The last position group most Irish fans worried about entering September was outside linebacker. Through four games, that opinion has changed.
"Yeah, they've been inconsistent," admitted OLB coach Kerry Cooks. "I think what we need to improve on a daily basis is our fundamentals. When you're 1-3, there are some things you'd like to have back.
"But (daily improvements) such as eye progression: you'd like to react a little bit quicker. Re-routing: taking a little more speed off the wide receivers (as they cross the linebacker level) – the small things that make a really good defense. Those are the things we haven't done at a consistent level at outside linebacker."
A former All Big-Ten selection and team captain at Iowa in the mid 90s, Cooks knows what a really good defense looks like, he coached the backline of the nation's best pass defense in 2006 - his first season as the secondary coach in Wisconsin. Those Badgers ranked second nationally in scoring defense, allowing just over 12 points per game.
This season, Cooks' group has shown flashes of winning football but little mistakes have added up to big picture failures, defensively. Saturday vs. Stanford, outside linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith struggled with the required task of re-routing quarterback Andrew Luck's pass targets running down the seams.
While Cooks acknowledged the opponent's skill set, he was quick to point out the bulk of the blame fell on the Irish D.
"He's a great quarterback and he throws in tight windows," Cooks said of the Cardinal junior. "But at the same time, if you put the tape on: ‘Hey, Brian Smith, if you'd have just rolled him (the receiver) two more steps or three more steps to buy the safety a little more time to squeeze down (the passing window wouldn't have been available).
"Part of it was the ability of the quarterback, but the other part was us not doing our job to the best of our ability."
One of ElevenSenior drop linebacker Kerry Neal played a strong game in the opener; junior Darius Fleming the same in Week Three at Michigan State and Neal's classmate Brian Smith provided key plays in both of the last two contests, saving a touchdown on a deep cross vs. the Cardinal and playing his best quarter of the season in the 4th and overtime in East Lansing.
None of the above has shined throughout. Which leads us to the name conspicuous in its absence: junior Steve Filer.
"He may be the most athletic linebacker on our team; one of the most athletic players on our team. But he has to have the mentality and ability to get all of the jobs done that we ask of him on the field," Cooks said when asked about a player who appeared to climb to the level of starter late in August camp.
"Right now, he's taking steps (toward that) but we just feel that Kerry Neal and Brian Smith are a little bit ahead of him. He's playing Drop; we're not bouncing him back and forth anymore, so he's our outside linebacker to the field (side), and he just has to continue to progress because at some point we're going to have to rely on him."
The Irish defense has relied on senior Brian Smith for the better part of three seasons. Intermittent big plays have been overshadowed with inconsistent efforts, especially vs. opposing running games. Smith now shares time with his classmate Neal at the drop position.
"As a player used to starting I never want to be off the field because I think I can help my team win in any situation," Smith said. "But I identify and embrace my role and what my coaches want me to do so when I get my chance I'm going to get out there and make the best of it."
The program's leading returning tackler entering the season, Smith is tied with CAT linebacker Darius Fleming for the team-lead in quarterback hits (3) but has just 14 tackles through four games for a rush defense that has seen its share of struggles.
"It's just guys doing their job. Whenever someone tries to do someone else's job it gashes us," Smith explained of the opponents' relative rushing success. "It's tough, but if you follow the rules (of the defense) it (shouldn't be) that tough. Coach Martin always says ‘You want to be 1/11th of our defense' so that's what we're trying to maintain."
That theme ties in with the teachings of Cooks and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Cooks realizes his unit must improve, but the entire back seven has to play in congress. His point was driven home when discussing a particularly impressive play by Fleming vs. Stanford (Fleming took down two blockers on a mis-direction sweep, allowing cornerback Gary Gray a clear run at the line of scrimmage tackle in space).
"Fleming's had a couple of those plays this season; taking out two blockers or being the most consistent outside linebacker at his job," Cooks offered. "But again, we need that from everybody, not just outside linebackers. We need it from the corners and safeties and Manti (Te'o) and Carlo (Calabrese). We need consistency across the board to where we can tie this defense together and start hitting on all cylinders.
"We're all tied in together. We're one heartbeat back there."
Smith feels the same way, both about his position mates and the oft-battered senior class.
"We're all really close, after practice today we'll probably end up at one of our houses," the senior noted after Wednesday's session. "Get a bunch of us just hanging around each other, keep the camaraderie up.
"At the end of the day this is a family and we want to keep it that way, because you want to fight for your brothers on the field."
In search of: one winCooks believes in his group. The group and the team appear to believe in each other. They'll need that camaraderie…and a heavy dose of toughness, to earn the program's first win in Chestnut Hill since 1998.
Smith has played a central role in the Irish/Eagles matchup over the last three years, first intercepting a Matt Ryan pass for a score as a freshman in 2007; the absorbing the ire of Irish fans…and BC players after a pre-game boasting session was rendered useless in a 17-0 loss two years ago. Last season, Smith sealed the 20-16 Irish victory with an interception. It was the first win by Notre Dame in the series in seven tries.
"Anytime we play any opponent they're going to play their best game against Notre Dame," said Smith. "And BC brings that little extra to the table because of the rivalry. The young guys know from TV and from being recruited that it's big; it's tense; they're all ready and we're all ready to go."
The Eagles are always ready for the Irish. At 1-3, Notre Dame will need its best effort of the season to return to South Bend with hope alive.