At first glance: LB

Thoughts on the Irish and the team's linebackers as the squad enters Week Two of head coach Brian Kelly's second spring.

From an albeit slightly removed perspective – a second level end zone view – of Notre Dame's third spring practice, colleagues to both my right and left offered an observation that had yet to occur to me.

"It's a lot quieter this year."

I'd previously chalked up the tame atmosphere to a trio of indoor practices – events that feel anything like the dawn of a spring football launch. I'd chalked it up to a possibly slower tempo than the breakneck pace of Kelly's first spring.

I even figured the presence of 900-plus coaches for the program's annual coaching clinic might have changed the decibel level of a head coach whose voice…how shall I put this? "carried" quite a bit in the previous season's practice.

Has Kelly approached practice differently this spring?

"Absolutely, without question," he said. "We didn't have any time to sit about the specifics of how you coach each player; we had to move so quickly in Year 1, that we didn't have the time to do the things we're doing (now).We're drilling a lot deeper, we're spending a lot more time with our players and using good catch phrases that they can understand in the teaching progressions.

"It's the natural progression of being in Year 2, but you don't know it until you go through Year 1."

Kelly offered later that Oregon head coach Chip Kelly, present Friday for the Coaches Clinic and no stranger to a brisk practice tempo, was blown away by the efficiency of the team's student managers. Kelly appreciated the compliment, then tried to take it one step further with his colleague.

I've never seen anything like this.'

"Our trainers are doing such a great job that I made up a story that we film them and train them, but it sounded too good to be true," he joked.

Asked if he'd like practice video from an early spring practice from 2010 to be shown as a point of comparison, one with a memorable "scolding" of said managers, Kelly responded with a knowing smirk, "It was a little different. We've all come a long way since Year 1."

Early observations

Saturday's open practice allowed for the first relevant, extended look of the 2011 Irish. And as the head coach deadpanned when asked about his team's first padded practice, "We have some guys that look really good in their pads. That's for certain."

Let's see how they played with them.

Linebackers: Junior Manti Te'o donned full pads…and the oversized yellow blocking pad, for most of practice. According to Kelly, Te'o will not take part in the bulk of spring ball.

"He's in the meetings, he's awesome," Kelly said of his All-America candidate. "He was on the board (in the linebacker meetings) talking to the guys before Coach Diaco got in there. We've got an incredible guy that we really don't need to see on the field. Now, we're kicking his butt in rehab, and he used the right word to describe (rehab): ‘grueling' I like hearing that.

While Te'o's scoped knee will keep him out of most individual and team drills, Kelly noted, "You'll see him in 7-on-7 (a little) the last week."

LB observations through Saturday:

  • I'd have put more stock in Ishaq Williams' presence with the first team during 8 vs. 8 drills against the team's first unit offense if nearly-guaranteed starter Darius Fleming had also taken the field. Regardless, Saturday's "back eight" defense (there were no defensive linemen) lined up as follows:
    OLB: Prince Shembo and Williams, with Spond rotating in behind Shembo.
    ILB: Anthony McDonald and Carlo Calabrese, with Kendall Moore replacing McDonald.
    DB: Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, Zeke Motta and Harrison Smith, with a second unit of Lo Wood, Bennett Jackson, Jamoris Slaughter, and Danny McCarthy, respectively.

  • Danny Spond unleashed a tremendous hit in the team's (early session) Irish Eyes drill, absolutely stoning Alex Welch on a block attempt and firing him backward. Spond has long arms, a solid frame, and looks comfortable in space. He'll be a solid competitor for the DOG LB role well into August.

  • Darius Fleming won a one-on-one vs. Tyler Eifert, stoning the tight end's block then dropping the ball carrier.
  • Sophomore Justin Utupo offered a huge, de-cleating hit in relative space (still in the confines of the drill), leading a few media members to wonder, ‘Who's No. 53?'

  • Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco offered the following advice to his ‘backers during a drill that stresses footwork, a low base, and the use of a second defender in the area to choose the proper angle on the ball carrier (in other words, if there's another defender on the ball carrier's right side, the tackler should take away the runner's outside shoulder, then explode into him for the tackle, rather than the standard, straight-on strike).

    "Speed, foot action, violent club!" Diaco noted repeatedly during the drill, adding "Don't zero out" (rather, tackle the open side because help exists on the ball carrier's other arm/shoulder).

    David Posluszny (twice), Ishaq Williams, and Darius Fleming receive praise for their technique. Carlo Calabrese is reminded to "squeeze him like a python" as hit finishes his initial hit. Diaco offers to sophomore Kendall Moore that his "feet are dying on impact."

  • In 7-on-7 action, senior inside ‘backer breaks up an Andrew Hendrix slant pass intended for Theo RiddickDan Fox follows with an impressive gait downfield. Fox can move much better than most Irish fans realize; he'll push for time at the wide open DOG but also inside next to Te'o…Fox appears to be slotted behind McDonald inside at present…of note, Filer took the field after Shembo…Filer made a huge hit in the team's practice-ending 3-on-3 drill (described in great detail, here.)

Final LB thoughts after one full padded practice (I barely watched the LBs in our 30-minute practice viewing, last Wednesday): My view of Fox as a rotation contributor over the off-season does not appear misplaced…Danny Spond does indeed seem better suited outside…Kendall Moore's frame is noticeably trimmer since last fall, kudos to the sophomore and strength coach Paul Longo…The Irish should finally have four legitimate inside linebackers (they had two last fall, not counting OLB Brian Smith), and the presence of even one more (Fox? Moore?), will allow Calabrese to play to his strengths next to Te'o (run support) and Te'o to possibly receive a few plays off in 2011.

Upcoming observations: The team's defensive backs, wide receivers, and to a lesser extent, the quarterbacks.


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