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Irish linebackers return en masse for 2023

The Fighting Irish linebacker core will bring back the same top six players that closed out last season. Two four-stars and a three-star from the 2023 recruiting class will join them. Here’s a full outlook on Al Golden’s group of linebackers heading into next season.

2022 summary

Position leaders (by snap count): Marist Liufau (601), JD Bertrand (521), Jack Kiser (305), Prince Kollie (123), Bo Bauer (71), Junior Tuihalamaka (63)

The play of Notre Dame’s linebacker group left a fair amount of room for improvement this past season. Senior JD Bertrand, despite missing the first half of two games after receiving a pair of targeting penalties, was a tackling machine once again. He made 82 stops and ended the year with eight-plus tackles in three of Notre Dame’s last four games. Senior Marist Liufau was consistent. but not great, in his return from a broken leg. He totaled 51 tackles while graduate student Jack Kiser performed similarly with 59 takedowns. The Irish successfully ushered in some of their younger players late in the season as well. Freshmen Jaylen Sneed and Junior Tuihalamaka and sophomore Prince Kollie each put up a three-plus tackle performance in November.

Aggression is the strength within the Irish linebacker room. Most players in the position group are known for their ability to quickly diagnose plays and fly to the football. Such traits could still use some refinement to prevent defensive breakdowns, but instinct has most often been a positive for the linebackers. Notre Dame also has tremendous top-to-bottom depth at the position. The Irish aren’t losing any of last year’s main contributors and are adding several quality prospects from the class of 2023.

For the linebackers, improved pass coverage is required to take the next step. Bertrand, Liufau and Kiser combined to defend just three passes in 2022. In fact, Kiser didn’t have a single pass breakup after seemingly emerging as a ballhawk in 2021. Teams such as Southern California, South Carolina and even Stanford found ways to pick Notre Dame apart over the middle. To become a more reliable group, the Irish linebackers must crack down on blown assignments and missed tackles in the passing game.

Key departures

Bo Bauer (out of eligibility)

A practice-induced knee injury cut Bauer’s final season short in mid-October. He played five games as a captain in 2022, making nine tackles to reach 120 for his career. Replacing his production should be manageable, given that the Irish will return their top six linebackers. Additionally, the experience of Bertrand, a 2022 captain, alongside Liufau and Kiser should provide plenty of stability, even with Bauer’s leadership out the door.

Freshmen additions

Jaiden Ausberry (four-star, University Lab High School – Baton Rouge, LA)

Drayk Bowen (four-star, Andrean High School – Merrillville, IN)

Preston Zinter (three-star, Central Catholic High School – Lawrence, MA)

Among these three, Bowen is the most likely to force Notre Dame’s hand and earn substantial playing time in his first season. The Indiana native put together an otherworldly senior season, winning both the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker and the All-American Bowl Defensive Player of the Year. As a mid-year enrollee and a two-sport athlete, Bowen is taking on the challenge of balancing the spring baseball season with football conditioning. One way or another, he should be in excellent shape when pigskin season approaches. Bowen has already displayed boundless excitement about suiting up in blue and gold, so expect him to waste little time making an impact for the Irish.

Projected 2-deep

Rover: Jack Kiser, Jaylen Sneed

Weakside LB: Marist Liufau, Prince Kollie

Middle LB: JD Bertrand, Junior Tuihalamaka

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Bauer inspires future of the program through grit and grace

Graduate student linebacker and captain Bo Bauer has been a strong presence for the Irish throughout his four years at Notre Dame. Though a season-ending knee injury cut his gameplay prematurely, Bauer’s legacy surely will be remembered among the team and Irish fans. As an emotional leader of the team, Bauer has helped motivate and hold his teammates accountable in times of failure and doubt. 

Bauer came to Notre Dame after a very successful high school career where he was a finalist for the 2017 Butkus Award, geared toward the top high school linebackers in the country. The Erie Pennsylvania native turned down offers from Michigan State, Penn State and Vanderbilt, among others, to suit up for the Irish. Bauer wasted no time getting in on the action, as he played in all 13 games as a freshman. Bauer started his career as a third down specialist as a linebacker and a major contributor on special teams, but earned more playing time as his career progressed. 

Bauer blocked a punt as a sophomore against Michigan and continued that trend this year against Marshall. This first blocked punt of the season set the tone for the Irish, who are now leading the nation in blocked punts. With Bauer, Foskey also had game changing punts, this time against UNLV. The two had a running joke back and forth about who could get the most blocks for the season. 

“He gets a couple punt blocks every year,” Foskey said post-UNLV. “We’re going back and forth trying to get punt blocks, but I think I’m ahead right now.”

This “competition” between the two players had to come to an end after Bauer’s injury, though he was still as much involved with the block game from the sidelines. After his injury, Bauer watched the Stanford game on crutches and predicted Kollie would get his first career punt block after helping him with film study during the week. 

“He’s a great captain. He leads the special teams in the right way,” Foskey said. “He was coaching up everybody, especially me, to get a punt block.”

Arguably Bauer’s best season came last year in 2021 as he had 47 tackles, 4.5 for loss and garnered 1.5 sacks. The linebacker also had a pivotal 79 yard interception return against USC to secure the Irish victory. The leadership he displayed as team captain this season  helped carry the Irish through devastating losses such as Marshall. Bauer stressed the importance of self-evaluation and took accountability for the success of his team. 

“The first thing I said is ‘what could I have done to, you know, get these guys to the point,’” Bauer said days after the Marshall loss. “We’ve had great leaders who have not let the standard fall. And now, that’s on my shoulders.”

These high standards made a tough loss to Marshall extra difficult for Bauer as a leader. 

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life … to walk around the locker room and look these guys in the eye who’ve given me the greatest gift, the greatest trust in my life to be a captain and lead these guys,” Bauer said before the Cal game. 

Fast forward, and the Irish were on a win streak following Marshall. Bauer had his sights set on former defensive linemen Kurt Hinish’s record of 61 games played. However, the pursuit ended abruptly at 56 games as he also suffered a season ending knee injury, this time in practice after the BYU game. Dick Corbett head coach Marcus Freeman and fellow teammates were devastated at the news.

“[Bauer] sustained a knee injury in practice on Tuesday, which is devastating just because he’s a captain and he provides so much more than just production,” Freeman said pre-Stanford. “Just the energy, the ability to motivate our players, it’ll be a tremendous loss for us. So, he’s out for the year.”

Though he has not seen as much time on the field this year, Bauer’s role as a leader, motivator and beacon of hope on the sidelines as well as in the locker room has set the right example for the team. 

“I think a lot of the time that it comes down to the guys, we all love each other so much that we wanna make the play,” Bauer said. “It’s ‘we want to win the game together to see our brothers happy and successful’ and we just kind of have to make the game smaller. Just, ‘look, what’s my job this play’ and do that over and over and over again.”

Bauer’s senior day may not be the one he dreamed of as a freshman, but his impact on and off the field has helped the Irish navigate a choppy season and the Irish faithful will miss having his energetic presence on the field.

Contact Madeline Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu

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‘Creating chaos’: Kiser ready to lead Irish over BYU

The linebacker room will be one man short for the first half of this week’s game as J.D. Bertrand got called for targeting again against the Tar Heels two weeks ago. The rest of the squad has practiced filling in for the senior captain, shifting over and running different packages but a lot of those adjustments have fallen on graduate student Jack Kiser. 

The Indiana native has been prepared for a moment like this though. Since high school, he’s played a wide range of positions. Then, he played anywhere from quarterback to defensive back. Now, he trains in every linebacker position and even sometimes in the vyper role on the line. 

Having played all over the field, Kiser has a clear perspective on the defense as a whole, their goals and what the Irish need to work on to strengthen their defensive presence through the rest of the season. The main focus, he says, is turnovers.

“If you want to be a great defense, you’ve got to create chaos,” Kiser said. “We haven’t created as much as we want but we certainly do believe when we get the thing rolling, they’re going to come in bunches. Every day we’re reminding people ‘Punch at the ball, rip.’ Anytime you’re around that ball it has to be some type of attempt to create that turnover. That’s something that’s always on our mind. Certainly going into this week it’s going to be just as big as any other week.”

Over the course of his career, the linebacker forced two fumbles and snagged three interceptions. All but one of those turnovers came last season. In both of his 2021 interceptions, Kiser ran the pick for six points, once against Wisconsin and again over Georgia Tech. 

Kiser has also been dominant in his tackling. With 26 on the season, 10 of them solo and one of them a sack, he’s had more than half of last year’s total only four games in. He doesn’t miss them either — Kiser has only three missed tackles in his career, all coming back in 2020.

“When I grab on, I’m not going to let go,” he said. “But it’s three too many [missed tackles]. Hopefully this year we can get that down to zero and be perfect in tackling because you have to be.” 

Even so, the Irish — Kiser included — have been focused on making sure they don’t lose anyone else to targeting calls and are tackling well.

“It’s super tough. They’re on scholarship, you’re on scholarship. You’re trying to win the game. At times, they’re 230 pounds and you’re trying to get them down, right? At the same time you have to keep in your head there’s a strike zone. When it’s a bang-bang play it’s tough but you gotta know to keep your head up and you’ve gotta avoid their upper shoulder, neck, head area. That’s something that we’ve been emphasizing the last couple weeks,” Kiser said.

While he says honing the technique has been important, Kiser also said they can’t falter worrying about that call being made though. 

“You can’t be scared to make a tackle because you have something in the back of your head that tells you not to,” he said. “But you have to be smart and you have to think about it so it’s a tough balance. We’re getting a scholarship to play football and as a defensive player, you’ve got to be able to find that balance… you’ve just got to trust yourself and be confident in your teaching and your ability and your technique to just go out there and play and make the best tackle you can.” 

In terms of what else he’s been working on, Kiser said in an interview earlier this season that he’s focused on “using [his] hands, being physical and block destruction.” He’s still working on those pieces while preparing for BYU this week. 

Despite not having Bertrand, Kiser trusts the group that will be out there to get the job done this weekend. They had a test run without Bertrand against the Tar Heels as this is his second game in a row with a targeting call. 

“I have complete confidence in whoever is out on the field that’s on this defense, they put in the preparation, they put in the work and they’re good enough to be out there and compete. If that’s me, if that’s Marist, if it’s Bo, whoever it is, we’re gonna get the job done and we’re gonna fill in and we’re gonna pick up right where J.D. left off,” Kiser said. 

The defense has their work cut out for them this weekend. A scrambling quarterback with receiving weapons has tripped up the Irish defense before this season. Heading into Las Vegas, Kiser said communication will be key. 

“The whole back seven, we’re going to have to be on top of our game, communication-wise you know, we can’t have any breakdowns,” he said. “North Carolina week unfortunately we had some breakdowns and we can’t let that happen this week.”

He added though that the need to play perfectly extends to the whole defense, especially this weekend. He feels like the defense knows what to expect from BYU though and they’re prepared to answer it.

“If we can get a rush upfront, that significantly helps the back seven. If we can cover in the back seven, if we can get home up front, it all comes hand in hand. Having that preparation, knowing what they like, what our answers are and creating that chaos. We certainly do believe we can create chaos and we just got to get there. If everyone is playing disciplined football, I think we can do that.” 

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu.

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“Find the better way”: Captain Bo Bauer talks leadership, ownership ahead of Cal

It’s no secret that, at 0-2, the Notre Dame football team is feeling some pressure. And the leadership position that being a captain of said team can certainly amplify that pressure.

This certainly rings true for 2022 captain Bo Bauer. After Notre Dame’s home opener loss against Marshall, the fate of Marcus Freeman’s debut season hangs in the balance. Especially with sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Buchner’s season-ending injury, the Irish have had to rethink their entire game plan moving forward.

In addition to restructuring the offense around junior Drew Pyne, the defense has had to take a hard look at itself to see what needs improvement in order to prevent fourth-quarter games of catchup. For Bauer, this review began with a self-evaluation as a player and a captain.

“The first thing I said is ‘what could I have done to, you know, get these guys to the point,’” Bauer said. “We’ve had great leaders who have not let the standard fall. And now that’s on my shoulders.”

Such high standards make a tough loss like the one to Marshall an even tough pill to swallow. Bauer said that the days following Marshall have been difficult. But that this defeat was also a motivating factor for him.

“It’s probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, is to walk around the locker room and look these guys in the eye who’ve given me the greatest gift, the greatest trust in my life to be a captain and lead these guys,” Bauer said. 

The team bond has added an emotional level to the issues at hand. Bauer said that the strong relationships he and his teammates have with each other influence the push to make a play happen. This can also lead to a strong response when it does not go their way.

“I think a lot of the times that it comes down to the guys, we all love each other so much that we wanna make the play,” Bauer said. “And not for some selfish reason or something. It’s ‘we want to win the game together to see our brothers happy and successful’ and we just kind of have to make the game smaller. Just, ‘look, what’s my job this play’ and do that over and over and over again.”

For Bauer, he has focused in on his role on defense. Despite the defense looking like the Irish’s strong suit, they have run into issues in their execution.

“We have to attack the ball,” he said. “Two games, no takeovers. Now it’s starting to be like ‘we have to take ownership for that.’”

Bauer himself posted two tackles on the day Saturday. But the defense was unable to stop some of the “X-plays” Marshall threw at them. According to Bauer, frustration over this stems from the fact that they are consistently working well in practice.

“There’s 11 angry guys out there every snap on defense trying to knock back the tacklers, put them on the ground,” he said of himself and his fellow defenders. “We’re taking it very personally that that kind of didn’t go that way [in the games].”

Moving forward, Bauer said it all comes down to one question: “When it matters the most, can you do what you need to do?” Despite the love the team has for each other and the effort they are putting into practice, the execution of what they learned in their training is where it matters most. If they cannot perform on the field, what they did in practice can risk proving futile.

“We just need to be better,” Bauer said. “I’m willing to find the better way, whatever that may be, and do whatever it takes to get us heading in the right direction.”

Contact Emily at edefazio@nd.edu

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Golden, Rees coordinate plan for major changes 

After a devastating defeat against unranked Marshall, the Irish are looking to regroup and revitalize this weekend at home against Cal. The loss of sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Buchner due to injury threw an even bigger wrench for the Irish. Both the defense and offense came out flat in last week’s game. And there is a dire need for improvement on both sides of the ball. 

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Al Golden shared similar sentiments about their mindsets and where they hope to go. Taking accountability and standing behind Marcus Freeman and the team, both coaches are determined to fix the mistakes of the last two weeks.

‘It all starts with me’

The Notre Dame offense has consistently fallen short this season. Shortcomings and red flags seen during the Ohio State game were only exemplified in the disappointing performance against Marshall. Buchner’s inaccuracy on deep passes coupled with the lack of holes created by the offensive line made it difficult for the Irish to move the chains. With Buchner out, however, junior quarterback Drew Pyne could be the switch the Irish need. Experienced and ready to assume Buchner’s role as starting quarterback, Pyne brings a different perspective to the table.

“Drew’s care factor is about as high as anyone you can be around,” Rees said. “I told Drew, we are in a tough spot right now and we need you here. Drew knows the playbook and has respect for his teammates. He’s prepared himself for this for a long time.”

Though this new change will certainly shake things up on offense, Rees foresees it as a way to pivot and create enhanced offensive play. 

“There’s certainly things that Tyler does at a high level that we’ll adjust to or pivot from,” Rees said. “We have a lot of faith and trust in Drew, and we are building that in Steve Angeli right now. Our job is to make sure these two guys are ready to go and play in a football game.”

Rees recognizes that the success of the offense stems from him, and he takes ownership of the team’s performance. Rees’ play calling has been largely conservative, so it will be interesting to see what he does this weekend.

“It all starts with me,” Rees said. “I have to be better, I have to do more to make sure everybody knows what is expected and what needs to be done. We are extremely driven to make sure that we will fix what we need to.”

Rees “believe[s] there can be expansion in the playbook” and must put players in a place that is advantageous to the offense. Running back Chris Tyree, said to be a key asset for the Notre Dame offense this year, has seen little action on the field. 

“We have to continue to find ways to get the guys who will make our offense more explosive and get more touches,” Rees said. “Tyree certainly falls under that category.” 

Despite all the negatives on the offense, there were some good moments. Rees emphasized the importance of recognizing these positives to stay motivated and replicate them while replacing the negatives. 

“There are positives and you gotta find them,” Rees said. “We need to make sure that everyone is doing their job and improving.”

‘We have to do a better job tackling, number one’

The Irish expected their defense to be a huge strength. But so far, their performance has been less than stellar. Missed tackles. No turnovers. Collapsing at the end of long drives at the end of the game. All of these problems have plagued the Irish defense. Though they were able to keep the points down, the defense needs to step up. Golden recognizes this, feeling “disappointed by not discouraged” by the early results, getting straight to the point.

“We have to do a better job tackling, number one,” Golden said. “And our fourth quarter execution has to improve. That’s on me, I have to do a better job putting them in a position to execute in the fourth quarter, and we have to do a better job tackling as a unit in general.”

Golden’s ownership of the team’s shortcomings is similar to that of Rees, highlighting the accountability of both coordinators.

“We can mix it up and do a better job,” Golden said “We’ve limited explosives and have kept the points down. But what we haven’t done is turn the field on a takeaway. So takeaways, more hits and sacks on the quarterbacks are things we can do a better job of.”

These elements, especially an increasing emphasis on tackling, could make all the difference for the Irish defense. However, despite the chaos, Golden recognized the three defensive captains as providing a constant for the Irish defense the past two weeks.

“(Isaiah) Foskey has shown leadership and a late in-game energy. We have to keep finding the matchup for him and help him get pressure on the quarterback,” Golden said. “JD Bertrand’s been very good in terms of setting the front and communication. Bo Bauer’s obviously doing a great job on special teams. Very pleased with all three of these guys but at the same time disappointed, because they’ve worked very hard and aren’t getting the results that they deserve. They gotta keep fighting and good things will happen.”

Preparing for Saturday

Golden, Rees, and the rest of the coaching staff are looking at everything from “the top down.” Though the Irish have not started strong, there is no denying they are trying hard to turn things around. Not taking things for granted and recognizing the importance of each play, Rees says, is the name of the game this weekend.

“Anytime you play this game the margins between wins and losses are very small,” Rees said. “You can have a number of losses that get masked because you won the game. We must not take things for granted. Play in and play out, it matters how everyone does their job.”

Contact Maddie Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu