Bo Bauer working to add cerebral side to his caveman persona for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There’s a part of Bo Bauer that absolutely savors the notion that he looks and plays football like he was peeled out of a time capsule.

Right down to the crazed look in his eyes, and a hairstyle and beard to match.

The Notre Dame sophomore linebacker’s 27 tackles, most of them amassed while on special teams duty covering kickoff returns, is the substance behind a ‘90s caveman style that rubs off on his teammates and either ignites or annoys the crowd, depending on the venue.

He doesn’t just make the tackle on special teams, then trot inconspicuously off the field. Instead Bauer sprints to the end zone and pumps his arms maniacally, while stomping his feet like he’s trying to make holes in the turf.

He is adrenaline personified.

“Bo gives us energy,” offered Irish sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Keys III. “He’s like the spark of a fire. When he makes a play, everybody jumps up. It gets everybody going. He sets the tone of the game.”

Bauer’s next game, and that of the CFP 15th-ranked Irish (10-2), is expected to be Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla. ND finds out Sunday at around 3:30 p.m. EST which Big 12 opponent it’ll be paired with in the Camping World Bowl.

ESPN’s four-hour coverage of the final College Football Playoff standings and CFP/bowl assignments starts at noon. The playoff field will be revealed at 12:15, with the rest of the New Year’s 6 lineup set to be unveiled at 3.

There is a highly unlikely, chaos-laden thread still hanging, though, that could switch ND’s Dec. 28 bowl date — to the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl against an SEC team — but not the venue (Camping World Stadium), depending on the outcome of Saturday’s conference championship games.

In the meantime, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Bauer has been working behind the scenes to bring his game up to date, so he can eventually evolve from a special teams star to someone who can do that AND serve as an every-down linebacker.

The Irish have 13 linebackers/rovers on the roster, 10 of whom — like Bauer — have freshman or sophomore eligibility. The three starters — rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, buck (weakside) linebacker Asmar Bilal, and middle linebacker Drew White — all have become adept in stopping the run while contributing to ND’s lofty No. 7 ranking nationally in pass-efficiency defense.

“I need to progress greatly in (pass) coverage,” said Bauer, who plays middle linebacker. “Zone drops. Feeling it out. I’ve been working a lot on that with (defensive coordinator Clark) Lea. I feel like I’ve drastically got better.”

And not just physically.

Bauer’s first step earlier this season was to seek out Amber Selking, a mental performance consultant to the Notre Dame football team since head coach Brian Kelly’s post-2016 season coaching/program makeover.

Bauer’s hope was to be able to harness his emotions and make them work for him, even in special teams play, rather than letting them overpower his focus.

“I feel like I buy into what people around me — those successful people — tell me will work,” he said. “And so I went to her, and we were meeting like once a week.

“Once I progressed and I felt like I don’t have the same struggles I was having before, we just meet when something’s wrong or when I need to talk about something. She’s helped me get in a good frame of mind with that.”

A big part it is mental rehearsal.

“So I’ll sit there before the game, and I’ll imagine myself going down and making the tackle,” Bauer said. “I’ll see the film and then I’ll ask myself, ‘What do I need to do to make myself successful against the guy blocking me? What can I do to put me in the best position?’

And if it’s not my turn to make the tackle, ‘what can I do to force the ball somewhere else?’”

Bauer’s prowess on the kickoff coverage team is one reason why the Irish have gone from 108th nationally in that statistical category (out of 130 FBS schools) to No. 18 this season (17.7 yards yielded per return). Since 2011, the Irish have ranked no better than 77th.

Punt coverage (4.0 per return) has improved as well, with ND also sitting at No. 18 nationally, a Kelly Era best.

Bauer credits former Irish linebacker and special teams stalwart Drue Tranquill with helping him embrace the special teams role.

“I love the grind of the season, and I love the preparation each week,” he said. “Just to get ready for those moments. And so through that, Drue provided that insight for me.”

Winning comes naturally to Bauer. While Notre Dame is 22-3 during his time there, Bauer’s final 28 games at national power Erie (Pa.) Cathedral Prep included two Class 4A state titles and zero losses.

He was good enough at baseball during that time that he was pursued in that sport to play collegiately. But not by the man who originally recruiting him, deposed Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who blocked Bauer’s path to trying to do the two-sport gig a la Irish tight end/pitcher Cole Kmet.

“I played outfield,” he said. “I played catcher originally, and then I moved when I started getting taller. I moved so I could run around.

“It was an awesome experience. I got to go travel the country for a little while, playing baseball, but coach VanGorder said he didn’t want a (middle) linebacker playing baseball. I liked the place (ND). Education was great, and so I figured it was time to make a big-boy decision.”

The decisions now involve processing his place long term in what suddenly is becoming a position group of strength and considerable depth.

“I don’t feel like we’re competing against each other,” Bauer said. “I think we’re competing with each other. We’re all obviously hoping we get to play, but we’re such a brotherhood that we just want what’s best for the team.

“And through our preparation and pushing ourselves, we hope to produce the best product. Whether that’s one person or a rotation at a position, we just have to have faith that’ll work out.”

Notre Dame’s Bo Bauer (52) celebrates making a tackle during the Notre Dame-New Mexico game, Sept. 14 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Bo Bauer (52) jumps off a wall after greeting fans following ND’s 30-27 win over USC, Oct. 12 at Notre Dame Stadium.