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Saturday, May 25, 2024
The Observer

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Heil to the Kiser: Jack Kiser leads the way for Irish linebackers in 2024

Kiser's versatility and leadership emboldens young, talented linebacker group

The rich smokiness of burning hickory from wood-fired grills in the parking lots melded with the sweet scent of 621 sugar maples and 517 red maples on Notre Dame’s campus to create a tantalizing aroma only present for one day each spring in South Bend. This smell announced not only the changing of the seasons but also the triumphant return of Notre Dame Fighting Irish football for the 90th Annual Blue-Gold game. 

The Irish, coming off an undefeated regular season and College Football Playoff birth, entered the 2019-20 season with championship aspirations. The coaching staff felt confident that their top-20 recruiting class, highlighted by early enrollees Kyren Williams, Zeke Correll, Jay Bramblett, Jacob Lacey and Jack Kiser, would help the team compete for their first national title since 1988. Unable to wait until July to begin practice, these six recruits graduated high school early to work with the team and earn valuable reps.

“At the time, we were just trying to make plays and make names for ourselves,” Kiser said, arriving at Notre Dame on the heels of a legendary high school career featuring more than 11,000 yards of offense and 198 touchdowns.

“It’s a pretty unique situation, though, if you look at it: the offensive line that we were going against, all five of them are in the NFL. We got so much better just playing with our hands, physically. We had no idea how much that was creating for us developmentally. I think without those days playing ball together, not even playing a real defense, really made us so much closer and at the same time made us a lot better football players.”

Though the 2019 recruiting class would lead Notre Dame to the College Football Playoff in the 2020-21 season, they once again failed to get over the hump and claim the program’s elusive 12th championship. Six years later, Kiser stands as the sole player on the roster from that first spring scrimmage. Correll transferred to North Carolina State last December and Williams looks primed to star as the feature back for the Los Angeles Rams in his third NFL season.

Gone too is the old version of Kiser, a 215-pound rover linebacker who relied on speed and starred on special teams. After adding 17 pounds of muscle, Kiser now plays a more physical and aggressive game as the starting Will linebacker in Al Golden’s defense. Rarely do sixth-year players experience such physical growth this late in their careers, but the addition of Loren Landlow, the Director of Football Performance, has catalyzed Kiser’s improved physique. 

“[Landlow] really brought a new kind of methodology in terms of how he does it,” Kiser said. "There’s a lot of stuff that’s the same, but there is some stuff that’s different and a new type of energy that made going in the weight room every day fun and exciting.”

“It’s been really interesting going into my sixth spring. You’d think everything’s going be the same, that you’ve kind of been through it, but fortunately for me, everything has been different with a lot of new experiences and a lot of new people in the building. It’s been a really fun spring and it’s made me a better football player for sure.” 

Linebackers coach Max Bullough applauded Kiser’s growth in the weight room, believing his added bulk will help him absorb more contact throughout the season.

“He’s always known what to do, but he’s finally starting to take even more control of the situation,” Bullough said. “Then more so, it is as simple as you got to go take more shots. You’ve got to take calculated risks, and you’re smart enough to know when those are. Don’t make dumb decisions, but you have to take calculated risks. It’s not enough to do your job. We have to get the ball carrier down, and we have to make big plays.”

A dependable reserve linebacker during his first four years at Notre Dame, Kiser took another step forward last season, posting a career-high in total (62) and solo (41) tackles. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded player on the Notre Dame defense and the second-highest-graded linebacker (minimum 350 snaps) in the FBS, behind only Texas A&M’s Edgerrin Cooper.

For the defensive coaching staff, Kiser began to emerge at a higher level during prep for their Sun Bowl matchup with Oregon State. 

“I thought Jack’s December was incredible,” Golden said. “I thought Jack really focused on some things in December, and then if you look at him now, he’s 235 pounds and just strong.”

“Jack could always run, but now he’s strong. He’s playing bigger in the box but still has the catch-up speed that you need to cover and do all those things. So, I'm really excited about Jack, and he’s really had a good spring.”

Much like Notre Dame legend and former teammate Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Kiser’s value comes from his versatility, having experience playing the Will, Rover and Mike linebacker positions. His ability to play multiple positions allows Golden to experiment with personnel packages and rotations. 

Though bursting with talent, Notre Dame’s linebacker room lacks experience following the departures of JD Bertrand and Marist Liufau to the NFL. Kiser’s knowledge of the scheme and ability to command the defense at will has proven invaluable to the position group’s development.  

“It’s always good when you have somebody old in the room,” sophomore linebacker Jaiden Ausberry said of Kiser. “You know you can go to him and ask questions because he’s been here for a while and has a lot of game experience. You can ask him about how off the field stuff and recovery techniques, so it’s really good having him in the room getting to ask him questions.”

Kiser has played most of his snaps this spring alongside fellow inside linebacker Drayk Bowen. The sophomore two-sport athlete projects to start as the Mike linebacker, learning just as much from Kiser’s leadership as his play.

“I don’t feel like I have to take on a leadership role, but I feel like I want to, and I should,” Bowen said. “Obviously, with Kiser being the oldest student in the linebacker room, he’s going to be the main leader. I feel like I want to be right behind him when people have questions or want someone to look up to. I want them to be able to look up to me also.”

Kiser, impressed by his teammates’ rapid development, said he takes pride in challenging the young linebacker room to maximize their potential.

“You look at (Jaylen) Sneed and Drayk (Bowen), both of them have been taking huge steps this spring playbook-wise, confidence-wise, giving you the sense that they’re ready to play big-time football,” Kiser said. “It’s really exciting to know they’re confident making calls and that you can rely on them to do their job.”

“I think competition really drives success. It makes you better,” Kiser continued. “We’ve seen that this spring. Everybody has gotten so much better. A lot of experience. These guys are young, so they need the reps and they need the reps with the ones. That’s where you see the real speed. You see the real physicality. It’s important to get those guys in there and we’ve done that. It’s exciting to see.”

Having led Pioneer High School to back-to-back Indiana Class A state titles, Kiser’s championship DNA fuels his competitiveness and decision to return to Notre Dame. 

“I want to do something special with this Notre Dame football team,” Kaiser said. “We’ve been to two New Year’s Six games but haven’t won one, and I want the chance to win a championship. That’s always the goal, that’s my motivation.”

In the college football world, where legacies are forged through sweat, sacrifice and an unwavering commitment to excellence, Kiser stands on the precipice of immortality. As he takes the field this season adorned in the iconic blue and gold, every tackle, every deflection, every call echoing across Notre Dame Stadium will be a testament to his relentless pursuit of greatness.

And when the final whistle blows during the last game of the season, should Kiser and the Irish emerge victorious, his name will be forever etched alongside the pantheon of Notre Dame greats, a symbol of perseverance, leadership and the indomitable human spirit that has defined the Fighting Irish for generations. For Jack Kiser, this is more than just a season — it is a chance to cement his place in the records of Notre Dame lore, enshrine his legacy as a champion and inspire future generations of players to dare to dream as vividly as the golden helmets they will one day wear.