Throughout July, BlueandGold.com will feature a countdown of the 25 most pivotal figures counted on to help lead Notre Dame back to the College Football Playoff in 2021.
This is not necessarily about who is the best player or the top pro prospect. It’s more along the lines of individuals that need to either emerge, remain a centerpiece or significantly elevate their production to help Irish reach that goal.
Much is based on talent and impact, but a premium is also placed on these questions: 1) If you subtracted this individual from the roster, how much of a setback would it be? 2) If this less proven player emerges and makes an impact, how much does that raise the ceiling (or lower it, if a breakout does not happen as expected)?
The players and their rankings were determined by vote from five BlueandGold.com staff members.
Next in the countdown is junior linebacker Marist Liufau, who collected 15 points in our poll.
Why Liufau Is Ranked No. 24
Liufau had a bit of an up and down season in 2020. Per Pro Football Focus, Liufau finished his sophomore season as the lowest-graded qualifying player on the Notre Dame defense. And yet, he was the highest-graded Irish pass rusher.
Liufau’s rush defense grade per PFF was second to last on the team. No qualifying linebacker or defensive back had a worse pass coverage grade either. He still finds himself on this top 25 list, though, because of his potential.
Liufau started the ACC Championship game against Clemson and the College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against Alabama. He recorded four tackles in the former and six in the latter. Those takedowns accounted for nearly half of his total tackle count (22).
The 6-2, 226-pound linebacker from Hawaii came to Notre Dame as the No. 32 overall outside linebacker in the class of 2019 per Rivals. He was in and out of the lineup last year but is primed to take the next step as an upperclassman.
Liufau’s Status Entering The Season
Liufau bookended the 2020 season with starts. He made an underwhelming start against Duke in the season opener. He played 27 snaps and made three tackles. Then he finished strong with the stout starts in postseason play.
Despite playing nearly 100 less snaps than senior Shayne Simon last year, Liufau feels like the early favorite to start over Simon at the Will linebacker in Sept. 5’s season opener at Florida State. As they did last year, though, Liufau and Simon will likely rotate quite a bit depending on the situation Notre Dame’s defense faces.
Simon is a better run stopper than Liufau, but the latter has shown a knack for getting to the quarterback. The key for Liufau in getting more playing time in 2021 is showing improvement in the areas he struggled in 2020. If Liufau can close gaps on running backs and meet them in the hole while playing tight coverage in short passing situations, he could reverse roles with Simon and be Notre Dame’s go-to guy at Will linebacker.
What Would Be Considered A Successful Individual Season?
A consistent one. No player likes to start the first game of the year only for his next start to come three months later. During a five-game span in October and November, Liufau only played 35 snaps. He didn’t appear on the field at all in Notre Dame’s biggest game of the regular season, a 47-40 double overtime win over No. 1 Clemson.
Clearly, head coach Brian Kelly and former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s trust came around on Liufau by the time Notre Dame had to take on Clemson again. That trust has to remain present from Kelly and first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman in order for Liufau to maximize his potential.
No player can make plays when he’s not on the field. Period. But hardly any defensive players on any team will play every snap of the season — especially at a position as demanding as Will linebacker. Liufau’s goal has to be to play more snaps at his position than any of his teammates, namely Simon. He didn’t succeed in that last season, but it’s entirely possible for him to flip the script as a junior.
That said, Liufau and Simon have a chance to work together as a tandem in a more noticeable way than last year. When it was Simon’s show, Liufau hardly ever got a look. When Liufau was playing his best, Simon’s role was severely diminished. If the two can strike more of a balance and play off each other’s success, then Notre Dame should like what it has in its top two Will linebackers.
Behind The Ranking
The top 25 was determined in the same manner as the Associated Press top 25. Five BlueandGold.com staff members submitted their ballots, and each position on the ballot was given a point value. The top ranking was worth 25 points, No. 2 was worth 24, No. 3 worth 23 and so on down until No. 25, which was worth one point. The players with the 25 highest point totals made the list.
Patrick Engel: 19
Tyler Horka: 21
Mike Singer: Not ranked
Todd Burlage: Not ranked
Steve Downey: 23
Prior Top 25s
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