Notre Dame junior Prince Kollie looks the player part at linebacker, but ...
SOUTH BEND — Watch him hustle into the Irish Athletic Center with a disposition that this will be a long 20-plus periods for somebody on the other side of the football.
Watch him operate in the open field during drills as he moves from one sideline to the other as quickly and effortlessly as anyone within the Notre Dame defensive scheme, often getting to the ball first ready to wreck someone if this was something other than a sleepy spring morning workout.
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Watch him dash downfield on special teams, an area where he first made his name and continues to be a staple.
Notre Dame junior linebacker Prince Kollie doesn’t wear one on the football field — that would be silly — but listen closely and you can hear it with his every move this month.
Tick … tick. … tick.
Everything about Kollie looks the part of impact player, but is this the year he plays it? That answer is up to the 6-foot, 228-pound former four-star recruit from Jonesborough, Tennessee who made 109 tackles and was a Butkus Award finalist as a prep senior. How good is Kollie? Can he be all that this season?
“I know what I’m capable of, who I can be, where I can go,” Kollie said after a recent spring workout in the lead-up to the annual Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “I never lose confidence in that. It’s a process for everybody. I’ve got to focus on mine and I can get to where I want to be.”
Ultimately, that would be where everyone who plays major college football believes they can go — to play on Sundays. To enjoy an NFL career doing what Kollie wants to do this season — run around out there, make tackles, make plays, make a difference.
The process has been that for Kollie, and it hasn’t been easy. The way he pictured it — the way many pictured it — is that he’d parachute from a decorated/dominant high school career doing as he pleased when he pleased on Friday nights into a starring/starting role on Saturday afternoons. The spotlight and the stage would be bigger, there would be far more fans in the stands, but his game would be the same.
Kollie has hit the halfway point of his college career having barely made a defensive dent. Two years down, two to go. Yep, his clock’s ticking.
He long ago learned that anything — everything — you do in high school doesn’t immediately translate to college. The game is hard. The climb is harder. With it comes sacrifice and uncertainty and trial and error and lessons learned. Failure and success often visit on the same day.
It’s taken two years of play and patience for Kollie to understand it all. Yes, he looks like a college football player who can make a difference. He also feels more like one. That wasn’t the case as an underclassman.
“It makes sense now,” Kollie said. “The first year, I didn’t know what was going on (so) I’m going to try. Now it’s like, ‘OK, I know why he did this and why I’m doing this and why you’ve got to move here.’ It’s all starting to click.”
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Starting to click as Kollie runs with the second string as backup to veteran Marist Liufau at weakside (will) linebacker. Sure, he’d like to get in with those guys on the first team - his next college start will be his first – but with that role comes a responsibility and a trust, something that Kollie continues to work to secure from defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Al Golden.
He works toward that every rep, every period. At the end of each work day, it’s all there on the film that Golden and the defensive staff gather to review back in the Gug. See No. 10? What’s he doing on this particular play? Is he making the right read? The right check? Is he flowing to the ball?
The more times Golden can say for certain that’s happening, the more he can trust Kollie to make the right play at the right time on Saturdays. An added workload won’t be awarded to him just because he looks like he can play.
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“I’ve got to earn their trust,” Kollie said. “I’ve just got to be perfect and earn their trust so my playing time can increase. It starts in practice. I’ve been doing it little by little. I’m getting there.
“You’ve got to earn it every day.”
Kollie thought he had earned it last November as Notre Dame prepared to play Navy. The previous week, he returned a blocked punt 17 yards for an early momentum-swinging score in the upset over Clemson. Following week, Kollie felt like he was back in high school — see ball, find ball, get ball. He practiced well enough to where he believed he earned that first start – he didn’t as the Irish opened with only two linebackers — but that didn’t keep him from playing better than he’s ever played at Notre Dame.
Kollie registered a personal-best seven tackles, including four solos, in what almost became a comeback loss for Notre Dame. The Irish escaped, but Kollie had excelled. People noticed. So did he.
“I got my chance Navy game to play a little bit and I just ran with it,” he said. “I just never lose confidence and that was a reassuring moment for me.”
That game reassured Kollie that he does belong in the same mix as veterans JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser and Liufau, the top three tackles a year ago who all are back for 2023. That LB room is that much better this year with Kollie and sophomore Jaylen Sneed and freshmen Drayk Bowen and Nolan Ziegler.
Golden knows what he’s going to get from those three veterans. The others he’s still not sure, but he’s eager every day to find out. It’s a deep room. It’s a talented room. It’s a crowded room. It’s difficult to cut through the clutter if you aren’t one of those three starters.
Kollie is close.
“I’m excited about PK,” Golden said. “We get him to have a consistent run at things, he’s going to be really good. I love the kid. I love the player. He works hard.
“He was in the mix last year and he’s right there.”
Kollie wants those young guys to look at him the way he looked at Liufau when he arrived. There was just something different about the Hawaii guy when it came time to play. When it was time to cut it loose, he did.
“Marist was just a baller,” he said. “I was amazed by how he’d fly around and hit everything (and everyone). I was like, yeah, I want to be like that. I feel like I can be like that.”
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.