Spring Forward: Linebacker Glut

An influx of talent in the recruiting classes of 2009-10-11 has the Irish well-stocked at linebacker for the foreseeable future. As a result, two-deep depth chart battles at the Cat, Dog, Will, and to a lesser extent, the Mike linebacker positions reign as a lead storyline heading into spring ball.

For the sake of space, our outside linebackers preview will be published separately.

(Note: All players are listed according to their class for the 2011 season).

Manti the mentor

One starting spot is, of course, on lock down. Junior All America candidate Manti Te'o won't vacate the Mike (middle) linebacker role until he leaves campus after this season or (likely) next. But after two formative years in the trenches, Te'o must embrace the role of leader for a linebacker unit in flux.

Gone are longtime contributors and team voices Kerry Neal (OLB) and Brian Smith (a combined 97 career games 62 starts). Smith's final five games ranked among the best of his four-year Irish career and his void left next to Te'o (the WILL LB position) will likely be filled by one of two disparate competitors:

  • Junior Carlo Calabrese performed at a high level for the first seven games of his starting career. What followed was myriad mistakes – and a hamstring injury – in Week Eight vs. Navy. An ensuing five games of consistent, sometimes spectacular LB play in his stead by Brian Smith, whose improved play vs. the pass helped transform Notre Dame's defense.

    Calabrese's a sure tackler, a hungry hitter, a budding leader, an old school run-stuffer, and a player with ample time to improve. But to be a three-down linebacker, he'll need to excel not only against north-south running backs, but vs. the short passing attacks favored by most in today's game.

  • Prince Shembo starred as a true freshman in a pass-rushing role this season, playing largely behind CAT linebacker Darius Fleming. The senior Fleming won't relinquish that starting spot anytime soon, and since Shembo appears a less-than-ideal option at the other outside linebacker spot (DOG), one in which pass coverage is a priority, the sophomore will likely be evaluated at the WILL spot opposite Te'o, and vs. Calabrese (among others).

    Shembo's one of the team's four best linebackers (hence the necessary evaluation inside) and he's arguably one of the team's 10 best defensive players entering his true sophomore season. But unseating Calabrese won't be easy (check your DVR for Calabrese's dominant performance at Boston College last October). At best, the two will battle it out for playing time over the next nine months, with both winning jobs because they simply can't be kept off the field. At worst? Head coach Brian Kelly has fostered top-notch competition at yet another position along his roster.

Interior options

A true backup for Te'o must emerge at the MIKE. Look for seniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny (discussed here) to go head-to-head in an effort to find an early-spring veteran capable of playing a true backup role to Notre Dame's defender.

McDonald competed for a starting WILL role vs. Calabrese through late August before a hyper extended knee ended his audition. Posluszny must first stay healthy, and then lock down a special teams gig before competing for a true two-deep spot entering his senior season.

Sophomore Danny Spond was Te'o's technical backup at the MIKE for the first half of 2010. Look for the 6'3" athlete to move outside at some point this spring. Spond, a near-lock for special teams duty next fall, could back up a number of positions (including Te'o again, of course). His initial slotting next week and shortly thereafter is unlikely to be his last.

The Irish brought in a quartet of freshmen linebackers with Jarrett Grace the likely inside prospect in his first year. Grace represents a new luxury in South Bend – a linebacker that can develop with a redshirt-season (as did Calabrese in 2009). The Colerain HS prospect would have to be spectacular next August – or those in front of him decidedly sub par – to earn a true two-deep spot. (Grace is not an early enrollee, and thus not part of our spring projections.)

The wild-card in the group is reigning Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year Kendall Moore. Moore was withheld from action last season but apparently grew by leaps and bounds in his first year of college practice, as he in no way indicated a Scout Team award was in his future when the media still enjoyed practice viewing privileges last September.

As the season progressed, Moore earned repeated praise from his head coach (and, of interest, from our sources involved in the action).

A jump to the WILL starting role over Calabrese or Shembo would be a lot to ask of the untested Moore, but a role as Te'o's backup, where the competition is heavy in number but absent of game experience, seems well within his reach.

Jack of all Trades? Can a multi-faceted skill set hurt a young competitor? Probably not on a Kelly/Bob Diaco defense, where junior Dan Fox has the ability to re-route receivers, and move his feet (key to a DROP role), but also showed he had the instincts to play inside, especially in an emergency backup role vs. Navy and in spot duty vs. Western Michigan one week prior.

Look Back: My notes on Fox in the Western Michigan film review:

Fox dropped into the deep seam (correctly, I believe) then came up to cover for a Te'o mistake on a 13-yard dump to the running back…Fox got in on the action to limit Juan Nunez to five yards in the flat late in the 3rd Quarter…Had he reacted better, could have intercepted an ill-advised backfield flip pass: Fox, who can run a bit, then had 90 yards of green to go (the pass was completed for a minimal gain).

And vs. his film review vs. Navy:
Entered in the 2nd Half in relief of injured ILB Carlo Calabrese. Fox was shoved backwards to the ground on his second snap, an Alexander Teich 3rd and 2 gain of 14 yards down to the ND 7-yard line. Welcome to triple-option football…Got a low hit on Ricky Dobbs that stopped Dobbs short of the goal. Nice effort by Fox to shed a block, come across traffic and hit the QB the only place that could have stopped him from scoring…Poor pursuit angle (caught up in traffic) on the following series contributes to a 16-yard gain past Cwynar/Lewis-Moore/Te'o…Fought off a lead block and helped stop Teich one-yard shy of the marker on 3rd and 4, forcing a rare Midshipmen punt to begin the final period.
Performed admirably under difficult relief circumstances.

In other words, Fox, a relative unknown among much of the fan base, is at least even with Moore/McDonald in his effort to earn a two-deep role.

Irish Eyes' look-ahead: I won't deceive you, I have no idea how the competition at inside linebacker will play out this spring – nor does anyone outside the practice field walls. But by March 30, the Irish will have five spring practices under their belts; equal to one-third of the spring session's completion. Below is a look at that my early spring depth chart projections inside:

Mike Linebacker:

  1. Manti Te'o
  2. Dan Fox
  3. Kendall Moore

Will Linebacker:

  1. Carlo Calabrese
  2. Prince Shembo
  3. Anthony McDonald
  4. David Posluszny

Regarding Fox/Moore: This is my "first third" of the spring projection (five practices). Fox will be likely evaluated at the DROP spot as well. At some point during the spring, the 3rd or 4th competitor at the WILL will likely be evaluated at the MIKE. And re-evaluated in the summer…and in August against incoming an incoming freshman such as Jarrett Grace…(you get the point).

Inside LB Eligibility Chart: Te'o, McDonald, Posluszny (2 years); Calabrese, Fox, Shembo (3 years); Moore (4 years); Grace (4-5 years).

A look at the outside linebackers – the Cat and the Dog – will be published Tuesday morning. Among those featured: Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Dan Fox and Danny Spond (again), Justin Utupo, and Ishaq Williams.


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