Nine out the doorNose guard Ian Williams, cornerback Darrin Walls, linebackers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, running backs Armando Allen and Robert Hughes, wide receiver Duval Kamara, offensive guard Chris Stewart, and special teams regular Bobby Burger will conclude their collegiate careers in the December 31 Sun Bowl vs. Miami.
Each played a key role this season in the team's two-deep depth chart or special teams.
The first of six columns in the series looks at candidates to replace a pair of four-year regulars from the Irish linebacker corps.
Kerry Neal (DROP) and Brian Smith (WILL)A straw poll of Irish fans at the midway point of the 2010 season would have likely favored the immediate replacement of this pair. At the time, there seemed no need to wait until season's end as the long-time OLB contributors weren't playing up to the standard expected by the Irish staff or its fan base.
But after a final month flourish keyed by the defensive unit, the loss of both appears relevant, particularly November Defensive MVP Brian Smith, whose move from backup DROP linebacker to the inside (WILL) linebacker role coincided with the team's 3-1 finish.
Smith concluded his regular season career with four starts, 23 tackles (1 for loss), a sack, forced fumble, interception and four passes defended – doubling his totals of the season's previous eight contests in which he lined up outside.
In my opinion, his late-season excellence would have positioned him for the starting inside role next to Te'o heading into the spring, ahead of successful two-month starter Carlo Calabrese if Smith had eligibility remaining for 2011.
He does not, and Calabrese, one of the team's surprise stalwarts in September and early October, will reclaim that role in March.
Calabrese finished tied for third in total tackles (59) in what amounted to 7.5 games, falling to injury early in the 3rd Quarter vs. Navy. That hamstring injury kept him out of consistent meaningful action for the remainder of the season though he should return in a situational basis vs. Miami in the Sun Bowl (expect Smith to start in his final college game).
Calabrese is already a better player vs. the run than was Smith at any point in his collegiate career – the drop-off for the red shirt-sophomore will be in pass coverage, an area in which Smith excelled in November playing in Bob Diaco's scheme after struggling intermittently throughout his Irish career.
(Smith was always a playmaker vs. the pass, but had too many breakdowns to be considered a strong coverage ‘backer prior to November 2010).
Calabrese provides the thump at the point of attack that the staff and fans crave. With three seasons of eligibility remaining, he'll improve vs. the pass as he begins to recognize formations and plays developing in front of him. "Trust what you see" is something preached by the defensive coaching staff – that's difficult for any first-time contributor at linebacker.
The Irish are in good hands with Calabrese; he's merely a different player with a disparate style from the outgoing Smith.
Constant competition?Challenging Calabrese inside in the spring will be junior Anthony McDonald as well as Calabrese's classmate and fellow 2009 red-shirt, Dan Fox. McDonald battled injuries again this season, notably a hyper extended knee suffered late in August camp. Fox moved inside after playing outside for much of the spring and showed well in limited action vs. Pittsburgh and Navy. He could move back outside considering the bulk of the team's positional depth – at least in terms of overall numbers – remains inside.
Oft-injured junior David Posluszny will return to compete for a backup role inside, behind either the MIKE (Manti Te'o) or WILL (Calabrese). Senior Steve Paskorz, who missed the entire season due to a knee injury, could apply for a 5th season of eligibility. He appeared in line for playing time from scrimmage and was a sure special teams starter prior to the non-contact injury.
Kendall Moore: The freshman ranks as the wildcard of the group and a player Kelly has twice referenced as a standout in the team's late-season, youth-filled scrimmages. Ideally, Moore would show enough to become the team's third inside ‘backer by next fall, a role not yet claimed by those listed above despite multiple opportunities.
We saw very little of Moore as a Scout Team member prior to the closing of Irish practices in late September. Further analysis would be completely speculative.
You only miss it when its gone…Smith and Neal never realized the potential Irish fans had envisioned after promising freshman seasons. But over the last four years the pair appeared in 95 games for the Irish with 58 combined starts (Neal started 31 of 49 games including 11 of 12 this season).
Neal's starting DROP linebacker role will likely be manned by enigmatic junior Steve Filer entering the spring. Filer appeared to challenge for a starting role in late August and has been mentioned in successive seasons, by two different head coaches, as a player that would help the Irish in a key backup role over the course of the season(s).
That never happened, not for Charlie Weis in ‘09 or Kelly last fall. A special teams regular and two-year tackle leader for the for coverage units, Filer played sparingly from scrimmage this season. (He enjoyed a three-game run as a pass-rushing defensive end for the 2009 defense, but rarely appeared over the final four games).
He has the height/weight/strength/speed measurables defensive coordinator Bob Diaco craves for the position. This spring will be his final chance to claim a starting role.
As mentioned above, Fox could return to compete outside, though that move will be determined, in part, by the level of improvement from McDonald, Moore, Posluszny, and possibly Paskorz inside.
Star in the makingWhen the 2011 season concludes, sophomore-to-be Prince Shembo will likely rank as one of the team's 5-6 best defensive players.
I just don't think it will be in a true starting role.
Shembo is better suited for the CAT position currently manned by senior-to-be Darius Fleming, he of the team-leading 10 tackles for loss and six sacks. Fleming won't be unseated in the lineup and it would be a disservice to him – and more important – to the defense, to move him to the open DROP position – his fourth position in as many years.
Expect Shembo to shine as a regular rotational player: a pass-rushing end, a backup CAT linebacker…and on occasion at the DROP position should he be able to adapt to playing coverage after another 10-11 months of tutelage.
One example of Shembo's ability to shine in a backup role was illustrated this season by junior Robert Blanton, the team's "12th starter" in the fall. Blanton was technically the defense's third cornerback, but one that saw plenty of action and eventually ranked as one of the team's top playmakers.
Diaco has shown the creative ability to find a role for his best players: look for Shembo to reap the benefits of that coaching next season.
Next in the series: The replacements for senior nose guard Ian Williams.
Seniors who could return for 5th-year:
Safety: Harrison Smith
Cornerback: Gary Gray
Offensive Linemen: Taylor Dever, Matt Romine, Andrew Nuss
Defensive Lineman: Emeka Nwankwo
Tight End: Mike Ragone
Kicker/Punter: David Ruffer and Brandon Walker (not expected to return after missing two seasons with a back injury).
Linebacker: Steve Paskorz
Note: 5th-year prospects will be reviewed separately.