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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, led by a trio of veterans and little change

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 20: Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker JD Bertrand (27) battles with Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets running back Dontae Smith (4) during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on November 20, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium, in South Bend, IN. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The second line of Notre Dame’s defense may be where this spring practice preview series’ title meets its match. The Irish linebackers’ “was” is the same as their “is.” Notre Dame returns every linebacker from its 2022 depth chart with the exception of Bo Bauer, who missed the season’s last eight games due to injury, anyway.

A trio of fifth-year seniors will lead the Irish again, but there should be more trusted depth this season after rising junior Prince Kollie and rising sophomore Jaylen Sneed both flashed in 2022.

Losing Bauer to a knee injury suffered in practice in October did more damage to the Irish on a psychological level than on the field. In four-plus games, Bauer had racked up only nine tackles, though also starting the Irish punt block party with the first such deflection on the season.

Bauer was the veteran and the emotional leader of Notre Dame’s defense. Personally and anecdotally, Bauer’s investment was never more clear than in the immediate aftermath of the Irish upset of Clemson in early November. As the field filled with overjoyed fans, Bauer leaned on his crutches with his back against an elevated camera stand, limiting his exposure to a backside collision. As a handful of teammates passed by him in the celebration, memorably including both Salerno brothers, they paused long enough to pat Bauer on the shoulder.

But he could not dive further into the celebration or relish in an on-field contribution to the defining win of Marcus Freeman’s debut season. Tears were not falling down Bauer’s cheeks, but his eyes were glassy even if his smile was wide.

Without Bauer both that day and most of the season, Notre Dame leaned on JD Bertrand nearly as much as it did in 2021. The difference? Bertrand had two functioning wrists, so for a second consecutive season, he easily led the Irish in tackles.

Some fans may find fault in Bertrand’s play the last two years, but that is missing his clear contributions. If the coaching staff thought it had better options to play, it assuredly would, but two consecutive defensive coordinators instead turned over their on-field leadership to a veteran with a knack for finding the ball carrier.

Expect a third straight year of that, though perhaps the gap between Bertrand’s tackle numbers and the No. 2 on the stat sheet will diminish with improved depth.

2022 STATS
JD Bertrand: 12 games; 82 tackles with 8.5 for loss including 2 sacks, plus three pass breakups and three quarterback hurries.Jack Kiser: 13 games; 58 tackles with 5.5 for loss including 2.5 sacks, plus two quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and a blocked punt.Marist Liufau: 13 games; 51 tackles with 4.5 for loss including half a sack, plus one interception, one fumble recovered and three quarterback hurries.Prince Kollie: 13 games; 19 tackles with 2.5 for loss including 1.5 sacks, plus one blocked punt.Bo Bauer: 5 games; 9 tackles with a half for loss before injury ended his Irish career.Jaylen Sneed: 4 games; 7 tackles with a half for loss.Junior Tuihalamaka: 13 games; 6 tackles.

The starters should remain the same in some combination of Bertrand, Kiser and Liufau. Despite the disparity in stats, Liufau actually started all 13 games compared to Kiser’s only six. With the Irish leaning into a nickel defense, Kiser’s starts came more as a result of specific alignments than as a default. In the modern era of college football, that is unlikely to change, and even as Kiser played better than Liufau, the latter’s wider range of skills makes him a more natural starter.

But if their trend lines continue as they were in 2022, Kiser could flip that. When the 2022 season began, Liufau was not fully recovered from a dislocated ankle suffered in August of 2021, understandable given the severity of such an injury. He never quite displayed the quick-twitch approach that created substantial 2021 hype.

If he does not find it this spring or in the preseason, then Kiser’s consistent playmaking could change the pecking order.

Regardless, the veteran trio should finally be supplemented by Kollie and Sneed. They both played more as the season progressed, and they both impressed in those moments. If there is a springtime focus, it will not be on the three early-enrolled freshmen, but on how much of a role either Kollie or Sneed can carve out in the rotation, if not both.

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FUTURE DEPTHAll three of the Irish linebacker signees are already enrolled, led by Indiana native Drayk Bowen. To step out onto a branch here: Bowen will impress by the end of spring practices, creating some version of summer hype, but that will then temper a bit in the preseason.

Such is often the progression for a freshman. Springtime will feature more opportunities for him; Bertrand and Kiser certainly do not need a volume of reps. When it comes time to get serious, though, Notre Dame will fine-tune its five-man rotation before worrying about incorporating Bowen.

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