Junior Tuihalamaka has plenty of 'Vyper' in his game for Notre Dame football

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame linebacker Junior Tuihalamaka (44) during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

SOUTH BEND — Junior Tuihalamaka didn't need to hear the sales pitch twice.

When Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden met with the inside linebacker early in his freshman year, the vision he laid out featured a well-known NFL star with three Super Bowl rings as a New England Patriot.  

“Coach Golden told me he saw me at the next level as an NFL player — if I make it to the NFL — as a Dont’a Hightower,” Tuihalamaka said Wednesday. “A player that will be able to rush off the edge, drop back in coverage. That type of player.”

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This was four games or so into last season, around the Oct. 1 bye week. Stuck behind leading tackler JD Bertrand, Tuihalamaka quickly realized his path to game snaps would be through the Vyper end position.

“Coach Golden was able to help me understand that I already have the little details of what I can be in the future,” Tuihalamaka said. “I’ve just got to work and see that vision through.”

That meant bulking up to the range of 245-250 pounds while learning an array of pass-rush moves that would position him as a worthy heir to outgoing sack machine Isaiah Foskey. After getting a taste at Vyper down the stretch, Tuihalamaka played 24 defensive snaps in the Gator Bowl and produced a pair of pressures against South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler.

Defensive line coach Al Washington, who helped Tuihalamaka cross-train going back to last August, calls the former four-star signee from Mission Hills, Calif., “instinctual beyond his years.”

“He can see it, he can feel it,” Washington said. “He’s really sharp.”

Hightower, the former Alabama first-rounder who retired in March after nine seasons, finished with 353 tackles and 27 sacks in his 117-game career. His second contract was a four-year, $35.5 million deal with $19 million guaranteed.  

Tuihalamaka’s iPad these days is filled with cutups of vintage QB tormentors: Von Miller, Khalil Mack and T.J. Watt. That trio has combined for 285.5 career NFL sacks and counting.

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Of particular interest to Notre Dame’s budding edge rusher is Miller’s trademark “Ghost” technique, Mack’s ability to overwhelm opponents with his strength and Watt’s “get-off” and mastery of the “club” and “rip” moves.  

“Just learning from those pro players, watching film, I’m able to take those tips and play better,” Tuihalamaka said. “That’s what I’m understanding: You can’t always use speed in everything. Sometimes (offensive linemen) want to play mind games; we have to play mind games with them.”

Observations: Tyler Buchner shines at open practice

Wednesday morning’s return from Easter break included an unexpected invitation for the media to attend two-plus hours of spring practice No. 9.

Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) during Notre Dame Spring Practice on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

A few observations:

Graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman struggled with his accuracy and timing as he continues to build rapport with his new teammates. Hartman was intercepted in the end zone by walk-on defensive back Isaiah Dunn but later connected with Chris Tyree on a deep corner route to end an otherwise disappointing day.

Incumbent quarterback Tyler Buchner, given a favorable split of first-team snaps, showed better touch and judgment in both 7-on-7 drills and 11-on-11 work. He was poised in the pocket and completed 4 of 5 pass attempts during one stretch, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Holden Staes.

Bertrand was his usual disruptive self, breaking up several short passes and blowing up multiple inside-run plays.

After the April 1 open practice included at least eight dropped passes in team drills, Irish targets were sure handed this time out. Early enrolled freshman wideout Braylon James, wearing a red non-contact penny, earned a loud reminder from position coach Chansi Stuckey after a careless drop on a deep ball during individual work, which might have improved overall concentration.

Redshirt freshman guard Billy Schrauth (74) goes through drills Saturday, March 25, 2023, at Notre Dame spring football practice in South Bend.

Andrew Kristofic (right) and Billy Schrauth (left) continued to take first-team snaps at guard. The second unit saw Quinn Murphy working at center after flipping spots with Pat Coogan, who played left guard Wednesday.

Rocco Spindler (right guard) and tackles Tosh Baker (left) and Aamil Wagner (right) rounded out the No. 2 offensive line.

Cornerback Ryan Barnes, who ended the last open practice with a leaping end-zone interception, punctuated Wednesday’s session with a blocked field goal against walk-on kicker Chris Salerno.

Notre Dame's Ryan Barnes prior to Notre Dame Fall Practice on Friday, August 12, 2022, at Irish Athletics Center in South Bend, Indiana.

Health updates

Running backs Logan Diggs (lower-body tweak) and Jadarian Price (Achilles surgery) returned to most individual drills Wednesday along with rover Jaylen Sneed (undisclosed), but all three were held out of team portions.

Early enrolled cornerback Christian Gray watched in street clothes.

Early enrolled safety Ben Minich and running back Chase Ketterer (New Prairie High School), each wearing a right-arm sling, took mental reps from the sideline.

Wide receiver Kaleb Smith, the graduate transfer from Virginia Tech, was not in attendance. A team spokesman said Smith was away indefinitely as he dealt with a personal matter.

Linebacker Prince Kollie also was absent, but no reason was given.

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.