Cats and Dogs at it again

Part II of our look at the team's linebackers looks at the position's outside competitors and they myriad options for the coaching staff to consider over the next eight months.

For a look at Part I and our review of the inside linebacker glut heading into the spring, click here.

Cat: Fleming ahead of the field

As with Manti Te'o at the MIKE, the CAT linebacker competition should be anything but: senior Darius Fleming will win the job unless he's evaluated elsewhere.

Any move of Fleming (in this case, to the DOG/DROP), even in an effort to get promising sophomore Prince Shembo more playing time at the CAT, would be tricky for multiple reasons, notably:

  1. The senior-to-be has played three positions for three position coaches and three defensive coordinators (technically) in three seasons. A fourth switch seems counterproductive.
  2. Fleming noted that it wasn't until after the Tulsa game (Week Nine) that he started "playing football" rather than trying to play the position on the chalk board. He credited defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for talking him through a difficult Bye week, for his honest evaluation, and for the work put in thereafter that allowed Fleming to play the best football of his career in the ensuing month.
  3. Fleming, who has 23 tackles-for-loss over the last two seasons, is a natural CAT, and more important, the best man for the job – moving him to the DROP likely weakens at least one, if not both OLB spots.

The No. 2 CAT competition could be heated, that is, unless sophomore Prince Shembo remains entrenched in the proceedings. We've been told that Shembo is under evaluation inside (as noted in the link above); but a role behind Fleming could be occupied by Shembo in specialty situations.

Enrolling in January, and thus with a leg up on his incoming classmates is freshman Ishaq Williams. The 6'5" 240-plus pound athlete could see spring time at the more open DROP spot (discussed below), but seems to fit the requirements of the CAT, at least as a collegiate prospect. His ability to rush the passer with a quick first step, speed off the edge, and functional strength suggest a career at the CAT. But let's allow a defensive staff that pushed all the right buttons for a two month, four-game span to make that call.

Incoming freshman Anthony Rabasa will join the group in the summer. He's expected to begin his collegiate career as a CAT competitor, as well.

Dog days of spring ahead

The quarterback competition will receive the bulk of the headlines, but if you're looking for the most wide open competition on the opposite side of scrimmage, take a gander at the candidates for the DOG (Drop) linebacker role vacated by graduating senior Kerry Neal.

  • Steve Filer – The Chicago senior ranks as the lead candidate entering spring ball and a player of whom Kelly offered this last August: "I'm not trying to look ahead to next year, but Steven Filer's going to be a heck of a player for us and he has to be ready to go because he's going to take over that Drop position when those guys graduate." Now it's up to Filer to take the reigns.
  • Dan Fox – The junior was lauded by the former staff for his hands and footwork, but he moved inside in-season 2010 to serve as a backup to Te'o and Calabrese. Fox could be evaluated both at the DOG and WILL this spring, summer, and in August…and contribute at both. He has an outside chance to start at either, though more likely here.
  • Danny Spond – The sophomore athlete was Te'o's technical backup at the MIKE last season (on all released pre-game depth charts) and we're told the staff still likes him inside. I like him outside at DOG. The staff is going to be right 99.9 percent of the time on playing time decisions/positions/usage…I'll let you figure out the .1 percent (hint: he graduated and bulldozed through November).
  • Ishaq Williams – A freshman prospect who has the fan base abuzz due to his athletic gifts, but there are intricacies (in terms of playing in space) to the DROP position that appear difficult to master. It's likely a bad sign for the position as a whole if he starts the season opener (he won't)…it's a great sign for the team and the future if he contributes for about 8 to 13 weeks thereafter.
  • Ben Councell – The 6'5" 230-pound freshman from Asheville, NC, will join the fold over the summer.

And of course, there's everyone's favorite pastime: rampant spring speculation!

  1. Prince Shembo – The sophomore ranks among the team's 10 best defensive players but his natural position, or more important, his 2010 position (CAT) will be occupied by Fleming this season. Shembo could compete for a starting role at WILL, a backup role at CAT, or simply a hybrid role in which he rushes the passer in the team's Nickel defense and serves as a true backup to Fleming, thereby allowing Calabrese plus other competitors to duke it out at the WILL spot.
    Quick prediction: Shembo spends the bulk of the spring competing at WILL, but plays his lion's share of snaps next fall in a similar pass-rushing role to what we saw last season, as the Irish nickel defense remains its strongest unit.

  2. Zeke Motta – Junior safety will compete with Jamoris Slaughter for a starting spot alongside 5th-year senior captain Harrison Smith. Should Slaughter win the job, Motta could return to compete at the "BUCK" linebacker position in the team's nickel defense where he was slated for duty last spring and fall (prior to Slaughter's opening week ankle injury). Could Motta's skill set and previous work at BUCK lead to a hybrid role as a third-down DROP linebacker? He doesn't possess the size the staff craves at linebacker, but defensive coordinator Bob Diaco proved astute at finding ideal roles for each competitor by season's end. Expect more of the same in Year 2. Top Stories