SOUTH BEND, Ind. – What does it take to play linebacker for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish? And do you really want to know the answer?
Jack Kiser sat down with The Athletic during preseason camp to explain his job through the lens of six plays from the very good (pick six against Wisconsin) to the very bad (Caleb Williams scrambling for 19 yards), with some in between. When an entire defense is firing together, making stops can look easy. When it’s not, things get tougher.
As a bonus, Kiser explained one of his favorite plays of last season, which actually involved him throwing a block on a fake punt in the bowl game
Play 1: Pick six
Notre Dame leads Wisconsin 27-13 in the fourth quarter with less than three minutes to play, meaning the Irish can be basic on defense and keep everything quarterback Graham Mertz sees in front of them. That doesn’t mean Notre Dame calls off the dogs, though, as Kiser scores on a 66-yard pick six.
How Kiser saw it: Wisconsin had run this route earlier in the game and it’s something we saw on film leading up. This is a pretty common, basic concept. We call it China. So it was just kind of something you knew was gonna come at this point.
I’m the overhang defender to the field as the rover. And so I’m a run-pass defender. I read through the run, then as soon as I get a pass key, whether that’s the high hat of the offensive tackle or I just see there’s no mesh, I can go ahead and work my drop. My job is to widen the No. 2 receiver if he goes on a vertical release and that will help out the safety. That way, he feels a little bit protected, especially with the No. 3 receiver running up vertical too. Then get my eyes to No. 1 during the reroute, that way I can see is he a vertical threat or is he stopping? I’m going for the reroute, get my eyes out on No. 1, notice he’s not going vertical, he stopped. So I gotta fly out there and get to my coverage.
When you’re to the field side, it’s a long throw. Normally they’d throw this when they’re in the middle of field. It’s not as far of a throw and normally it’s a catch-tackle for a 3-yard gain. But they chose to do it from the opposite hash and so it gave me a lot of time to get out there and that ball was in the air forever it felt like. As soon as I saw No. 1 shut it off, I flipped my head and the ball was coming. That drop and that read is something we worked every day in camp with Coach (Marcus) Freeman. It’s not something that was crazy athletic. We took pride in being able to make clean reads like that.
I remember as a kid, some interview with an NFL guy that said if there was a Jumbotron he could look up and see if anybody was right behind him. I actually remember doing that on this play and seeing if anyone was close to me. No one was close. It was actually a really cool experience.
Play 2: Blowing up a reverse
Facing second-and-1 late in the first quarter, Syracuse calls a reverse to receiver Courtney Jackson (No. 9). Kiser is gets a TFL and the Orange ultimately punts, but the linebacker credits defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah for forcing Jackson to him by setting the edge.
How Kiser saw it: It was a middle pressure with the interior LBs, so we’re rolling no matter what. How we normally do that is we have a penetrating linebacker and then a read linebacker. So if the read linebacker sees any pulling (offensive linemen) or any wide flow or a back release up through the middle, he’ll read out on it. My job was to be the penetrator. I ignore all the pulls. All I’m doing is trying to do is get vertical and disrupt. Try to knock people off their path. I’m just thinking get vertical off the interior D-tackle’s hip. We call it scrape paint. Scrape paint right off of him, be as close as possible. I guess I just saw the flash of the receiver (No. 9) coming back, happened to be on the right track and was able to go for it.
A lot of times it’s really cloudy with run fits for second-level defenders and you just try to keep in the middle, don’t want to let the ball get to the sideline. NaNa did a really good job of setting the edge here and making it have to go back inside. There was nowhere for the receiver to go. The reverse had a bubble so far backward.
Play 3: UNC TD
Notre Dame leads 14-7 in the second quarter but North Carolina has third-and-goal from the 3-yard line with three receivers to Drake Maye’s right. Notre Dame is alert to Josh Downs, who still wiggles free to score.
How Kiser saw it: Oh, I know this one.
Anytime you get on the goal line or the red zone, you know it’s gonna be a rub route. We call them buddy splits. You see how tight their splits are between the No. 2 receiver and the No. 3? You know something’s coming. We’re just playing man and if you look at the leverage, we’re playing inside-outside. They just ran the option route with No. 11 (Josh Downs). I was thinking I’m going to stick him or get hands on him if he comes inside. If he goes outside, we need another piece. That’s really our nickel (TaRiq Bracy). We were playing in and out on him. Pre-snap, (Bracy) is playing outside. We should be sitting there, it should be a dead play. As soon as he goes to throw that, that should be there. I’m giving No. 11 the (out-breaking) read. He’s optioning off whatever he sees. He sees me coming to jump the stick route, so he’s gonna go out. In a perfect world we’d have a vice on him. But you know Downs is so shifty, he really sells it. That’s a great route. He really sells he’s coming inside. All you need is one guy to cross over with his acceleration.
(Brandon Joseph) is on No. 2, he’s pressing. If there’s any rub route, if you stay on your level you won’t actually get rubbed. But that receiver is able to get vertical and get on the same level (as Bracy) and then the outside piece gets caught up. We knew No. 11 is their go-to guy. Especially in the red zone. We knew it was coming and we didn’t execute the right way. They know if you put your go-to guy at the No. 3 receiver and cloudy it up in the red zone, as long as you can get a little separation, that’s all you need. And Drake Maye is a great quarterback, he knows that too. Clearly, we’re not gonna say, “Hey Jack, you’re gonna guard Downs 1-on-1.” I’m the inside help.
Play 4: Defending the option
This is what the basics look like against Navy. It’s second-and-6 in the first quarter and Kiser drops quarterback Xavier Arline for a 1-yard gain. The stop means it’s now third-and-5, longer than Navy wants to convert with the triple-option. Notre Dame ultimately forces a punt.
How Kiser saw it: The big thing is knowing the tiny details of every single play. And so on this play, we call it a pressure from the field, so I’m going no matter what. I’m the quarterback read, I’m gunning for the quarterback. If I get him coming toward me, I’m gonna hit him and blow him up and make him either give it or pitch it right now. If he’s away from me, the big thing I’m thinking is tomahawk to get the ball, run him down, do whatever we can. A big key when you’re playing a team like Navy, if you know what your defensive look is gonna force them to do, I can play super fast and know exactly where the ball is going to be. With the left slot back (No. 28) motioning away, I know I’m the chase player and the quarterback is not gonna see me. I’m not accounted for.
The big thing for us is “action to,” meaning I got motion to me, or “action away,” meaning post-snap action away. This is all “action away.” It just tells me that there’s no one there for me. There’s no reverse. Everything’s going away from me. I can chase down the line and be really aggressive.
Marist Liufau is the front-side linebacker knowing the pressure is coming from behind. He’s still thinking, “All right, the read player (Isaiah Foskey) is gonna take the dive. I’m gonna be tight scrape to the quarterback, but I know Kiser is coming from behind and our outside linebacker kicks to the pitch.” Jaylen Sneed takes the pitch, so Marist knows 100 percent the quarterback is going to have the ball here. There’s no other place to go with the ball. The fun thing about playing Navy is that if everyone does their job, you can play really fast and know where the ball is gonna be.
Play 5: Williams escapes
Trailing 24-14 late in the third quarter, Notre Dame has USC facing second-and-13 at the 40-yard line. A stop here and the game pressure goes up. Instead, Caleb Williams posts a 19-yard highlight scramble. Three plays later, he scores a dagger touchdown.
How Kiser saw it: This is like our base defensive call. It’s man with zone integrity. This is something that carried over from Coach Freeman (as defensive coordinator). The linebackers are three-on-two over the running back and tight end. Marist is out in the flat on the running back. JD (Bertrand) is with the tight end. I’m the free player. I’m looking for a stick route, following the quarterback’s line of vision.
All week we said never go past the quarterback, make a cage. Let’s make Caleb Williams throw from the pocket. But it’s a lot easier said than done. As soon as you get space in there (where Rylie Mills gets too far upfield), I have to come out of coverage and start helping crowd this dude. We lost contain and there’s a huge B-gap problem now on the left side of their formation. As soon as you get behind the quarterback, nothing good happens. Especially Caleb Williams. So I got to step up and hopefully flush him to the boundary where we can hopefully have more (defenders).
I don’t know what made Caleb do a complete 360 right there. But then I have to adjust course. Obviously when he steps up in the B gap (to his left), our backside container (Justin Ademilola) player is gonna chase and now he’s not holding contain and then I think I have to overcorrect and get to contain, thinking about where your help is inside. Good for the offensive line, No. 76 keeps playing. That’s a big deal because it gives Williams a lane to cut back. At this point we just got to get him down and JD does a great job of chasing him all the way down. This was a long play. It’s tough.
Play 6: Fake punt
With the Gator Bowl tied 31-31 early in the fourth quarter, former special teams coach Brian Mason rolls the dice on a fake punt at Notre Dame’s 33-yard line. Tight end Davis Sherwood flips a pass to Braden Lenzy for a 20-yard gain. Three plays later, Logan Diggs scores a 39-yard touchdown to put the Irish ahead.
How Kiser saw it: This was fun. This is something we practiced all year. Literally, all year. We never got the opportunity to actually use it. There were a couple times where it was hot on the sideline earlier in the year. And then we just went ahead and left the offense on the field. So we never actually got to use it. We were pumped up for this. Braden Lenzy was super fast. If we could get him on the edge we knew we had a chance of getting the first down.
South Carolina was a pretty aggressive team. They would rush some, but they didn’t really pop anybody out (backward at the snap). If you watch our punt block team last year, we were aggressive but we would pop spies out all the time. If there was any type of weird look, we were off. So if we can get South Carolina in a look to where they think they have a chance, we can get the edge on them.
Really it just comes down, one, we’ve got to eliminate any vertical threat in the A-gap. We can’t let anybody come in and disrupt this. That’s why we brought Alex (Ehrensberger) up into the A-gap. His job is to not let any vertical threat go through. The next piece was the three front side guys have to reach their guy. That’s me, Marist and JD. And the next key piece was the gunner (Lorenzo Styles) needs to show an inside release and get in the way of the man-to-man guy on Lenzy. If we got all those pieces we knew could be a huge play. And fortunately, it was. If you look at the front side, we dominated this rep. We were really excited for it. I’m pretty sure JD put his guy all the way to the opposite sideline. It was a really good rep.
This was a pivotal play in the game. This was huge, got a lot of momentum going. It was something we were all super-excited for, too. But I was nervous knowing that my (defender) has outside leverage on me and I gotta reach him. That’s a big job.
We’d practice this every day. It’s funny, at one point early in the season they subbed in Mitch Evans for me on this because tight ends block all the time. I remember telling coach (Brian Mason), “I can make the block, I can do it. You’re gonna give it away if you put Mitch in there.” As the season kept going, we’d practice, practice — I got really good at it. And so we’re like, all right, just stay in there when we run it.
Nobody changed on the unit. I think it was key having Lenzy being a gunner all year. The thing that did change that South Carolina did not recognize is I stepped on the ball and Braden stepped off. That’s the only tell. I don’t know if you saw our block unit last year but like we were making checks and communicating and if this was something I saw against our punt block, we’re off the block because it’s a different look. But South Carolina lined up normal, they weren’t talking or anything so we were good to go. We called this play Ferrari. This is one of those things where you run it once, you can’t run it again for another five years. And they had a fake conversion on us earlier in the game, so we got them back.
(Photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)