Outside LinebackersThree returning players started the bulk of the season last fall (Manti Te'o, Darius Fleming, and Carlo Calabrese, who started the first eight prior to injuring his hamstring). A class mix of competitors will challenge for outside roles, including sophomores Danny Spond and Prince Shembo at the DOG (Drop) and senior Steve Filer at the CAT spot. January enrollee Ishaq Williams will likely have a focused defensive package that enables him to contribute on the outside next fall.
Shembo, who starred late last season as a pass-rusher, has impressed the staff with his ability to re-route receivers in his new role as a DOG (Drop) linebacker.
Outside ‘Backers (CAT): Three main competitors with at least one (Anthony Rabasa) expected to debut at the position in August.
- Senior Darius Fleming (1 yr. eligibility) – The clear cut leader to start at the CAT position for the second straight season.
"He's been very impressive," Kelly said of his potential All-America outside. "He's not thinking out there. As you know, he kind of disappeared for 2-3 games (last year) and a lot of it was he wasn't confident in his ability to do the things. In particular we've challenged him in the spring to really do some things that he hadn't done and he's picked up everything for us (including) pass coverage and things he really struggled with last year, mentally.
"We know he's extremely physically gifted, but now he's doing the things at that CAT position that we really need him to do, and that's the mental end of things. "
- Senior Steven Filer (1 yr. eligibility) – Moved from backup DOG last season to backup CAT this spring, an unfortunate development for a senior many thought would finally ascend to a starting role this season.
"He's more of a CAT than a DROP for us," Kelly offered when asked directly about Filer, whom he left out of his outside linebacker overview during a post-practice interview. "The thing with Steven is: we have to find a niche for him. He's very good in special teams. We like the way he can rush the passer. I think you'll see him evolve like a Shembo did for us (last year). And then he's still going to compete for playing time, but I think he's more situation for the CAT position than he is the DOG for us."
That slotting puts the senior behind his classmate, Fleming. Filer's forecasted pass-rushing niche would therefore be crucial, as Fleming is unlikely to cede much playing time in a true linebacker role.
- Semester Freshman Ishaq Williams – Listing him third at either CAT or DOG isn't accurate: Williams is expected to play in certain packages, much like Prince Shembo last fall.
"I think when you have somebody that is gifted physically, like (Williams), I think it's on the coaches to not make it too difficult," Kelly explained. "We're going to make sure that its simple enough (for example) that if Prince Shembo can play as a true freshman, that we can make it so Ishaq Williams can play as a true freshman.
"Because if we ask him to do all those things (pass coverage, etc.) it'll be paralysis by analysis. We're going to let that kid lineup and go play."
Outside ‘Backers (DOG/Drop): I've noted Shembo among the team's 10 best defenders, regardless of position. The competition provided by Spond is key to the position's in-season improvement, especially with Filer moving to the CAT role.
"It is a great battle between Shembo and Spond right now," said head coach Brian Kelly following practice No. 6 (the Irish enter practice No. 8 this week). "Right now, either one of those guys can play winning football for us at a high level. I think both of them have made us very comfortable with the DROP position and now we can look toward the CAT and the WILL and the depth at the MIKE."
- Sophomore Prince Shembo (3 yrs eligibility) – Looked the part of future star last November, though that was in a focused, nickel pass rushing role. The Drop LB's responsibilities are a far cry from lining up and attacking the quarterback off-tackle. Early returns from his head coach have been nothing but positive in his new role, especially in pass coverage where I had assumed he'd struggle.
- Sophomore Danny Spond (3 yrs eligibility) – Cut his teeth on special teams last season after a mid-August media day in which Kelly offered his name as one of several freshman who could contribute. He was technically Manti Te'o's backup last fall, though received no real playing time there (Dan Fox and Anthony McDonald served as the game day backups). Spond's move outside seemed natural (predicted on these pages last fall) and to date, the transition from high school safety to freshman year inside ‘backer, to sophomore DOG competitor, has been smooth.
"At safety in high school I was able to see the defense and get a good vision of the QBs eyes," Spond said following Saturday's practice. "At linebacker it's much more physical against the run, but safety has helped my (pass coverage) drops and hips. It hasn't been uncomfortable for me; I'm pretty used to it and comfortable."
"Danny Spond would be probably be, singularly, the one guy that's been really impressive," said Kelly when asked for new contributors at the midway point of spring practice. "At the Drop position, he plays with heavy hands and is very good in the passing game."
Incoming freshman Ben Councell will likely join the duo in August.
Quick HitsA few predictions for spring, August camp, and beyond:
- The hybrid pass-rushing role (occupied last season by Prince Shembo) will be won by senior Steve Filer, with Ishaq Williams coming on late. Neither will challenge Darius Fleming for true rotation time at the CAT. While the coaching staff is open to a heavy rotation, it actually prefers proven playmakers that are capable of playing full time without drop-off due to conditioning.
"We'd like to," said defensive line coach Mike Elston of a heavy rotation up front before adding. "If you get a difference maker, a guy that changes the game like Manti, and you don't want him off the field, well that would be different.
"Right now we have a lot of guys that give us what we're looking for, but they're not necessarily difference-makers. They're working hard and they're doing a good job – they can become that, they just weren't that a year ago."
- Classmates Prince Shembo and Danny Spond will share the DROP role throughout September (after that I have no idea, as I've never seen Spond take a snap from scrimmage). But Shembo will return to the CAT position following the Bowl Game – aka, Darius Fleming's final game in an Irish uniform – for his final two years at the University.
- There's a tremendous glut of talent on the outside, and the apparent ascension of Spond only adds to it. Ishaq Williams might be a better (potential) true freshman than was Shembo last fall…but he'll be hard-pressed make as much of an impact as did his predecessor considering the presence of four quality athletes ahead of him in the rotation.