Put yourself in the shoes of JD Bertrand. The graduate student linebacker led Notre Dame in tackles in each of the last two seasons, racking up 184 in 25 games. And yet, everyone seems to be calling for his job.
He’s not alone.
Fellow graduate student linebackers Marist Liufau and Jack Kiser are in the same boat. Or, more fittingly, on the same island. They have two years of eligibility left. Every single one of Notre Dame’s other linebackers have four; they’re all either true freshmen (Drayk Bowen, Jaiden Ausberry, Preston Zinter) or redshirt freshmen (Nolan Ziegler, Jaylen Sneed). There is no greater dichotomy between youth and experience at any other position group on the Notre Dame roster.
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Bertrand, Liufau and Kiser still have starter status. But the spring, and especially the Blue-Gold Game, showed that the younger players are closer to pushing for significant playing time than they were at any point last season. Prince Kollie was the fourth-most used Notre Dame linebacker in 2022, and he recently entered the transfer portal. That was twofold; he hadn’t elevated himself to the level of Liufau at Will linebacker even though he personally thought he had, and he was getting caught from behind by the underclassmen.
Kollie’s departure is bittersweet. His full potential will never be realized at Notre Dame, and that’s a tough reality to face after two full years and a pre-junior year spring practice slate spent grooming him to one day be an every-down linebacker. But it also means the same thing is occurring with even younger linebackers — and perhaps at an even further expedited pace.
We’re going to see a lot of the core three this season. But if younger linebackers get some early reps, especially in the season-opener vs. Navy’s tricky triple-option offense, then this spring was the signaling of what’s to come in 2023. A team with a former Ohio State linebacker for a head coach in Marcus Freeman is recruiting the position at an extremely high level, and the production that comes as a result of that is coming quickly.
Liufau, Kiser and Bertrand are all useful college players. But it’s possible all three are not next-level talents. Notre Dame might have some NFLers waiting in the wings, though, and if that’s the case, they will play over the graduate students sooner than later.
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