131 possessions last season (touchdowns + turnovers + punts + failed fourth-down conversions). Knocking the opposition off schedule a dozen times would mean Liufau dramatically impacted about 10 percent of their possessions.

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Though not impossible, it is a bit of a stretch to anticipate Liufau heading to the NFL after 2022, even if he has been in college for four years already. NFL front offices will simply want to see more than one year of film, no matter how much of a star he might be in that one year.

Consider Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. In his junior season, his first actually on the field, Owusu-Koramoah had 80 tackles with 13.5 for loss including 5.5 sacks. He both forced and recovered two fumbles while defending four passes. That was not enough to push him into the NFL. He needed more film.

A couple touchdowns would obviously elevate Liufau into greater consideration, but it is more likely he starts for the Irish again in 2023.

From Blake Grupe to Braden Lenzy, the offseason countdown begins anew
No. 99 Blake Grupe, kicker, Arkansas State transfer
No. 99 Rylie Mills, junior defensive lineman, a tackle now playing more at end

No. 98 Tyson Ford, early-enrolled freshman, a defensive tackle recruited as a four-star end
No. 97 Gabriel Rubio, sophomore defensive tackle, still ‘as wide as a Volkswagen’
No. 92 Aidan Keanaaina, a junior defensive tackle who tore his ACL in March
No. 91 Josh Bryan, sophomore kicker
No. 91 Aiden Gobaira, early-enrolled freshman defensive end, four-star recruit
No. 90 Alexander Ehrensberger, junior defensive end, a German project nearing completion
No. 88 Mitchell Evans, sophomore tight end
No. 87 Michael Mayer, junior tight end, likely All-American
No. 85 Holden Staes, incoming freshman tight end
No. 84 Kevin Bauman, junior tight end
No. 83 Jayden Thomas, sophomore receiver, former four-star recruit
No. 80 Cane Berrong, sophomore tight end coming off an ACL injury
No. 79 Tosh Baker, one of four young Irish offensive tackles
No. 78 Pat Coogan, sophomore center, recovering from a meniscus injury
No. 77 Ty Chan, incoming offensive tackle, former four-star recruit
No. 76 Joe Alt, sophomore starting left tackle
No. 75 Josh Lugg, sixth-year offensive lineman, likely starting right guard
No. 74 Billy Schrauth, early-enrolled freshman offensive guard coming off foot surgery
No. 73 Andrew Kristofic, senior offensive tackle-turned-guard
No. 72 Caleb Johnson, sophomore offensive tackle, former Auburn pledge
No. 68 Michael Carmody, junior offensive line utility man
No. 65 Michael Vinson, long snapper, ‘Milk’
No. 65 Chris Smith, defensive tackle, Harvard transfer
No. 59 Aamil Wagner, consensus four-star incoming freshman offensive tackle
No. 58 Ashton Craig, incoming freshman center
No. 57 Jayson Ademilola, fifth-year defensive tackle, coming off shoulder surgery
No. 56 Joey Tanona, early-enrolled offensive guard coming off a concussion
No. 56 Howard Cross, senior defensive tackle with heavy hands, and that’s a good thing
No. 55 Jarrett Patterson, fifth-year offensive lineman, three-year starting center, captain
No. 54 Jacob Lacey, senior defensive tackle, now lighter and a starter
No. 54 Blake Fisher, sophomore starting right tackle, ‘ginormous’
No. 52 Zeke Correll, senior center or perhaps left guard
No. 52 Bo Bauer, fifth-year linebacker, Ironman
No. 50 Rocco Spindler, sophomore offensive guard
No. 48 Will Schweitzer, sophomore end-turned-linebacker
No. 47 Jason Oyne, sophomore defensive end-turned-tackle
No. 44 Junior Tuihalamaka, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, consensus four-star recruit
No. 44 Alex Peitsch, junior long snapper
No. 42 Nolan Ziegler, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Irish legacy
No. 41 Donovan Hinish, incoming freshman defensive tackle, Kurt’s brother
No. 40 Joshua Burnham, early-enrolled freshman linebacker-turned-end
No. 34 Osita Ekwonu, senior Vyper end coming off an Achilles injury
No. 31 NaNa Osafo-Mensah, senior defensive end
No. 29 Matt Salerno, fifth-year receiver, punt returner, former walk-on
No. 28 TaRiq Bracy, fifth-year starting nickel back
No. 27 JD Bertrand, senior linebacker recovering from a plaguing wrist injury
No. 25 Philip Riley, sophomore cornerback
No. 25 Chris Tyree, junior running back, possible Irish bellcow
No. 24 Jack Kiser, senior linebacker, second-year starter
No. 23 Jayden Bellamy, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 22 Justin Walters, sophomore safety
No. 22 Logan Diggs, sophomore running back with a shoulder injury
No. 21 Jaden Mickey, early-enrolled freshman cornerback
No. 20 Jadarian Price, early-enrolled freshman running back with a ruptured Achilles
No. 20 Benjamin Morrison, freshman cornerback
No. 18 Chance Tucker, sophomore cornerback
No. 18 Steve Angeli, freshman QB, Blue-Gold Game star
No. 17 Jaylen Sneed, early-enrolled linebacker, Rover of the future
No. 16 Brandon Joseph, Northwestern transfer, preseason All-American, starting safety
No. 16 Deion Colzie, sophomore receiver
No. 15 Tobias Merriweather, freshman receiver, forever a memorable recruitment
No. 15 Ryan Barnes, sophomore cornerback
No. 14 Bryce McFerson, freshman punter facing a Harvard challenge
No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit
No. 12 Tyler Buchner, sophomore starting QB
No. 12 Jordan Botelho, a defensive end-turned-linebacker
No. 11 Ron Powlus III, sophomore QB providing steadiness to a chaotic room
No. 11 Ramon Henderson, junior cornerback-turned-safety
No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback
No. 10 Prince Kollie, sophomore linebacker, high school Butkus Award winner
No. 9 Eli Raridon, incoming freshman tight end with a torn ACL
No. 9 Justin Ademilola, fifth-year defensive end, a backup in name only

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