Noie: What's so special about Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer? Plenty

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Questions about playing football, about being an early enrollee in college, about embracing campus life at Notre Dame were of little concern to a young Bo Bauer. 

He felt he owned the answers to everything. On the field. Off the field. In the classroom. Across campus. Yeah, Notre Dame was going to be a breeze. Or so it seemed. 

The way Bauer had it down, he’d parachute in after a standout high school football career at Cathedral Prep in Erie, Pennsylvania. He’d play right away for Notre Dame. Like, first game out of the stadium tunnel, the former four-star recruit would burst from the sideline to the huddle and then into the opposition’s backfield. He’d handle his classroom business as seamlessly and easily as he did his assignments on the field. His four years would fly by without seemingly any obstacle too big to overcome. 

There was nothing that Bauer believed he couldn’t – and wouldn’t – do as a Notre Dame linebacker. Watch out, college football, world. He was coming. 

Sep 14, 2019; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer (52) walks off the field after the game against the New Mexico Lobos at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Sitting earlier this month with the media after an early preseason practice, Bauer looked like pretty much the same guy we saw last season. Hair in need of a cut; face in need of a shave. That intense appearance gave way to a soft persona, a quiet, introspective individual who looked back on those early years, his younger years, and smiled. 

Who was that guy? 

Man, was Bauer naïve to the ways of the college football world. Man, how he’s changed. That’s what happens when you come to Notre Dame. You figure you’re coming in to change the place, but the place winds up changing you in so many little ways that you can only see toward the end of it all.

Bauer looks the same, but he's so different.

“I’ve gained a lot of knowledge academically and football wise,” Bauer said. “I’ve been humbled a ton since I’ve been here, going from someone who thought he’d play every game to realizing the hard truth. That’s really OK.” 

It didn’t take Bauer long to learn that hard truth about college football – that it’s hard. All of it. The transition’s not easy, even for guys way more skilled and athletically gifted than the 6-foot-2 ¾, 233-pounder from Harborcreek, Pa. An early enrollee in January 2018, the first time Bauer walked down the steps from the locker room and ran out onto the field at Notre Dame Stadium was an experience in itself. 

The crowd. The rush. The need to locate an oxygen mask and take several deep puffs just so he didn’t pass out. 

“You’re running out on the field and there’s all these people and there’s so much energy,” Bauer said. “You’ve got your adrenaline going and next thing you know, you’re exhausted. You can’t think. You don’t know what’s happening.” 

In those moments, Bauer forgot his assignment. Forgot even where he was. Forgot what it was to be a football player. Some guys work through it. Some guys have to learn how to properly channel all that energy into efficiency. That was Bauer. 

“Everybody’s process is different,” he said. “It took me a while to get me through those things and understand how to effectively play at this level.” 

Now a graduate student and one of the old guys in a really talented linebacker room, Bauer understands everything and accepts who he is and his place in the program. He’ll likely see the field more as the backup MIKE linebacker to starter and fellow veteran Drew White this season, but for Bauer, he won’t forget his college football roots, and where and how they were planted. 

On special teams. 

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Oct 12, 2019; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame linebacker Bo Bauer (52) reacts after a touchback in the first half against the USC Trojans at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

A willing worker

Playing on coverage units once was frowned on as some sort of demotion – only a slight step up from scout team. Can’t hack it as an every-down guy? Go cover kicks. Can’t break the rotation? Run downfield and chase punts. Only recently has that collective mindset flipped where special teams guys often are main guys. Former Irish wide receiver Chase Claypool took his first steps toward an NFL career on special teams. So did former Irish linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, last year’s leading linebacker tackler who made the season’s first stop on, yep, kickoff coverage. 

As good as those guys are as position players, they were just as good on special teams. 

Bauer might be the next in line. As important as he is this season as a linebacker with 68 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss in 38 career games, he’s just as much – and maybe more – as a special teams standout for the last three years running. Special teams had yet to be addressed earlier this month in preseason camp when Bauer talked, but one way or another, he was going to be on them. Wanted to be. Had to be. 

“I hope they never take me off those,” he said. “Don’t take me off, please? I would love to keep doing it.” 

No begging necessary – he’ll keep doing it. There’s a good chance that when the Irish coaches first started crafting their special teams units, the No. 1 option, outside of the specialists, was No. 52. 

“In 24 years, he’s my favorite one I’ve ever worked with,” said special teams coordinator Brian Polian. “Every (NFL) scout that asks me about Bo Bauer, I tell them, ‘Listen, I don’t care what grade you put on him as a linebacker. That guy can make your team because he will be a four-unit starter and he will be a difference maker.’ 

“I have a man crush (on Bauer).” 

Why so much love for Bauer? It’s easy to see. He’s tough. He cares. He competes. He now knows how to properly rev his hot-running motor at just the right time to make the right play. And he’s all-freaking-in on every punt coverage, every kickoff coverage.  

“He’s full-tilt, full-time,” said graduate kicker Jonathan Doerer. “No one wants to block a guy like that. He’s been an unbelievable player for three years.” 

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Polian wants Bauer on special teams. He needs Bauer on special teams. 

“When he comes into our meeting room, there are energy vampires and then there are energy givers,” Polian said. “Bo’s a giver, man. The energy level in our room goes up when he comes in.” 

Here’s a scary thought – as much energy as Bauer brought the last three years, he’ll likely bring even more in 2021. Those first three years were hard while balancing a full academic load with a full athletic load. In May, Bauer graduated in three years with a business degree. He’s now a grad student with a lighter load of classes, and an even clearer vision on the football field. 

He went from all those late nights in the library wondering if he could ever do this to doing it. Along the way, he found success in those struggles. 

Bauer leaned early that it wasn’t going to be easy, but if he stuck it out, in the classroom and on the football field, it all would work out. To date, it has. 

I can’t became I did. 

“I always believe that life won’t give you too much to handle,” Bauer said. “I’m really proud of myself. Notre Dame transforms you and you come out a better person if you do it right.” 

Bauer believes he did, but also believes there’s more to do. 

“Our goal is to graduate champions,” Bauer said of the oft-repeated program catch phrase. “I’ve had the opportunity to graduate, but I’m not a champion yet.” 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI