Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Linebackers, the question that may define Al Golden’s defensive scheme

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Notre Dame did not lose much at linebacker from its 2021 contributors, but that is partly because the Irish did not have many pieces to lose. Preseason injuries cost Notre Dame dynamic second-level players, and that early attrition created an utter lack of depth that left the Irish stalwarts in the middle playing through multiple and extensive injuries apiece.

The arrival of four early-enrolled freshman linebackers should help that concern moving forward, particularly with one of those stalwarts already gone and the other perhaps still banged up.

Drew White nearly led the Irish in tackles in 2020, though a deflated number of 57 tackles due to a shortened schedule and an intentionally sluggish offensive approach. Deflated or not, White was still entering his third season as a starter in 2021, one of the more consistent and known pieces of Marcus Freeman’s first defense in South Bend.

White held up his end of that bargain, but an unexpected starter turned upside down any expectations for who would lead Notre Dame in tackles. Marist Liufau’s dislocated ankle in August left a void among the starters, a void filled by JD Bertrand with a degree of success no one outside of his own family could have genuinely seen coming.

A similar such issue arose at Rover after Paul Moala tore his second Achilles. In his stead, Jack Kiser picked off two passes and returned them for touchdowns.

2021 STATS
JD Bertrand: 101 tackles with seven for loss including 1.5 sacks; one fumble forced and one fumble recovered.
Drew White: 55 tackles with 4.5 for loss including 1.5 sacks; two fumbles recovered and one interception returned for a touchdown.
Bo Bauer: 47 tackles with four for loss including 1.5 sacks; one interception with five pass breakups.
Jack Kiser: 45 tackles with one for loss; two interceptions with both returned for a touchdown and five pass breakups.
Isaiah Pryor: 42 tackles with three for loss including one sack.
Jordan Botelho: 18 tackles with three for loss including two sacks.
Prince Kollie: 14 tackles in 10 games.
Kahanu Kia: 7 tackles in eight games.

The successful replacements for last preseason’s injuries now give the Irish a bevy of options at linebacker, which may be needed.

First of all, while White’s knee and shoulder injuries were more widely noticed in November, Bertrand was just as beat up. It would not be a shock to see his spring workload diminished in an effort to find full health once again.

Furthermore, diminished workloads in the fall should help avoid that concern again. Most likely, that takes the form of fifth-year Bo Bauer forming a duo with Bertrand, just as Bauer did with White last season. But the premise of fewer snaps does not need to apply only to the middle linebacker.

Liufau and rising sophomore Prince Kollie and/or one of the freshmen can pair up. Kiser and early-enrolled Jaylen Sneed can, as well. Suddenly, a question arises.

3 or 4?
Early last season, Freeman started using three-man defensive lines more often than Notre Dame fans were used to. Early last season, it did not always work out, leading to some rash judgments of the defensive coordinator.

As the season went along, those looks found more success. Sometimes it was defensive end Isaiah Foskey standing upright and dropping into pass coverage. Sometimes it was defensive end/linebacker Jordan Botelho.

New defensive coordinator Al Golden also prefers multiple-look fronts, but Freeman’s preference is pretty clearly to have four linebackers or three linebackers and one pseudo-linebacker on more snaps than not.

“In terms of what’s in place, it’s great because it’s multiple, right?” Golden said last month. “It can be four-down or it can be three-down. You need that. … There’s a lot of things that we can build on. Again, the way Marcus and I have talked about it is, it’s our system.”

If Golden leans into using four linebackers, then Botehlo’s descriptors may invert. At least two of those early-enrolled freshmen may be called upon for reliable action right out of the gates. Maintaining health will be paramount.

Freeman will not lean on Golden to take this approach. Or, if nothing else, he will insist Golden made the decision, a stance that was made clear while introducing Golden.

“I learned right away this person understands football. He understands scheme,” Freeman said. “I was also looking for a person that didn’t want to come in and just drop this playbook and say, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’

“No, Al Golden was a guy who said, ‘Hey, let me evaluate what you all are doing. Let me evaluate your players and let’s put together the best scheme.’ Ultimately, he is the defensive coordinator, and I want to make sure everyone understands that. Al Golden is the defensive coordinator.”

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