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Irish Linebackers in 2023: Good to Great?

By: Patrick W. Byrne⏐Writer⏐Twitter: @PatrickByrneIT


(Courtesy of Marist Liufau on social media)


It’s safe to say that Notre Dame has a solid group of returning linebackers. The amount of playing time amongst the starters is significant and should provide a solid foundation for the defense to have a successful season. Prior to doing any research for this article, my preconceived notion was the linebacker unit was good; but not great. I still think this is the case, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have an opportunity to take a step up from what they’ve done thus far. In other words, there’s a solid core with room for growth, this is certainly better than facing an inexperienced unit with only upside to consider (hello cornerbacks).


For point of comparison, I wanted to see how our returning group of linebackers stacked up against the two best linebacker seasons in recent memory; 2012 and 2015. Before we dive in, some ground rules:

  • Included were starters from each season and other players who contributed (i.e. I didn’t include anyone with 1-2 tackles total)

  • Only included stats from the seasons being compared, both individually and in total: 2012, 2015 and 2022



Platinum Level: 2012

You can’t be surprised. The most magical season of Notre Dame football (prior to the proper lashing received by Alabama) comes in first when discussing stellar linebacker play. With 337 total tackles, helped in no small part by Te’o and his ridiculous 113 total with 7 (yes, 7) INTs, the unit was the heartbeat of the team. This Bob Diaco led group helped to win close games against Michigan, Stanford and USC, with a strong assist from their brothers on the defensive line.


Along with Te’o, Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese provided solid support and Prince Shembo could be a game wrecker when he was at his best. Even Ishaq Williams had a decent showing, though far below his 5 star ranking as per usual (along with Max Redfield, the two most underachieving and disappointing recruits in the past 20 years for me).


(Courtesy: UHND.com)


Manti Te’o

Senior: 13 games/55 solo/58 assisted/113 total

7 INTs his senior year


Dan Fox (1 year)

Senior: 30 solo/33 assisted/63 total


Prince Shembo

Junior: 12 games/22 solo/29 assisted/51 total


Carlo Calabrese

Senior: 19 solo/30 assisted/49 total


Danny Spond

Junior: 11 games/17 solo/22 assisted/39 total


Ishaq Williams

Sophomore: 11 solo/11 assisted/22 total


337 total tackles in 2012

7 Total INTs




The Gold Standard: 2015

Crazy to use this title given the considerable venom spewed by most Notre Dame supporters regarding the Brian Van Gorder led defensive years, but the numbers for this group don’t lie. It also doesn’t hurt that you had what amounted to a football rocket scientist leading the defensive play calling on the field (Joe Schmidt) while allowing the best defensive player in my lifetime to thrive (Jaylon Smith).


You had a budding star in James Onwualu and solid contributions provided by both Greer Martini and Nyles Morgan. Even Jarrett Grace threw in 26 tackles to help with the total. Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on by the way, had 78 tackles as he understood the defense better than anyone and was consistently in the right place at the right time (JD Bertrand anyone?) Overall, this was a very productive unit with one of the best players in college football leading the way in Jaylon Smith.


(Courtesy: UHND.com)


Jaylon Smith

Junior: 13 games/69 solo/46 assisted/115 total

1 INT as a freshman


Joe Schmidt

Senior (5th): 13 games/42 solo/36 assisted/78 total

1 INT (5th year)


James Onwualu

Junior: 11 games/21 solo/17 assisted/38 total


Greer Martini

Sophomore: 7 games/19 solo/16 assisted/35 total


Jarrett Grace:

Senior: 10 games/15 solo/11 assisted/26 total


Nyles Morgan

Sophomore: 10 games/9 solo/8 assisted/17 total


309 total tackles in 2015

2 Total INTs



The Known & Unknown Commodity - 2023

I know, I know, a confusing title but I think it makes sense. We both know what we have in guys like JD Bertrand and Jack Kiser (productive stalwarts who maximize their potential) while still not knowing whether Marist Liufau will play well against anyone other than UNC. Will Jaylon Sneed be the 5 star recruit we all want/need, or will he be another Ishaq Williams? Will Prince Kollie have a breakout year, supplanting Liufau and living up to his 4 star potential?


My take going into the season is yes, yes and maybe respiectively. It’s difficult for every player to live up to the hype. My guess is Liufau remains a marginal player, while Sneed and Kollie provide the lift needed in order for the team to meet the Gold or even Platinum standard mentioned above. Either will be hard to meet considering none of these players, aside from Sneed, has the “star potential” of a Te’o or Smith, but that’s not to say it won’t happen. If he’s able to put on weight and pick up the instincts, he should have the ability based on the feedback provided by every recruiting service when he was coming out of high school.


Incoming freshman Drayk Bowen is also an obvious choice for most intriguing player within the linebacker corps and perhaps the entire defense. Can he live up to other Notre Dame Butkus Award winners Te'o, Smith and Kollie to not only see the field but contribute as a freshman? How about Preston Zinter and Nolan Ziegler? Will they provide a spark? Only time will tell, but I’m betting on Bowen. A two sport athlete who at one point was fiddling with 5 star status, he’s a highly motivated kid who appears eager and hungry to make an impact.


(Courtesy: One Foot Down)


JD Bertrand

Senior Year: 12 games/45 solo/37 assisted/82 total

Backups: Drayk Bowen & Preston Zinter

Freshman: No Stats to Report


Marist Liufau

Senior Year: 13 games/22 solo/29 assisted/51 total

1 INT in his career

Backup: Prince Kollie, Junior

Junior: 13 games/13 solo/6 assists/19 total


Jack Kiser

Senior Year: 13 games/28 solo/30 assisted/58 total

2 INTs in his career

Backup: Jaylen Sneed

Sophomore: played in 4 games/1 solo/6 assisted/7 total


191 total tackles in 2022

3 Total INTs


Although the 2023 linebacker corps may never reach the Platinum and/or Gold levels of 2012 and 2015, this can still be a very productive unit for the Irish this fall. A core group of starters with leadership and starting experience should provide a solid foundation for the younger players to not only get in the game, but find their sea legs as the season goes on. Avoiding injuries will be key, as the guys behind the starters are green. If they can do that, one can make an argument that the linebackers are the backbone of the defense and a top tier strength of the team heading into the season.


 

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