Blue and Gold Illustrated

Dec 19, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 16 of 55 DEC. 19, 2020 17 BY PATRICK ENGEL M arist Liufau had to wait. He had to stay patient, stay confident and trust that his chance would come again. All after his opening-day start at Buck linebacker ended with a whis- per. Turns out, his apparent victory in claiming the job in training camp did not come with many assurances. Liufau, a sophomore from Hawai'i, played 27 mundane snaps in a ho-hum win over Duke, making three tackles. Things moved fast. Maybe a bit too fast. The next week, against South Flor- ida, he was unavailable. Then the team shut down for about 10 days and, to the untrained eye, seemed to leave Liufau behind in its defensive plans when it resumed. Classmate Jack Kiser and junior Shayne Simon took most of the reps at Buck. From Oct. 17 through Nov. 14 — a five-game span — Liufau played only 35 combined defensive snaps, including zero against Clemson. From the outside, another extended opportunity in 2020 felt a little harder to see with each passing week. Until Nov. 27 at North Carolina, that is, when any gloomy outlook was thwarted. Notre Dame hadn't forgot- ten about Liufau. And Liufau hadn't cast aside hope. No time to waste. The result was a five-tackle, half-sack day in a season-high 35 snaps after seven and zero the two prior games. He disrupted passing lanes. He wrecked plays when he blitzed. Liufau entered the game on Notre Dame's third series as one remedy for a defense that spent its first two drives in a blender, with missed tack- les and undisrupted reads contrib- uting to a pair of first-quarter Tar Heels touchdowns. He snatched his coveted opportunity with a wave of self-assurance propelling him. "I felt comfortable, like I was play- ing free," Liufau said. "I had a lot of fun. Do it for the guys around me." On Liufau's second snap, he stepped forward upon seeing a run fake, shed a blocker when it became a pass play and helped defensive end Ade Ogundeji clean up a sack. (He was surprisingly not given half a sack on the play.) In the second quarter, he made two open-field tackles on slip- pery North Carolina running back Ja- vonte Williams short of the first-down marker to force a field goal try. Liufau wasn't done. His sack came in the second half, when he bowled over a running back serving as a pass protector on a play UNC was looking to take a shot with a deep pass. He created the initial pressure on another sack when he pushed an unsuspecting blocker — a tight end — backward like a sled in practice. "It's a controlled aggressiveness," said Robby Toma, a former Notre Dame receiver and the offensive co- ordinator during Liufau's senior year at Punahou High School in Hono- lulu. "He's not out of control, but he plays at a high tempo. You saw that with his blitzes." All told, Liufau did his part in thwarting North Carolina's run-pass options (RPO) by creating instant pressure on quarterback Sam Howell and taking away the quick throws on slants and crossers by staying disci- plined on play fakes. When Howell looked to those throws on an RPO, he regularly saw Liufau or another linebacker in his way. "We wanted to do some things in tracking the RPOs with somebody who has some really good length and quickness," head coach Brian Kelly said afterward. "Marist got in the passing lane a couple times, was dif- ficult to read, [North Carolina] didn't know exactly what he was doing and he caused some hesitation on whether there was going to be a pull or throw." Added Toma: "There was no fear." From a more zoomed-out view, Notre Dame exited perhaps its most stirring defensive performance with an understanding it has three capable Buck linebackers. The season opener created the feeling it might not have any. In between, it has evolved into a shape-shifting timeshare dependent on matchups. The arrangement has led to each of the three members having a moment as the flavor of the month. First was Kiser against South Florida. Up next was Simon, who grew more com- fortable throughout October as he grabbed the starting job and peaked with four tackles (one for loss) and two passes broken up against Clem- son. Liufau was nearby, propping them up, biding time. This three-way split might not be ideal, and certainly is a departure from fourth-round draft pick Drue Tranquill's play in 2018 and Asmar Bilal's steady every-down role in 2019. But it has grown in effectiveness as the season has progressed, the latest example of in-season player develop- ment Kelly and defensive coordinator Clark Lea can display on the shelf. In Notre Dame's first five games, Liufau, Kiser and Simon combined for more than three tackles just once. Since then, the trio has produced five tackles per outing, with a total of 2.5 tackles for loss, two passes broken up and one interception. That's not Tranquill-esque, but it's enough for Notre Dame to feel it will get reliable play and a couple impact plays. "I don't know it's anything we've morphed into as much as we think we have really good depth and guys who complement each other," Kelly said. "We feel like they all deserve to play." Even as Liufau waited for his chance, he held onto his preparation habits and a clear mind, ready whenever called upon despite dwindling playing time staring him in the face. At any point this year, Liufau could look around the defense at all the other instances of re- serves shining when given the chance as good reason to stay sharp. "Really, it's just staying positive, thinking good things, saying prayers, staying focused on what I can con- trol," Liufau said. "Obviously, I can't tell coach to put me in when I want to. It's just focusing on bettering my- self whenever I can." ✦ SEIZING HIS CHANCE Marist Liufau's breakthrough game highlights the in-season development of Notre Dame's Buck linebackers Liufau had a season-high five tackles and half a sack in Notre Dame's 31-17 win at North Carolina Nov. 27. PHOTO COURTESY NOTRE DAME ATHLETICS

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