Marist Liufau leads list of standout performances from Notre Dame football practice
SOUTH BEND — By the time Drew Pyne noticed Marist Liufau, it was too late.
The sophomore Notre Dame quarterback tried to make something happen on a fourth-and-5 play late in the scrimmage portion of preseason practice No. 6 on Thursday, but the junior linebacker wasn’t fooled.
The 6-foot-2, 229-pound Liufau jumped to deflect the pass and managed to come down with the football for an interception. Liufau took off for what would have been a touchdown return had the play been carried out to its conclusion.
Liufau can be hard to locate in new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman’s scheme. The likely starting “Will” linebacker has a number of traits that the Irish want to utilize.
“He’s a versatile player,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “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.”
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That included playing a little bit of rover linebacker Thursday, too. The Irish have so many options at linebacker that mixing and matching at each of the three positions will be a luxury, if not a complicated one. Kelly’s head practically started spinning when asked about the linebacker competitions in each of his first two press conferences in the past week.
“We have to be able to figure out what this is going to look like,” Kelly said. “I don’t know if you guys talked with Marcus about this, but we talk about it virtually every day — how to move the pieces around to get all these guys the opportunity.”
Those sentences came in the middle of Kelly’s response when asked if keeping junior JD Bertrand off the field was going to be hard to do. The 6-1, 230-pound Bertrand showed flashes of reliability when playing the Will linebacker role alongside middle linebacker Drew White with the No. 1 defense. Perhaps this is the year Bertrand expands his role beyond special teams.
Notre Dame was a little short-handed on the defensive and offensive lines Thursday. Kelly revealed that defensive end Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa was back home in Hawaii following the sudden death of his father.
“Our hearts go out to the entire family and Myron,” Kelly said. “He’s in our thoughts.”
Fellow defensive end Justin Ademilola missed practice with what Kelly described as a minor hamstring injury. Those two absences provided an opportunity for junior defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah with the No. 1 defense. He held his own without making any particularly spectacular plays in group periods.
Freshman left tackle Blake Fisher also was sidelined Thursday as he works his way through concussion protocol, Kelly said. Junior Michael Carmody stepped into the No. 1 left tackle role with Fisher out of the lineup. Carmody’s presence was a quiet one but in a positive sense. The Irish offensive line provided solid protection for competing quarterbacks Jack Coan and Pyne throughout practice.
Early impressions can be deceiving and might not mean much in the long run, but these five players put forth noteworthy performances on Thursday.
WR Deion Colzie
The 6-5, 207-pound freshman stands out among Notre Dame’s wide receivers with his stature alone. But his play warranted the attention Thursday.
Colzie made arguably the catch of the day when he hauled in a pass from Pyne with one hand. In a drill designed for receivers and defensive backs to fight for position on deep passes, Colzie reached out his right hand to catch the ball with freshman cornerback Chance Tucker on his hip.
Colzie was a deep sideline target for Coan once during a 7-on-7 period. He also beat freshman cornerback Ryan Barnes on a slant during 1-on-1s. Colzie hasn’t worked his way into the mix with Notre Dame’s receiver rotation on the starting offense, but he’s shown why he was ranked among the top 20 wide receivers in the 2021 recruiting class.
“Soft hands,” Kelly said of Colzie. “Learning how to handle the rigors of college football. We’re going to be careful with him, but he has some talent.”
QB Jack Coan
Kelly wasn’t ready to name the starting quarterback after Thursday’s practice as he previously indicated he would, but that likely wasn’t connected to the way Coan played.
Coan’s opportunities with the No. 1 offense Thursday were shared with Pyne, who took most of the snaps during the scrimmage portion of practice. The snap count seemed designed to give Pyne one last chance to take the job away from Coan, but the Wisconsin grad transfer delivered more impressive throws in his limited opportunities.
The best Coan throw was a decisive dart to tight end Kevin Bauman for a touchdown in the goal-line portion of 7-on-7 work. The 6-3, 223-pound righty ripped the football through a tight window for the score.
“The arm strength and the ability to run were a bit more than what we had bargained for, and we’re happy for that,” Kelly said of what has surprised him about Coan since his winter arrival.
Wide receiver Braden Lenzy bailed Coan out with quite the catch over cornerback Clarence Lewis on a deep ball down the left sideline. Coan’s ability to stretch the field should make easier Kelly’s quarterback decision, which he said he’s really close to making. The quarterbacks will likely be informed of the decision this weekend with an announcement next week.
“The deciding factor has just been the ability to get the ball out on time, accurate and allow this offense to make big plays,” Kelly said.
DT Jayson Ademilola
The 6-3, 280-pound senior set the tone for Thursday’s scrimmage action with a brilliant stuff of running back Kyren Williams on the very first play. He prevented Williams from bouncing outside, in a continuation of the nice work Ademilola did against the run in the half-line drills earlier in practice.
Notre Dame’s defensive line didn’t show a lot of pass rush firepower Thursday, but it held up in the running game very well. That’s because of the presence of Ademilola and nose guard Kurt Hinish in the middle. Both will be given more opportunities to make plays this season.
The absences of Tagovailoa-Amosa and Justin Ademilola limited the variety of looks Notre Dame’s defensive front can normally offer in Freeman’s scheme.
“Versatility allows us to play a lot of different players,” Kelly said. “You saw that (Thursday). I know coach Elston’s excited about the ability to play guys in those different looks.”
CB TaRiq Bracy
As Kelly tells it, the confidence that Bracy appeared to play with as a freshman and sophomore may have been more façade than reality.
“I don’t know that he really had confidence early on,” Kelly said. “He just was portraying that confidence.”
That may have been easier to diagnose last year when Bracy looked lost as a junior and allowed then-freshman Clarence Lewis to beat him out for a starting cornerback spot. But Bracy’s confidence feels real now after being challenged to prepare himself for a starting nickelback role.
“We weren’t going to experiment with him,” Kelly said. “So we told him, ‘Listen, this summer is on you. If you don’t come back physically able to do the job than you’re going to stay outside.’ He came back and committed himself. He has the confidence, because he put in the work this summer to do it.”
The 5-10, 177-pound Bracy remains one of the lightest players on the roster, but he’s in a better position to leverage his strength gains at nickelback. He was playing that spot Thursday when he intercepted a pass from Pyne early in the scrimmage.
RB Logan Diggs
Finding playing time ahead of Kyren Williams, Chris Tyree and C’Bo Flemister seems unlikely for the freshman running back, but it won’t be for a lack of effort.
Diggs became the go-to option for the third-string offense with rushes and receptions. He capped a long drive with a touchdown run up the middle on fourth-and-goal after a number of touches on the drive.
The 6-0, 206-pound Diggs has a wiggle to him that makes him tough to tackle and drew the cheers of his teammates for subtle moves that made defenders look lost.
Fellow freshman Audric Estime (6-0, 228) brings an imposing presence, but he tried to extend plays horizontally at times Thursday, which isn’t his strong suit. The duo has a bright future and may be ready to help sooner than necessary.
“They’re pretty good players,” Kelly said. “They both have soft hands. Their instincts are outstanding and they’re great kids. Really pleased with both of them.”
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.