Keep an eye or two on these four during Saturday's game between Notre Dame and UNLV
UNLV REBELS (4-3)
(27) AUSTIN AJIAKE
A hand injury forced Ajiake to miss the final four games of the 2021 season, one in which he still made 74 tackles (second on the squad) so he’s played this year like he A) is making up for that lost time and B) never, ever wants to be on the sideline again.
Ajiake's tackle totals this season are ridiculous. By game, they look like this - eight, four, 12, 11, 12 and 13 the first six. Saturday in the home loss to Air Force, the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Ajiake tallied a career high 20 stops, two shy of the school record. Seven weeks in, Ajiake ranks first in the Mountain West and fourth in the country in tackles with 80. He also has a team-best eight tackles for loss, is tied for the team lead with three sacks and has two interceptions (tied for second) for 56 yards.
Ajiake has come a long way from his five total tackles as a freshman. He’ll likely need a lot of them again to keep the Rebels close Saturday in their first visit to Notre Dame and their first visit ever to Indiana.
(11) RICKY WHITE
A process of elimination brings us to White, the Rebels’ leading receiver in his first season after transferring from Michigan State, where he spent two rather quiet years, save for one special game as a freshman (more on that in a minute).
UNLV heads east this week likely without starting quarterback Doug Brumfield and starting running back Aidan Robbins. Brumfield sat out Saturday’s loss to Air Force after suffering a concussion the previous week. Robbins, a Louisville transfer and the team’s leading rusher (591 yards, eight touchdowns), exited the Air Force game with a knee injury. If both can’t go, the big-play spotlight shifts to White, the Rebels’ leading receiver (33 catches, 444 yards, four touchdowns).
White stepped into a starting role basically from the minute he stepped on campus, located a couple blocks from the famed Strip. At Michigan State, the 6-1, 195-pounder played in four games, all in 2020, before redshirting in 2021 In 2020, White caught eight passes for 196 yards, a school record for a freshman, against rival Michigan. He eventually lit out for Nevada.
The Rebels don’t have many guys that will keep coordinator Al Golden up at night. White might be one.
NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH (3-3)
(10) PRINCE KOLLIE
The sophomore from Jonesborough, Tennessee has been pushing hard for an increased role over the last month.
Kollie received his first true taste of game action late last month in the win at North Carolina, when he tallied two tackles, including one for loss. Following game against Brigham Young, he added two more tackles, including his first career sack. Last time out against Stanford, days after what Golden termed one of his best practices, Kollie carried that over to game day with a blocked punt.
With linebacker/captain Bo Bauer out of the year, look for the 6-foot, 220-pound Kollie to ramp up his work load even more. There are more snaps to go around, and Kollie can take them to alleviate some of the in-game demands on JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser. He’s responded to date with the small chances he’s gotten over the last three weeks. Let’s see what he can do with a bigger bite of the playing time/defensive pie. He could be ready for more than a cameo.
(15) TOBIAS MERRIWEATHER
Merriweather finally showed what he can be against Stanford when his first collegiate catch was a touchdown — 41 yards off a go route from the slot. For whatever reason, we didn’t see much of anything from Merriweather through the season’s first five weeks. In August, he was a guy you looked at during camp and said, yep, 20 catches minimum as a freshman. Then he’d get a play here, another play there, but for throwing No. 15’s way? That almost never happened.
It happened twice Saturday. Merriweather made good on the one. Maybe that gets him going. Maybe that gets this offense going. The unit has leaned heavily on all-everything tight end Michael Mayer, which is OK. But sometime, someone secondary is required. The Irish still are searching for that secondary guy. We thought it was Lorenzo Styles, but he’s been quiet. We thought it would be Jayden Thomas. After a prove-it game against Brigham Young, he kind of faded back into the background.
Maybe the third bust-out opportunity for an Irish wideout is the charm for an offense that averaged 5.6 yards per attempt and 11.6 yards per completion against Stanford. Gotta be better than that.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.