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Liufau’s mentality, physicality exemplify Irish intensity, depth on defense

| Friday, December 4, 2020

The buck linebacker position has been a position of strength for Notre Dame, and it’s one in which the Irish boast incredible depth. Junior Shayne Simon has generally started, but the depth was tested in just their second game when COVID-19 forced  sophomore Jack Kiser — previously on the scout team — into a prominent role. Kiser responded with eight tackles, earning the game ball against the Bulls.

So Simon starts and Kiser is the third-stringer who has proven to be a solid contributor, who sits between them on the depth chart? 

Last Friday, the North Carolina Tar Heels found out. 

Sophomore Marist Liufau made his presence known in Notre Dame’s Black Friday victory, as the Irish defense held the high-octane Tar Heels to a season-low 298 yards. With just five tackles on the season to his name entering the contest, Liufau doubled his season total with five more against UNC, also assisting on a key third-down sack of quarterback Sam Howell.

When he wasn’t making tackles, Liufau was clogging up passing lanes, further frustrating Howell throughout the second half as UNC managed just 78 yards of offense over the final two quarters. This came after Liufau didn’t participate in the Clemson game and played just a handful of snaps in the ensuing clash against Boston College. 

“I’m always staying positive and focused on what I can control,” Liufau said on the challenge of staying sharp when not always seeing regular playing time. “Focusing on bettering myself whenever I can during practice — off the field too, by studying the playbook as well.”

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish sophomore linebacker Marist Liufau, top, wraps up North Carolina sophomore quarterback Sam Howell with help from senior linebacker Drew White. Liufau posted a career-high five tackles and his first career sack against the Tar Heels.

After giving up two touchdowns on UNC’s first two drives and having safety Kyle Hamilton ejected for targeting, the Irish defense needed a lift, and they received it off the bench. Hailing from Kalihi, Hawaii, Liufau prides himself on his physical brand of football.

“Coming from Hawaii, I feel like we have that chip on our shoulder,” Liufau said. “We pride ourselves on being physical, on flying around the field, and just hitting people.”

It’s exactly what Liufau did in what was his best game to date for the blue and gold.

“Right around when I got my first tackle, I felt very confident and hungry to get more,” he said.

Two years ago, when Notre Dame went unbeaten but got handled by Clemson in the College Football Playoff, the Irish clearly could not stack up to the Tigers when it came to depth. Liufau is just one example where Notre Dame has massively improved their depth. He’s played in seven of Notre Dame’s nine games this season, recording tackles in four of those contests. Against No. 17 UNC — who moved up two spots in the College Football Playoff rankings despite a two-touchdown home loss to the Irish — Liufau was a difference maker in a top-25 matchup, something that any team would love to have as a second-string option.

This all comes after a position change, though, as Liufau started his career at rover before transitioning to buck linebacker. 

“One of the biggest parts of the adjustment was the mental aspect, [determining] where I have to be if it’s a run, or if it’s a pass,” Liufau said.

And despite transitioning into one of the deepest position groups in the Irish locker room — where certain games bring opportunities to shine, but others see the Hawaii product playing a lesser role — Liufau has taken it all in stride.

“[Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb] are great guys, and we have a really tight bond,” Liufau said. “We push each other to make plays. It’s always respect and love from each other.”

Another easy trap to fall into is expecting to only play against certain formations or opponents, particularly when head coach Brian Kelly described Simon, Liufau and Kiser as having “complementary” skillsets. However, Liufau has no interest in only acting like he can impact the games against certain players or teams.

“I don’t want to think I am unable to make a play, so I try to think of how I can apply myself to the situation,” he said. 

But if he doesn’t get the call to play? 

“These are all great guys in our linebacker room, and I know we can all execute when the time comes,” Liufau said.

Liufau prepares in much the same way that Notre Dame prepares for each contest. Despite it not always being clear how much of a role he will play, Liufau brings the same level of focus.

“Every week, I just try to shift my mindset to the new opponent … What I can do to help the team?” he noted. “We have a similar approach every week. We focus on our preparation, and we don’t change it much because of a specific team.”

That philosophy not only helps when preparing for powerhouses like Clemson, but it comes in handy when facing a team like the Syracuse Orange, a 1-9 whimper of a football team that travels to South Bend for Notre Dame’s Senior Day. With an ACC Championship game berth secured, no game may be easier to overlook than this one. 

However, Liufau also noted that the lack of school — Notre Dame finished classes and exams prior to Thanksgiving — makes focusing on football easier.

“Normally I’m balancing school and football, but now it’s just a lot of football,” he said. “I have a lot of time to watch film. Every formation, individual players … everything, down to the detail.” 

That detail-oriented approach for both Notre Dame and Liufau has the Irish sitting at 9-0 and a game away from a second perfect regular season in three years. And for Liufau, it has the sophomore ready to deliver thundering hits and make an impact whenever he is called upon to do so.

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About Aidan Thomas

A senior marketing and ACMS major at Notre Dame, I've countered the success I've enjoyed as a New England sports fan with the painful existence of a Notre Dame football fan.

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