Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman fields questions from all over these days.
From reporters at press conferences. From recruits. From his players.
And now, from his boss.
Brian Kelly wants to know Freeman’s plan for sorting out Notre Dame’s linebacker rotation. As in, how will the Irish find playing time for the cadre of linebackers that deserve it? The way those two see it, Notre Dame has more quality linebackers than are typically found in a rotation.
A college football first-world problem if there ever was one.
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“We’re so deep at that position,” Kelly said. “I’ve asked Marcus 10 times, ‘How are we going to get all these guys involved?’ I should sit next to you guys (the media) and we should put Marcus up here, because I ask the same questions.”
Notre Dame has one surefire starter at the position, graduate senior middle linebacker Drew White, and two spots up for grabs. At rover, Jack Kiser earned most of the first-team reps this spring, but senior Paul Moala is back in the mix after recovering from an October Achilles tear. Grad senior Isaiah Pryor is a contestant as well. One of them will replace Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, the Irish’s most versatile and impactful defensive player last year.
At Will linebacker, senior Shayne Simon and junior Marist Liufau are competing for snaps. Those two combined for 11 starts there a year ago, when neither took hold of the job. The position was one weakness on a defense with few of them. Spring practice, though, revealed meaningful progress and a competition between two viable options. It no longer appears to be a choice of two ordinary ones.
Even behind White, Notre Dame has senior special-teams ace and third-down staple Bo Bauer. Junior J.D. Bertrand, another core specials teams player, is the No. 3 option and coming off a productive spring.
Freeman wants to find what he calls “1A’s and 1B’s” at every defensive position – a starter and another player who has earned a weekly role. Perhaps they split snaps 50/50. Maybe it’s 70/30. Or somewhere in between. Either way, 1B is a trusted player and much more than an injury replacement.
Freeman sees enough candidates to be legitimately two-deep at linebacker. Now, it’s a matter of finding how to involve them.
“When you’re deep at a position, you’re trying to be creative,” Kelly said. “You’re trying to look at situations where somebody can play situational, can somebody be in our third-down package, can we maximize them there?”
That’s how Bauer made his impact in 2020. White held a starting job with Superman’s grip, but Notre Dame needed sub-package players. Bauer, given his blitzing acumen, made sense. He became a crucial part of the Irish’s third-down defense.
Freeman has also cross-trained most of the linebackers at Mike and Will. The rovers have stayed at their position, he said, but every linebacker except White (Mike only) and Liufau (Will only) has played both spots so far in fall camp. That’s not a move rooted only in finding players more opportunities to see the field, but it can work that way. The two positions’ responsibilities are similar as well.
“Be an inside linebacker, fit in the box, be physical and plug the holes, but also play in space,” Freeman said, describing the Will position. “You have to play man coverage on some guys. You probably don’t have to cover as much space as the rover position, but you have to play some coverage.
“The ability to play Mike and Will is what we have to do in the linebacker room.”
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If coverage is the key component to that, Simon merits a long look as a potential staple. He acquitted himself well in pass defense this spring and even at times last fall. In the Blue-Gold Game, he intercepted a Jack Coan pass intended for Kyren Williams while in man coverage from the slot. He broke up two passes in last November’s win over Clemson.
Liufau, though, was the more impactful run defender and a weapon as a blitzer. He also provided some semblance of steady impact when he became the starter late in the season.
He and Simon sure seem like 1A and 1B at Will, in some order. Perhaps their usage patterns – and those at rover – shift week to week depending on which skill set is more helpful in stopping the opponent. If the opponent’s tight end or running is a receiving weapon, Simon will be valuable. If Freeman wants to blitz more another week, Liufau may make more sense.
Either way, their progress is fuel for Kelly and Freeman’s excitement about the linebackers’ outlook. And their teammates’.
“We talk about the Notre Dame standard, Shayne’s that guy,” White said. “He’s in there before anyone else getting ice baths, doing recovery, getting extra film work in, asking questions. He’s doing all the right things, along with Marist.
“Marist has come so far in understanding the concepts and defense to where I think he’s a lot more comfortable. That’s the goal at linebacker, when you can be comfortable in the scheme and play fast and free.”
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