Depth chart uncertainty doesn't concern Notre Dame rover Jack Kiser
SOUTH BEND — If anyone can handle a little bit of depth chart uncertainty, Jack Kiser can.
The Notre Dame linebacker proved that last season when he went from scout team player during the week of the South Florida game to starter on game day.
Kiser, a sophomore last year, found out he would make his first career start that Saturday morning. Then-starting buck linebacker Marist Liufau and backup Shayne Simon were unavailable that day as part of the team’s COVID-19 protocol.
Kiser made the most of his roster elevation by recording eight tackles, two tackles for a loss and taking home the game ball from a 52-0 victory.
“That was a crazy day,” Kiser said Tuesday. “Going from thinking I was going to be a special teams player to waking up the day of the game and finding out you're starting. I remember calling my dad. I was like, ‘Hey, don't be late to this game.’ But it was a really cool experience. Luckily, I was prepared.”
The 6-foot-2, 222-pound Kiser will be prepared to start Sunday at Florida State (7:30 p.m. EDT on ABC), but the starting role wasn’t cemented on No. 9 Notre Dame’s official depth chart published Monday. Kiser was listed first and followed by a pair of “ors” separating the listings of graduate senior Isaiah Pryor and senior Paul Moala below him. Meaning that all three players have a chance to start and will likely play Sunday.
“It's really cool to see your name on a depth chart,” Kiser said. “That's very cool. I had a bunch of former teammates back home text me. First, they asked me, ‘What do the “ors” mean?’ Then they wished me the best.”
Kiser is a pretty big deal back home in Royal Center, Ind., a town with a population slightly over 800. He led Pioneer High to consecutive Class A football state championships in his junior and senior seasons. In a town with no red stoplights, a visit to see Kiser became a stop for college coaches across the Midwest when he was a recruit in the 2019 class.
Though Kiser was confident in his decision to come to Notre Dame, which requires about a 90-minute drive from Royal Center spent mostly heading north on US-31, he wondered if he could make the leap required to compete for the Irish.
“Coming from 1-A, small-town Indiana football to Notre Dame, literally the pinnacle of college football,” Kiser said, “the first day you step in you see Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, you see Asmar Bilal, and it's like ‘Holy crap. There's a lot of studs out here.’
“But that just reinforced my mind set. Put your head down and work hard. Like we say, work in the shadows, be a shadows man and your time will come.”
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Despite the uncertainty on the depth chart, Kiser should play a very important role for the Irish this season. He was always the No. 1 rover in practices watched by reporters throughout the preseason. And he wouldn’t have been picked to speak with reporters during the first game week if he wasn’t an impact player.
Yet when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about Kiser on Monday, he made sure to mention the other rovers too.
“He has to play coverage. He has to be involved in the run fits. When I say play coverage, he has to play some man-to-man,” Kelly said. “That's a position that requires a lot.
“Jack's done a really good job of learning that position, but our depth is really good at that position. Jack's done really well. Pryor has had a really good camp, as has Paul Moala.”
It makes sense that Notre Dame would need more than one player to replicate what Owusu-Koramoah did for the Irish at rover the last two seasons. The 2020 Butkus Award winner brought such a diverse set of skills to the position that Kiser doesn’t even try to compare himself to him.
“I'm a different player than Wu,” Kiser said. “If you turn on the film, Wu just had that when the play was going his instincts were just off the charts. So I pride myself on rather being smart pre-snap, what are they giving us, what information can I gather and going from there.”
The demand to play man-to-man coverage from defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman doesn’t bother Kiser, who was one of seven players to record an interception for the Irish last season. He played safety at Pioneer, so he’s comfortable with those assignments.
"It's something that we work on a ton during the offseason here,” Kiser said. “I feel like I can match up anybody and hold my own. In terms of coach Freeman's defense, there is a little bit more responsibilities in terms of man coverage, but we've worked on it. We've put a lot of time into knowing where your help is, knowing your leverages and being technique sound. That's helped a ton.”
Kiser showed last year his ability to play around the line of scrimmage too. He recorded 20 tackles, 16 of which were solo and three of which were tackles for a loss.
The challenge of playing on the outside in space but also being able physical on the edge makes the rover position unique.
"As the rovers, we like to say we're the edge of the defense,” Kiser said. “We have to be the tip of the spear and set that edge and turn everything back and help the guys inside eat.”
With all the responsibilities on his plate, Kiser can’t worry too much about when he will play his first snap and how many of them will follow. The Seminoles will have his full attention.
Florida State was the only opponent Kiser didn’t play against last season. But he’s prepared himself for the different possibilities of the offense, including its two quarterbacks, Jordan Travis and McKenzie Milton.
“They do a lot of unique looks,” Kiser said. “They're going to throw a lot of stuff at us early and see if they can catch us on something silly. So we just have to be very sound as a defense, know our rules and be ready for anything they could throw at us.”
Who: No. 9 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Florida State (0-0)
Kickoff: Sunday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Doak Campbell Stadium; Tallahassee, Fla.
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 7 1/2
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.