Position Group Breakdown — Linebackers
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, March 26, 2021
Linebacker is one of Notre Dame’s strongest position groups. Headlined by consensus All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, their stout defensive efforts, both on the pass-rush and in coverage, was critical to the Irish’s success in the 2020 season. But with the departure of both Owusu-Koramoah and defensive coordinator Clark Lea, the linebacker position will look slightly different in 2021. The newly-minted Marcus Freeman, formerly the defensive coordinator at Cincinnati, will bring exactly what Notre Dame needs: experience. Having played linebacker himself at Ohio State and in the NFL, Freeman will look to advance the already-elite position group even further. Like Lea, Freeman will likely favor a three-linebacker base set comprised of a Mike (middle linebacker), Buck (boundary linebacker) and Rover (safety/linebacker hybrid). Freeman, however, favors a more aggressive approach from the position, so it’s possible he’ll play a four-down set as well. With a ton of talent in his arsenal, Freeman has plenty of options.
2021 depth chart: Graduate students Drew White and Isaiah Pryor; Seniors Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon; Juniors Marist Liufau, Jack Kiser, JD Bertrand, Osita Ekwonu and Paul Moala; Freshmen Kahanu Kia and Prince Kollie
The absence of Owusu-Koramoah will undoubtedly be felt in 2021. A consensus All-American and winner of the 2020 Butkus Award for best linebacker in the country, he was a starter and critical part of the Notre Dame defense last year. Quick and rangy, Owusu-Koramoah had 62 tackles (42 unassisted and 11 for loss) during his senior season. He also recorded nine tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown against then-No. 2 Clemson. Owusu-Koramoah showed up in big games, made plays when they needed to be made and is predicted to go in the first round of the NFL draft. The Irish will miss him dearly in 2021.
Mike — Drew White
Along with Owusu-Koramoah, White emerged as one of Notre Dame’s biggest defensive assets in 2020. Starting in all 12 Irish contests, he had 57 total tackles (fourth on the team behind Owusu-Koramoah, safety Kyle Hamilton and safety Shaun Crawford), 27 unassisted and nine for loss. White also had a sack and a half, a quarterback hurry and four pass breakups. Returning as a graduate student, White will continue to make noise as a leader in his senior campaign. He is projected to start at Mike.
Buck — Shayne Simon/Marist Liufau/Jack Kiser
Simon is projected to start at Buck, but the spot will likely be in contention throughout the duration of the season. In 2020, the outside linebacker position was a rotating one, with all three players starting at least once. Simon, the eldest member of the group, started eight games and played in 11, recording 14 tackles. Liufau, a rising junior, saw three starts and 10 appearances, across which he had 22 total tackles, 10 of them solo. Kiser started just once but played in 11 games, recording 20 tackles, an interception and a quarterback hurry, notably winning the game ball against South Florida for his defensive efforts. The return of this trio offers Freeman lots of options on the boundary, particularly if he chooses to run a base four set.
Rover — Isaiah Pryor
A transfer from Ohio State, Pryor spent the majority of the 2020 season developing as he transitioned from safety to linebacker. In 2021, he is projected to start at Rover. Given that Freeman favors aggressive linebackers who keep the ball in front, Pryor will likely play tight, dropping back only for shallower coverage. After appearing in 12 games in 2020, recording a sack, a tackle for loss and a forced fumble, Pryor should emerge on the scene as one of the Notre Dame leaders this season. However, he’ll have big shoes to fill with the departure of Owusu-Koramoah.
Kollie is one of just two additions to the 2021 Irish linebacker room, the other being three-star Kahanu Kia. According to 247 Sports, Kollie comes in as a four-star recruit and the ninth-ranked outside linebacker nationally. Though his commitment was in question with the departure of Clark Lea, Kollie signed with the Irish in December, and is likely to play a significant role at Rover in his debut season as Notre Dame tries to replace the void left by Owusu-Koramoah. Kollie is not likely to be a starter, but he could see significant playing time, especially if Freeman moves to a four-down base set.
Ellen Geyer — Senior Sports Writer: Replacing a consensus All-American and likely first-round draft pick will be a tough task. Replacing a defensive coordinator who led his team to the College Football Playoff twice in three seasons will be too. But if any position group is up to the task, it’s the linebackers. Notre Dame returns guys who have significant experience and minutes in big-game situations. The leadership that Drew White and Isaiah Pryor will bring is huge, not to mention what guys like Bo Bauer and Jack Kiser can do. Marcus Freeman’s coaching ability and field sense will be a massive asset to this defense, and I anticipate that the linebackers will be Notre Dame’s best defensive position room again in 2021. Though the Irish brought in just two recruits, they already have plenty of depth at this position, and they should be able to recruit well in future classes on the heel’s of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s Butkus Award-Winning Season. Grade: A