In Clark Lea‘s four years on the Irish coaching staff, Notre Dame has always leaned on one Buck linebacker above all others. With Lea’s development of linebackers perhaps his trademark, that defensive staple seemed to come out of the woodwork from one season to the next. Just like in all things, 2020 has broken from that trend.
Instead, Lea has developed a rotation of junior Shayne Simon and sophomores Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau. As a whole, their success measures up to their one-man show predecessors. Most notably, in two of its last three games, the Irish defense held two of the best running backs in the nation in Clemson’s Travis Etienne and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams to 28 rushing yards each. Notre Dame hasn’t allowed more than 100 yards on the ground since Florida State on Oct. 10. It held Clemson to 34 yards and North Carolina to 87, nearly 150 yards short of the Tar Heels’ previous average.
The results suggest Lea’s heavy rotation at Buck linebacker works as well as the individual playmakers of the past.
“Shayne does some really good things,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “Marist does some really good things, Jack Kiser. All three of them really complement what we do defensively, and we feel like they all deserve to play.”
The last time the Notre Dame defense featured any semblance of a rotation at Buck linebacker was in 2017, when Lea, in his one season as linebackers coach before being promoted to defensive coordinator, relied on veteran Greer Martini for the first half of the season until an injury gave junior Te’von Coney a chance he would not relinquish, making 74 tackles in the final seven games. The past two years have featured singular stars, the role was locked down by Drue Tranquill in 2018 and Asmar Bilal in 2019.
“The Buck linebacker position is really just about, from a year-to-year situation, where your depth is, and we’re just blessed with a lot of depth at that position,” Kelly said. “We didn’t have guys that were ready to play last year.
“Asmar was on the field virtually all the time and the year before, Drue was just a step above everybody, so I don’t know that it’s anything that we have kind of morphed into as much as we think we’ve got really good depth and guys that complement each other.”
The lack of depth in past years created moments of individual excellence, Coney leading the Irish in tackles in 2017, Tranquill leading in unassisted tackles in 2018 and Bilal coming within one takedown of the tackle title in 2019.
This season, combining Simon’s, Kiser’s and Liufau’s stats would not crack Notre Dame’s top-three tacklers, but the trio largely agrees with Kelly: Their game-by-game rotation has given each specific moments to shine and has cultivated a collaborative relationship between them. Liufau and Kiser made their sole starts against Duke and South Florida, respectively. Simon has started every game since, but the depth chart consistently lists the three with a genuine “OR” between them.
The starting nod can be that nominal, most notably when Liufau still handled nearly the entire Buck workload in a dominant defensive showing at North Carolina.
“Those two are great guys,” Liufau said. “We all have a really tight bond where, obviously, we push each other to make plays, and it’s always respect and love from each other. There’s never anything bad between us.”
Liufau shined in the 31-17 win against the Tar Heels, his five tackles underplaying his actual effect. When North Carolina sophomore quarterback Sam Howell would try to read the edge on a run-pass option, Liufau clouded the assessment.
“Marist got in the passing lane a couple times, deflected a ball, was difficult to read,” Kelly said. “[The Tar Heels] didn’t know exactly what he was doing, and he caused some hesitation on whether there was going to be a pull or a throw. Marist can do that with his length and quickness.”
Kiser’s standout performance came against South Florida, when he learned he would start only earlier in that afternoon, after spending most of the week on the Irish scout team. The quick turnaround from simulating the Bulls’ defense to starting for the Irish served as another testament to Lea’s development of linebackers.
“I knew the game plan, that’s the one thing coach Lea does a really good job of during the week, making sure every guy in the room knows the game plan no matter if you’re going to scout team or not,” Kiser said. “So when I got the news, okay, let’s go. It’s time to play.”
Kiser played so well in that second week that Kelly chided Lea, jokingly, for not starting the Indiana native all along. That hasn’t changed, and Simon’s seventh start of the year included a season-high four tackles against Clemson, the junior playing a primary role in keeping Etienne in check.
“I kind of just stick to my traits, stick to the process that we already have, watch film, play hard in practice and continue to get better and better,” Simon said the week after the Clemson game. “I think I made some plays that helped the team and I’m just hoping to do the same moving forward.”
A dislocated patella late last season cut short Simon’s initial campaign to be Bilal’s sole successor. Returning at full strength this preseason was somewhat unexpected and a testament to Simon’s focus in rehab.
“In the Buck position, I was able to grow last season, last year, and when camp came, I just kind of put my head forward and focused on what I had to do.”
After the Louisville game in October, he remarked on his growth but noted significant room for improvement. Since then, Simon has continued to progress but continues to share snaps with Kiser and Liufau.
“The game reps definitely help you build that confidence in order to get better and better,” Simon said. “It is what it is. We’re all working to get the best. Coach Lea tries to get the best 11 players on the field, so we’re all trying to contribute to that.”
That Kiser has remained one of those players is a testament to the strength of his performance against South Florida, where he capitalized on the opportunity that came as a result of the players ahead of him on the depth chart being ruled out for the game due to pandemic protocols. Both he and Liufau have four seasons of eligibility remaining, each playing in only four games in 2019 and this year counting as a universal mulligan.
It is not hard to envision this situational rotation lasting into 2021 and 2022, with Simon the run-fit specialist (and most-sought recruit), Liufau excelling against spread attacks (and continuing the long-lasting Hawaiian excellence in South Bend) and Kiser a bit of a wildcard (representing Indiana). Of course, the players do not think in those terms. Though grateful for his teammates, Liufau spends the week planning as if he is the only Buck linebacker of note.
“I try to just think how I could apply myself in this situation, just because I never want to think of myself as unable to do something,” he said. “But like I said, these are all great guys in our linebacker room, and I know that every one of us could execute when the time comes.”
Given this rotation, not to mention everything about 2020, that time can come at any moment against any opponent.
A junior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well.