Five games and six weeks into Notre Dame’s 2022 season, head coach Marcus Freeman’s Irish have flushed out nearly 19 regular contributors to the offense and a handful more defensively.
There’s room to grow; there’s room to redshirt; and there’s time to usurp snaps, especially defensively as the Irish continue to search for combinations that can thrive for a full 60 minutes rather than dominate during parts of each football Saturday.
Little-used linebacker Prince Kollie is the latest to earn time, though in both of the last two outings that was likely in JD Bertrand’s stead—the latter suspended twice for targeting.
Kollie registered a chase-down sack of BYU quarterback Jaren Hall in the second quarter among his two tackles on eight snaps of participation.
“I challenged him last week,” said Freeman of his sophomore inside ‘backer, “Prince, you continue to build trust in practice. There is no such thing as a ‘gamer.’ Your team needs you to be a great practice player. That’s my challenge to Prince and that’s my challenge to many other players in our football program.
“Everybody talks about Michael Mayer. Michael Mayer is one of the best practice players I’ve been around. That’s what we need our young guys to be. For Prince to go and make a big play like that, man, it was good to see. He’s a talented football player. He had a really good week of practice. He played more this past game than he probably ever has. You got to challenge yourself, man. We need great practice players, because that builds confidence in your coaches to put you out there in the game.
“That’s what I hope to see him do because, listen, talent sets the ceiling of how good you can be, and Prince has a high ceiling. Continue to put the work in during practice to gain confidence in your coaches to make you a better football player. I think he can be really special.”
THE NOTSO BIG THREE?
Notre Dame’s trio of starting linebackers Bertrand, Marist Liufau, and (to a lesser extent) Jack Kiser have drawn the ire of Irish fans for mistakes made far more so than those they’ve mitigated or their respective big plays/stops registered.
Kiser was named Defensive MVP for his efforts in Las Vegas: a sack for a safety, four total tackles, and a fumble forced. Bertrand played one half, again, and finished with five tackles.
“I think we’re gaining more and more confidence with him. He’s doing a good job in there. Jack’s an extremely intelligent player,” said Freeman of Kiser who shifted inside the last two weeks with Bertrand sidelined. “He’s probably one of the most athletic linebackers we have. That’s why we played him a lot at Rover. We were playing him out in space. He can do so many different things.
“What you’re seeing now is him playing middle linebacker and getting everybody lined up, but also just executing at a high level.”
Irish Illustrated registered Run Stuffs for Kiser (2), Liufau (1 of his two tackles) and Bertrand (2) plus Kollie’s sack, with QB pressure applied by Liufau that resulted in TaRiq Bracy’s opening-play interception.
Kiser leads the team in ‘Stops’ per Pro Football Focus, defined as a play that ‘constitutes a failure for the offense.’ Bertrand is fourth in that regard with 9 while Liufau ranks tied for ninth—with transfer portal entrant Jacob Lacey—with 5 such defensive plays.
“We’re gonna have a challenge and it’s great and a healthy competition,” Freeman continued. “If we end up with two linebackers on the field vs. Stanford, who’s going to be the first two going out? JD is back and he came in the second half and played really well. Jack, overall for the entire game played, really well. Marist is a guy that we need to play better, but he’s playing well. Let’s have a little competition to see who was going to be the first two to go out there.”
Speaking of which…
BRACE FOR IT?
A short list of Notre Dame’s Top 10 players through five contests can be debated healthily among the Irish fan base and daily media members.
But cornerback TaRiq Bracy would appear on every list therein. Bracy came out Saturday in the fourth quarter after pulling up lame in coverage and did not return.
“He’ll be questionable. He pulled his hamstring. I just found out he had a virus illness and so he was probably a little bit dehydrated,” Freeman offered. “He was playing a lot of plays and running around there. They said it’s a ‘Grade 1’ and it is not really bad. He’s kind of freaky athletically. Hopefully he’ll bounce back.
“I saw him (Sunday) and he was confident. He was a little bit sore. We’ll see how he feels today. But right now he’s questionable.”
In his stead steps freshman Jaden Mickey. That’s been a challenge to date for the field-side receiver that also serves as Bracy’s occasional backup in the slot.
“When you have a little bit of negativity, man, you’re gonna lose some confidence,” said Freeman of his freshman who has given up big plays to Ohio State, North Carolina, and Brigham Young. “But Jaden is a confident kid that has to continue to play at a high level and he will. He’s a good football player. He’s playing more than probably 90% of our freshmen right now.
“Tariq was taking a break that play and we were rotating him in there. But Jaden is still a confident kid. He’s a really good football player. We have to continue to make sure that we’re coaching him the right way and he’s executing the right way.”
The play to which Freeman referred ended with a 53-yard catch-and-run touchdown by BYU’s Kody Epps. It cut Notre Dame’s commanding 25-6 lead to a tense 12-point edge.
“Jaden knew what he had to do. He had to carry number two (receiver) vertical and he didn’t do it,” said Freeman of the score. “He was jumping a different route. We have to make sure that he understands you can’t jump the out right in Cover 2. You got to make sure you carry that guy up the seam. If I heard over the headset, ‘Hey, I don’t know why he did that, or he has no clue what he’s doing’ and Jaden is saying, ‘I didn’t know what I was doing,’ then there is serious concern. The challenge is to coach him better. Let’s coach it better and Jaden’s got executed better. He will. He is going to be a great player.”
Opponents have targeted Mickey on eight occasions with six receptions for two touchdowns. He’s allowed 22.3 yards per catch per Pro Football Focus. He’s been credited with one ‘Stop’ versus Bracy’s team-high of eight in coverage situations.
Stanford’s passing attack (versus its 90th-ranked run game) will likely elicit the use of Nickel more so than a base defense for the Irish Saturday night.
Related: senior defensive tackle Howard Cross is expected back this week per Freeman after missing Saturday’s contest with a high-ankle sprain.
“He’s expected to play. We expect him to play. We’ll see how he feels today at practice,” said Freeman Monday. “He tested pregame and just did not feel confident, him or the trainers, that he could execute what we needed him to do. So we held him. We expect him to be back.”
Irish Illustrated will update the status of both Bracy and Cross later this week.
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