Replacing a team captain is never an easy task, and that's exactly what the Notre Dame defense must do in 2022. Three-year starter and team captain Drew White has departed, taking with him 199 career tackles, 21.5 career tackles for loss and five sacks, but his leadership will be the hardest part to replace.
In most instances leadership is replaced by veterans at other positions, but the Mike linebacker position is unique in that whoever plays that position is the quarterback of the front seven, if not the entire defense. That means he must provide some level of on-field leadership.
For Notre Dame, we don't yet know who will replace White. What we do know, however, is that whoever steps into that role will have to up the production at the position. White was a solid player but there is definitely a need for even more production, and impactful production.
BAUER GETS HIS CHANCE
Pennsylvania native Bo Bauer is returning for a fifth season with the hope that he'll win the starting Mike linebacker job.
"It will be nice to finally step into a starting role this year," Bauer said last week. "I'm still not there yet officially, I have a lot of work to do, but that's definitely the goal for this upcoming season."
Bauer and White combined for 96 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks on defense last season. Some of that production was Bauer's third-down defense production as a nickel linebacker, which means it wasn't actually Mike production.
Bauer has many of the tools you want in a Mike linebacker. Good downhill speed, power at the point of attack, strong hands and good enough change of direction skills. His vertical speed is one of the more underrated aspects of his game, and it's partly why he's been such a brilliant special teams player for Notre Dame, and it's part of the reason he's been on the nickel defense despite not being an overly effective cover player.
The issue for Bauer isn't really physical tools, it's technical tools, and consistency from an execution standpoint. Bauer has a tendency to be too aggressive at times, and other times he'll guess more than he reads. Bauer also needs to do a much better job with block destruction when working in the trash, and his route recognition in coverage must improve. The problem with a Mike linebacker making an assignment mistake is that the result is often a gaping hole in the middle of the defense.
When he's assignment and technically correct Bauer can be a very, very disruptive Mike linebacker. If he can be a more consistent player I have no doubt that Bauer can not only win a starting job, but be the kind of impact defender Notre Dame wants and needs at Mike linebacker.
This spring he'll need to prove he can handle the down-after-down responsibilities of calling the defense, getting himself into the right positions, executing at a higher level and being a far more consistent player. If he can do that he'll quickly seize hold of the Mike job and the Irish will get much better production out of the position. If he doesn't he'll stay in the role he's been in, a rotation player on base downs and he'll have to battle to hang onto his nickel role.
WILL THERE BE A POSITION SWITCH
If we're going off the 2021 roster there isn't another Mike linebacker on the depth chart, which will obviously change. At least one player will have to move to Mike linebacker. The good news is there is a good deal of interchangeableness to the linebacker positions in this defense, so the transitions shouldn't be challenging.
The question is who.
My number one target to move to Mike and battle for the starting role is JD Bertrand, who racked up 101 tackles, seven tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks as the Will linebacker this season, his first in the starting lineup.
Bertrand had some very impressive moments this season, especially in tighter quarters and against the run. When Bertrand got in trouble it was often when asked to play in space, and in other instances he would play out of control, which resulted in him missing tackles.
Bertrand is going to get better, and with more experience you'll likely see him reduce the mistakes he made this season. I believe a position change would also help Bertrand be even more productive and put him in better spots to make plays.
As a Mike, Bertrand would be able to play in tighter quarters, using his short area quickness to make more plays against the run. It would also put him in pass game matchups that better suite his skillset.
Another possible option is rising junior Jordan Botelho, who has played both Vyper and Rover in his two years at Notre Dame. At 6-2 1/2 and 245 pounds, Botelho certainly has the frame to play Mike linebacker, and he is clearly athletic enough to play the position. There is intriguing potential with him at the position, but also questions.
For one, Botelho is likely needed at other positions as well, including both positions he's played at Notre Dame. The second concern is an overall lack of discipline, both on and off the field. Botelho would have to mature quite a bit on the field and off it if he is going to step into a starting role this season.
Notre Dame coaches better hope Botelho does have a breakout, because there is little doubt he is one of the best pound-for-pound athletes on the defense.
Another player that could potentially see a move to Mike is rising sophomore Prince Kollie. I'm very curious to see where he will lineup this spring. Kollie is extremely athletic, he showed better power than I expected as a freshman and his unique skillset could fit in at multiple positions on defense.
I expect the Irish staff to figure out which position allows him to get on the field the fastest in 2022. Could it be Mike?
All four of Notre Dame's linebacker signees from the 2022 class, which was the nation's best haul of linebackers, enrolled early. Three of the freshmen could ultimately end up at Mike, but two have a better shot early on, and that would be Niuafe Tuihalamaka and Josh Burnham.
Burnham has as high of a ceiling as any player in the incoming freshman class, but he's also quite raw as a player. How quickly he learns the necessary technique and adds the necessary strength/size will determine how quickly he can push for a job. I believe Burnham could be a star at Notre Dame, but I'm not sure if he'll be ready to push for a starting job as a freshman.
Tuihalamaka is a different story. He has the size, natural strength, instincts and power to play very early in his career. The California native arrives arguably as big as any linebacker on the roster, and he possesses the short-area quickness to thrive at the Mike position.
Tuihalamaka is a natural at Mike, he has the potential to be a force at the position, and he has the combination of size and instincts to play immediately. He'll get his chance this spring, and how quickly he picks up the defense will determine if he's ready to make an immediate push.
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