Notre Dame lost one of its most versatile defenders, possibly for the season, to a lower-body injury on Wednesday. Multiple reports indicate junior linebacker Marist Liufau‘s season is in doubt before it started. Irish Sports Daily‘s Matt Freeman first reported Liufau’s injury.
Liufau spent August placing a firm hold on the starting Will linebacker job, positioning himself as a three-down player who was effective both in coverage and when rushing the passer. After splitting time with Shayne Simon in 2020, Liufau had become the unquestioned starter, in part because of his mental focus.
“He’s playing within himself a lot better in terms of what he’s asked to do,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said two weeks ago. “The discipline at that position is really crucial, and I think he’s shown that, and that’s maturity in terms of playing the game.
“Marist would tell you that he played outside the lines a lot and that was probably one of the things that he knew he had to get better at. He’s stronger. … All those other things are coming together. He’s a versatile player. He can pass rush off the edge, he can cover guys, he can play in the inside. He can do a lot of things for us.”
Notre Dame has linebacker depth, such that Kelly repeatedly wondered how all his quality linebackers would find playing time in 2021, but Liufau had separated himself from most of it, nonetheless.
Without him and his quick-twitch explosiveness, the Irish will turn to some combination of junior JD Bertrand and senior Bo Bauer. Bertrand more naturally fits the position but has yet to play a defensive snap in his collegiate career, even if his August was nearly as impressive as Liufau’s. A middle linebacker by trade, Bauer played well enough in 2020 to inspire thoughts of him moving one spot to the side and lining up with fifth-year middle linebacker Drew White. In particular, Bauer has toed the line between aggression and coverage, much like Liufau seemed to perfect this preseason.
Liufau’s August surge had knocked that experiment down the preseason priority list, but it was a frequent conversation point in the spring and one that may quickly re-arise now.
“As we get into the fall, we’ll start with the three best linebackers and put them on the field,” Irish defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman said in April. “I don’t care what position. I’m trying to cross-train those guys at multiple positions just so we can figure out who is the best three for this package. Bo and Drew are two guys definitely I can see being on the field at the same time.
“Bo’s done a great job in terms of not only his production — he’s always been a productive linebacker, you watch him play football last year and he was productive — but I’ve seen his leadership step up a little bit, especially in the locker room.”
Up until Liufau’s reported injury, Notre Dame had enjoyed relative health this preseason. Fifth-year defensive tackle Kurt Hinish is working through the concussion protocol, with Kelly fully expecting him to be cleared before the Irish head to Florida State in less than two weeks, and senior receiver Braden Lenzy banged up his shoulder earlier this week, but it is nothing of lasting concern.
Braden Lenzy strained his shoulder going to the ground on a catch, so #NotreDame has limited him this week.
Brian Kelly thinks the senior WR will "be 100 percent in the next day or two."
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) August 25, 2021