Linebackers breakdown: Freeman asks familiar faces to play fast and free

Tyler James
ND Insider

Even if Clark Lea was still Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator, the Irish linebacker group would look different than it did last year. That’s because Butkus Award winner Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will be covering ground from sideline to sideline for the Cleveland Browns rather than Notre Dame. 

New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Marcus Freeman won’t have any linebackers at his disposal with the same athletic prowess as Owusu-Koramoah, but he will ask the unit to play with the same kind of intensity. Any inhibition that the linebackers played with under Lea has been eased by Freeman’s directive to play fast and free. 

Notre Dame's Drew White, shown chasing Alabama quarterback Mac Jones during the 2021 College Football Playoff Rose Bowl game Jan. 1, 2021, is expected to anchor the middle of the Irish defense again in 2021.

Middle linebacker Drew White, who accumulated 24 starts and 136 tackles the last two seasons, will continue to man the middle of the defense as the leader of the group. He’ll be surrounded by linebackers who gained valuable experience last season: seniors Bo Bauer and Shayne Simon and juniors Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser. 

Freeman should have enough linebackers with varying skill sets to mix and match depending on the defensive scheme and the offensive personnel. Strength in numbers will likely carry the day. 

LB DEPTH CHART

Middle Linebacker

40 | Drew White | 6-0, 227 | Gr.

52 | Bo Bauer | 6-3, 230 | Sr.

27 | JD Bertrand | 6-1, 228 | Jr.

Weakside Linebacker

35 | Marist Liufau | 6-2, 226 | Jr.  

33 | Shayne Simon | 6-3, 230 | Sr.  

55 | Kahanu Kia | 6-1, 212 | Fr.  

Rover

24 | Jack Kiser | 6-2, 227 | Jr.

10 | Isaiah Pryor | 6-2, 204 | Gr.

13 | Paul Moala | 6-0, 224 | Sr.

32 | Prince Kollie | 6-1, 219 | Fr.

Unfinished Business

Finding consistency from the weakside linebacker might be Freeman’s toughest task this season. Simon never quite maximized his potential last season, which opened the door for Liufau to show flashes of his ability. But Liufau comes with flaws of his own too. Freeman could create even more competition if he decides Bauer can play alongside White at times. 

Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer celebrates his interception with teammates against Pittsburgh last season at Heinz Field.

Maybe a different messenger in Freeman can forge Simon and Liufau into more complete linebackers. Or maybe Freeman will be stuck rotating them in and out of the lineup to best avoid their weaknesses. The former would be the preferred option. 

Wild Card

Paul Moala was making a strong case to be next in line at the rover position after Owusu-Koramoah. Then the former safety tore his Achilles tendon against Florida State last season. Moala’s recovery was ahead of schedule in the offseason, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guaranteed to look like his old self in 2021. 

If Moala can be truly healthy, he gives Freeman a valuable asset at the rover position due to his comfort in coverage and knack for finding the football. He’ll need to tap into the speed — 4.46 seconds in the 40-yard dash — that helped earn him a scholarship offer at the Irish Invasion in 2017.

Notre Dame linebacker Jack Kiser ( 24) is the top candidate to replace last year's Butkis Award winner,  Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.