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Sunday, June 23, 2024
The Observer

Kiser looks to elevate talented Irish linebackers to new heights

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Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Irish graduate student linebacker Jack Kiser celebrates a safety in Notre Dame's 28-20 victory over the BYU Cougars.


Notre Dame’s 2023 season got off to a flying start with a dominant 42-3 win over Navy in Dublin. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman and the offense earned most of the headlines with a nearly flawless performance. While the defense didn't draw the lion's share of the attention afterwards, they were just as dominant.

An Irish group with several question marks and newcomers, particularly at the defensive line and secondary, pitched a de facto shutout. The Midshipmen managed a mere pity field goal in the waning moments of the fourth quarter when there was no longer any doubt in the outcome.

There were several standouts for the Irish in Dublin, as one would expect. As usual, graduate student linebacker Jack Kiser was in the middle of the action all game. The fifth-year Royal Center, Indiana, native led the Irish with eight tackles and a QB hit. He also nearly recovered a fumble forced by fellow graduate student linebacker Marist Liufau, but his foot was just barely out of bounds.

“It’s one of those things you learn from,” Kiser said about the near recovery. “Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back on film there’s a lot of Notre Dame football players around, so maybe next time I bat that in and let someone else get that ball.”

It’s a sentiment symbolic of the trust Kiser and this Irish defense have in each other. The linebacker corps returns all three starters and brings over 100 combined games of college experience. Though the secondary also returns three starters and features a preseason All-American, linebacker is the defense's most important position group. They are already the heart of the defense, but that effect applies to the Irish to an even greater degree. It’s an experienced and talented group that put it all together in Dublin to quiet Navy’s unorthodox triple option.

“The communication on defense was great,” Kiser said. “Any time you get everybody on the same page you’re going to be able to play fast and be able to play at a high level. I think we did that on Saturday.”

That leadership is important both on and off the field. The Irish flew back to South Bend on Sunday with their sights firmly set on the Tennessee State Tigers who come to town as the first FCS opponent the Irish have ever played. Notre Dame’s veteran leadership has no plans to replicate last year’s week 2 buy-game upset against Marshall. The team is looking forward to hosting an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), Kiser said.

“It’s a big deal. Notre Dame has never played a team like [Tennessee State],” Kiser said. “We’re really excited to get them to Notre Dame Stadium.”

Even in the midst of the historic matchup, defensive coordinator Al Golden talked about the challenge of preparing to play a team they’ve never seen before.

“We have to keep our eyes on the challenge,” Golden said when asked about the unique matchup. “[They have] two talented quarterbacks, three running backs, a really big-time wideout…that’s where our focus is.”

Head coach Marcus Freeman praised the linebackers’ performance against the Midshipmen last weekend. He mentioned Liufau’s forced fumble and a concerted effort to create turnovers. That stands in stark contrast to last season, when Notre Dame didn't generate a turnover in its first three games. The unit generated two fumbles against Navy, although the Irish failed to recover one.

“You can see defensive guys being aware of the football, trying to get it out,” Freeman said. “Credit to them, the turnovers and takeaways will come as long as we are constantly aware of where the ball is.”

Tennessee State’s offense marks a big adjustment for Kiser and the Notre Dame defense after months of preparation focused on denying Navy’s triple option rushing attack. The Tigers’ passing attack is far from elite. But Notre Dame will still have to transition from a game that saw them defend just seven pass attempts. Despite the adjustment, Freeman foresees a seamless transition for Golden’s unit.

Freeman pointed to preparation as a source of confidence in the defense, explaining that the first-team offense and defense practice against each other. The two sides practice “good on good,” meaning the starters get plenty of reps against a “normal” offense in the lead-up to Navy. Regardless, the coaching staff wants to keep it simple ahead of Tennessee State’s visit and focus on “letting great players play great,” Freeman said.

“I think the adjustment from [Navy] to now won’t be a big one,” Freeman said. “The thing is, we have to be smart about our preparation. You can’t go from the Navy gameplan to a gameplan this week that is super complicated.”

Kiser said he too sees Saturday as a chance for the defense to get back to the system they’re comfortable with: the system they’ve practiced all year and the system they’re counting on to lead them to great heights this season — Kiser's final one at Notre Dame.

“Schematically it’s a lot different,” Kiser said. “You have to adjust, but we practice this a lot more than the option so it’s a bit easier to go back to it.”