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Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024
The Observer

Irish linebackers return en masse for 2023

The Fighting Irish linebacker core will bring back the same top six players that closed out last season. Two four-stars and a three-star from the 2023 recruiting class will join them. Here’s a full outlook on Al Golden’s group of linebackers heading into next season.

2022 summary

Position leaders (by snap count): Marist Liufau (601), JD Bertrand (521), Jack Kiser (305), Prince Kollie (123), Bo Bauer (71), Junior Tuihalamaka (63)

The play of Notre Dame’s linebacker group left a fair amount of room for improvement this past season. Senior JD Bertrand, despite missing the first half of two games after receiving a pair of targeting penalties, was a tackling machine once again. He made 82 stops and ended the year with eight-plus tackles in three of Notre Dame’s last four games. Senior Marist Liufau was consistent. but not great, in his return from a broken leg. He totaled 51 tackles while graduate student Jack Kiser performed similarly with 59 takedowns. The Irish successfully ushered in some of their younger players late in the season as well. Freshmen Jaylen Sneed and Junior Tuihalamaka and sophomore Prince Kollie each put up a three-plus tackle performance in November.

Aggression is the strength within the Irish linebacker room. Most players in the position group are known for their ability to quickly diagnose plays and fly to the football. Such traits could still use some refinement to prevent defensive breakdowns, but instinct has most often been a positive for the linebackers. Notre Dame also has tremendous top-to-bottom depth at the position. The Irish aren’t losing any of last year’s main contributors and are adding several quality prospects from the class of 2023.

For the linebackers, improved pass coverage is required to take the next step. Bertrand, Liufau and Kiser combined to defend just three passes in 2022. In fact, Kiser didn’t have a single pass breakup after seemingly emerging as a ballhawk in 2021. Teams such as Southern California, South Carolina and even Stanford found ways to pick Notre Dame apart over the middle. To become a more reliable group, the Irish linebackers must crack down on blown assignments and missed tackles in the passing game.

Key departures

Bo Bauer (out of eligibility)

A practice-induced knee injury cut Bauer’s final season short in mid-October. He played five games as a captain in 2022, making nine tackles to reach 120 for his career. Replacing his production should be manageable, given that the Irish will return their top six linebackers. Additionally, the experience of Bertrand, a 2022 captain, alongside Liufau and Kiser should provide plenty of stability, even with Bauer’s leadership out the door.

Freshmen additions

Jaiden Ausberry (four-star, University Lab High School - Baton Rouge, LA)

Drayk Bowen (four-star, Andrean High School - Merrillville, IN)

Preston Zinter (three-star, Central Catholic High School - Lawrence, MA)

Among these three, Bowen is the most likely to force Notre Dame’s hand and earn substantial playing time in his first season. The Indiana native put together an otherworldly senior season, winning both the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and the All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year. As a mid-year enrollee and a two-sport athlete, Bowen is taking on the challenge of balancing the spring baseball season with football conditioning. One way or another, he should be in excellent shape when pigskin season approaches. Bowen has already displayed boundless excitement about suiting up in blue and gold, so expect him to waste little time making an impact for the Irish.

Projected 2-deep

Rover: Jack Kiser, Jaylen Sneed

Weakside LB: Marist Liufau, Prince Kollie

Middle LB: JD Bertrand, Junior Tuihalamaka