#10 Outside LinebackersA unique group in that the unit might have ranked last in our series after eight weeks, but one that eventually morphed into a team strength in the season's final month with Darius Fleming playing his best football and the transformation of freshman Prince Shembo from promising newcomer to pass-rushing force. Early issues and inconsistencies through the Tulsa game ultimately pushed them to the bottom tier in our team rankings.
Starters/key reserves: Junior CAT linebacker Darius Fleming and senior DROP linebacker Kerry Neal. Senior DROP ‘backer Brian Smith and freshman CAT linebacker Prince Shembo. Junior DROP linebacker Steve Filer.
IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 3 (of 12)
Quote to note: "I was playing the defense that was written on the board. I wasn't being a player on the field. After the Tulsa game I started to get more comfortable and it allowed me to play faster and stop thinking so much." – Junior outside linebacker Darius Fleming on his late-season surge.
By the numbers: Darius Fleming led the squad in both tackles-for-loss (10) and QB sacks (6) while adding four QB hits, four passes defended, an interception and 46 total tackles from his CAT position. Senior Kerry Neal played the DROP (mainly a coverage role), finishing with 38 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one pass defended, one QB hit, one forced fumble, one recovery and an interception.
Neal maintained a stranglehold on the starting position for 11 of the 12 regular season contests, sitting in favor of cornerback Robert Blanton due to scheme vs. Army's triple-option attack. Fleming started each of the 12 contests at CAT.
Neal's classmate Brian Smith served as a primary backup outside ‘backer through the first eight contests, amassing 23 tackles (1.5 for loss), two passes defended and three QB hits in those contests. Smith exploded when moved inside for Games 9, 10, 11 and 12, totaling 23 tackles, (1 for loss), a sack, a forced fumble, four passes defended and an interception playing inside next to Manti Te'o. (He was graded previously with the inside linebackers as linked above).
Freshman Prince Shembo played in all 12 contests but emerged as a scrimmage threat in late September, recording a half-tackle for loss as a backup at MSU. He added two sacks at Boston College and then a key QB takedown in the upset win over Utah. Shembo made the most of his 12 total tackles: four behind the line of scrimmage; 3.5 were sacks to augment 3 QB hits and a forced fumble.
11 of the team's 26 sacks and 16 of its 67 tackles-for-loss came courtesy of the outside ‘backers.
Best momentsHow about all of November? But in the spirit of the column series, the OLB effort vs. then-No. 14 Utah on November 5 was likely their best of the 12-game slate.
Utah entered the contest with one of the nation's top performing offensive lines, yielding just four sacks while paving the way for at least four touchdowns in 10 of their previous 14 contests.
Freshman Prince Shembo played the best game of his young career, recording 5 tackles and a sack with two more QB hits as an in-game substitution for starter Darius Fleming who was concussed during the contest. It was "Next Man In" at its finest as Shembo earned defensive MVP honors from a backup role.
Fleming, the unit and defense's top producer, returned the following week vs. Army, then starred vs. USC, recording a season-high seven tackles (one for lost yardage) as the lead dog in a dominant defensive effort vs. the explosive Trojans. USC averaged 5.1 yards per carry with 20 rushing touchdowns in 2010 – the Irish front seven limited them to 2.6 yards per rush with the lone touchdown drive covering two yards in four plays.
Moments to forget: The position struggled mightily sealing the edge vs. the run early in 2010, but coverage breakdowns vs. Michigan and Stanford proved the most costly to the team's final W/L ledger.
Fleming notched four tackles on the Wolverine's final, game-winning drive. That's not a positive when three of the four stops accounted for Michigan first downs. Head coach Brian Kelly referenced Fleming's coverage issues from that final drive regularly during the season. To his credit, Fleming improved greatly in his zone coverage choices by season's end.
The group as a whole was shredded vs. Stanford, QB Andrew Luck completed seven passes to Cardinal tight ends for 107 yards and a touchdown. The inability of Kerry Neal and Brian Smith to influence the routes run by tight ends Colby Fleener and Konrad Reuland was key to the Cardinal offensive success. The same situation existed when the Irish tandem was aligned over Stanford's slot targets.
OLB coach Kerry Cooks noted the struggle of his veterans during a 1-3 start.
"He's a great quarterback and he throws in tight windows," Cooks said of the Cardinal junior following the contest. "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."
That changed significantly in the season's final month.
Class status: Brian Smith and Kerry Neal will play their final games on December 31 in the Sun Bowl; junior Darius Fleming is eligible through the end of next season as is classmate Steve Filer. Freshman Prince Shembo lettered this season and will be eligible through the 2013 campaign. Sophomore Dan Fox could move back to an OLB role in the spring or next fall. He's also eligible through 2013 after sitting out his freshman year (2009).
Final Analysis: For weeks Irish fans, media, and yes – the coaching staff – lamented the lack of consistency at the position. The edge was a rarely secured vs. off-tackle runs; slot receivers and tight ends not often deterred from their initial routes.
That all changed following the team's Week 10 Bye, and the downward spiral of a 4-5 season turned into one of the best finishes at the program over the last 17 years. Fleming, Neal and Shembo played a large part in that as did Brian Smith though as an inside 'backer.
Fleming and Shembo rank as two of the team's most explosive athletes heading into the Sun Bowl while another athletic specimen, Steve Filer, should finally ascend to a regular role from scrimmage entering his final season, 2011. The senior's spring performance at DROP linebacker will be one of the top storylines for a defense that played its best ball at season's end.