It took one snap from scrimmage, one play in a game that had dozens of them, for everything to open up for Notre Dame sophomore buck linebacker Marist Liufau.
When it did, Liufau was transformed from North Carolina, where second-ranked Notre Dame was playing its final Atlantic Coast Conference road game the day after Thanksgiving, to his native Hawaii, where he played with such freedom and focus at famed Punahou High School.
Everything until then had stayed status quo for Liufau, listed on the two deep as the backup buck to Shayne Simon. He prepared the week leading into the game against then-No. 24 North Carolina the same way. He studied his playbook. He watched film. He offered effort on the practice field. He paid attention in meetings. He lifted weights. He slept. With classes out of session until February after another round of final exams, Liufau had even more time to devote to everything football. So he studied harder. He worked out with more energy. He practiced with more focus.
What he didn’t do, what he says he’s never done, was worry about what he needed to do to get on the field for more than a few plays. Liufau was the starter at buck for the first game of the season against Duke. He delivered a then-career best three tackles. After that, it was a few snaps and maybe a tackle in this game, a few more snaps and maybe a tackle in that one.
That was OK with Liufau, a soft-spoken and reserved guy off the field who’s all about team. See the field more after only playing in four games last season to preserve a year of eligibility? Liufau believed it would come back around for him. Eventually. Hopefully.
“Really, just staying positive, thinking good things and always saying prayers,” said the Samoan-American who calls home Kalihi, Hawaii. “Staying focused on what I can control because obviously, I can’t tell Coach (defensive coordinator Clark Lea) to put me in when I want to.”
While Liufau concerned himself with what he could do in the days leading into the North Carolina game, Lea and his defensive staff noticed how quarterback Sam Howell and the Tar Heel offense liked to operate in a certain space, particularly the middle of the field. They liked to exploit areas vacated by anxious linebackers rushing the quarterback, which left open quick hitters like slant routes. Maybe, the Irish coaches thought during the week, the 6-foot-2 1/4, 226-pound Liufau with his athletic, quick twitch, quick react ways would be a good fit to eliminate that option from the high-powered Carolina offense.
File that one away for game day.
Friday arrived and Liufau still felt no different. He prepared for the afternoon affair the same way. He had his pre-game meal. He worked through pre-game drills. He ran out on the field with his teammates minutes before the opening kickoff. He took his spot on the sideline. The first quarter unfolded. The second one as well. Halftime neared. There were three minutes, maybe even two, remaining when Liufau got the go-ahead to play buck linebacker for a series.
North Carolina had the ball with a second-and-five from the Irish 28 when Tar Heel running back Javonte Williams took a handoff and looked for space. He gained three yards, then was stuffed by Liufau and defensive end Isaiah Foskey.
For Liufau, it was an awakening. That first big hit in a big game. Yeah, that always feels good. It allowed him to relax, but not with complacency.
“I felt very confident,” he said, “and just a hunger to get more.”
A different feeling
Liufau got more on the next play. Another Williams handoff. Another read and react from Liufau. Another tackle, this one for no gain. His work late in the first half forced the Tar Heels into a field goal to tie the game at 17. The fuse for Liufau had been lit. But why that game on that day against that opponent?
“I cannot tell you exactly why,” he said. “I felt really comfortable. I felt like I was playing free. I had a lot of fun.”
Liufau plays with that proverbial chip on the shoulder that he said many college football players from Hawaii carry to the mainland. They’ve all heard it — from former Irish and Hawaiian natives Alohi Gilman, Manti Te’o and Robby Toma. Guys that venture across the Pacific Ocean seemingly are soft. They’re surfers masquerading as football players. That drives them. It drives Liufau. It drove him in Chapel Hill.
It wasn’t enough to make one tackle. After that first one, Liufau wanted to make a bunch more. He wanted to prove, like so many Hawaiians, that he was about more than surfboards and suntans and hanging loose, bro.
“One thing we pride ourselves in is being physical, flying around the field and just hitting people and having fun while playing,” Liufau said. “That can be evident at times.”
It was evident last week as Notre Dame ran its record to 9-0 overall, 8-0 in the ACC. Had it not been for a similarly strong performance from fellow linebacker Drew White, Liufau might’ve hauled home the game ball. Going into that game, Liufau had made five tackles in six previous games. Heading home from Chapel Hill, he made five tackles, which included a half a quarterback sack. He was all over the place, his big flow of black, curly hair flying out from under his helmet and around the ball on almost every play. He was running. He was hitting. He was playing.
It seemed at times that No. 35 was everywhere.
“Marist got in the passing lane a couple times,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “Marist can do that with his length and quickness, so he was very instrumental in the game plan and developing the game plan for us.
“Marist does some really good things.”
What that means moving forward remains to be determined. Each of the three buck linebackers have had their moments this season. Simon had his against Clemson. Jack Kiser had his against South Florida, which earned him a game ball. Liufau had his at North Carolina. For someone who was seemingly without a position when he arrived — was he safety or a corner, maybe a rover? — Liufau seems to have settled in at buck linebacker.
Sure, he’d like to play more and do more and tackle more and compete, but not at the expense of the rest of the group, or a defense that seemingly is getting better as the season winds down. Liufau’s content to play his role and be a part of something special. Last week, he played his part. When called upon again, he plans more of the same.
As Liufau met with the media earlier this week, shouts of “We Love You Marist!” were heard off camera. They were from teammates Litchfield Ajavon and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
The feeling’s mutual.
“There’s a lot of great guys on the team, hard-working guys that motivate me and inspire me to push myself even harder because I know that things won’t come easy,” Liufau said. “You have to really earn every rep that you’re given.”
For one day, for one game, Liufau did. Now he wants more. He’ll wait and he’ll work and when his number’s called again, he’ll be ready.