Tea Leaves - Inside Linebackers

Our spring review and projection series turns its focus to the only defensive position group with question marks throughout its (backup) ranks.

Our fourth position overview examines the team's inside linebacker battles leading up to the April 16 Blue Gold Game and into August camp.

For a look at previously reviewed positions, click the links below:

Offensive Linemen

Outside Linebackers

Defensive Linemen

Defensive Linemen: Part II

Inside Linebackers

The 15-session spring will not include heavy contact by the team's biggest hitter and top candidate for post-season honors, junior middle linebacker Manti Te'o. The program's top single-season tackler of the last 25 years is, however, expected to compete in late-spring 7 vs. 7 drills and has dressed in pads and participated in each practice the media has attended.

Te'o had his knee scoped to "clean up cartilage," the result of an ugly-looking, but ultimately standard knee sprain suffered in the third quarter of the Sun Bowl victory over Miami.

"He will do some things, but I think it's pretty safe to say we know a lot about what Manti Te'o can do," Kelly said of his spring plan for the unit's star. "He's going to be involved, but you're not going to see him taking a lot of reps in the spring, either."

He'll take plenty in the fall: Te'o was one of two defensive starters (Harrison Smith the other) that was rarely rewarded with a moment's rest during competitive contests last fall.

MIKE Contingency Plans – Cross-training the reserves: With Te'o set in stone as the starting MIKE (middle), spring evaluations have focused on the development of a reliable backup. The front-runner for that job, senior Anthony McDonald, was injured in the session's first week – his torn pectoral muscle will keep him out of action until August camp.

Last fall, newcomer Kendall Moore earned the 2010 Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year award – now the sophomore is a Te'o twisted ankle away from his collegiate debut.

"Kendall Moore was the beneficiary of that, and Justin Utupo," said Kelly of the freshmen pair who've earned extensive practice time in the injured McDonald's stead. "They're getting a lot of work as young kids and a good number of reps."

With Moore and the Utupo – a converted defensive end as a true freshman last season – likely too green to start against the front-half of Notre Dame's 2011 schedule, junior WILL linebacker Carlo Calabrese – an 8-game starter prior to suffering a Game Nine hamstring strain last season – has been added as a contingency at Te'o's MIKE spot.

"Carlo's now playing both Will and Mike," Kelly said. "He's playing both of those positions and we're cross-training him for (a backup MIKE role)."

Also cross-training is senior David Posluszny, a 16-game veteran though in a nearly exclusive special teams role.

"I think Poz has had a good spring as well," Kelly offered. "He's stronger and more physical. We thought he was a little light and times which made it hard for him to compress the guards in the 3-4 (base defense). But he's stronger and physically able to step in there and give us some quality reps as well."

Inside ‘Backers (WILL)

Calabrese started the season's first eight games last fall, playing well in the initial seven before bottoming out with the rest of the defense (program?) in a blowout loss to Navy. Following his aforementioned hamstring injury, senior outside ‘backer Brian Smith moved inside next to Te'o, then took the position to greater heights with numerous big plays over the final month, especially in a dominant pass defense effort in the upset win at USC.

A Verona, N.J., native, Calabrese returns as the clear-cut leader for the WILL role, though don't be surprised if there's a six-month push by classmate Dan Fox.

"I'd say (Dan) Fox is probably the guy who's made great progress and put himself in a position to be in that rotation," Kelly said of the versatile junior. "(Fox) didn't play a lot as a positional player (last year) but he was on all special teams. He's impressed me; I think he's done a really nice job."

Fox began his career in 2009 as an outside linebacker in Jon Tenuta's 4-3 scheme. He stayed on the perimeter for Bob Diaco in the spring of his sophomore season and through August camp last fall, then shifted inside to lend depth to the WILL position during the season.

He starred on special teams, collected 20 total tackles in his first season on the field (13 from scrimmage), and now has the benefit of game day experience at his disposal as the 240-pound ‘backer learns to tangle with the 300-plus-pound mountains that masquerade as collegiate offensive guards.

"I'd say my strength and getting my weight up a little bit, and working some moves on some linemen that I need to learn," Fox said when asked about his areas for improvement.

"If you have a 320-pounder crashing into you, and you're like 240, you have to smash him in the mouth, because you're not going to (man) him up and think you're going to move him. He has the weight on you, but you have to learn how to smack him and put him where you want him to be."

The junior's versatility will serve him well in a role that includes an extensive amount of zone coverage vs. underneath routes – both in the flats and vs. quicker players on short crosses.

"I've learned a lot of positions so I can figure out what to do in certain spots," he noted. "I think its good I know what to do in each position.

"(Pass coverage) is where the outside linebacker (experience) comes in handy: when I have to make a read and get out quick on the receiver I have to cover. I learned that outside."

Fox will push Calabrese, but few expect the latter to relinquish his starting role. Calabrese starred in his first collegiate start (Purdue), recorded 19 total tackles in his first two outings (home games vs. the Boilers and Michigan), and topped out with a dominant effort in a Week Five humbling of Boston College in Chestnut Hill (a team season-high 3.5 tackles-for-loss included in his 10 take downs).

He's far from a finished product or even a every down ‘backer due to continuing challenges in pass coverage, but the Irish can ill-afford a letdown in their rush defense: Calabrese is the ultimate old school thumper inside.

Eligibility Chart:

  • Senior Anthony McDonald (2 yrs eligibility)
  • Senior David Posluszny (2 yrs eligibility)
  • Junior Manti Te'o (2 yrs eligibility)
  • Junior Carlo Calabrese (3 yrs eligibility)
  • Junior Dan Fox (3 yrs eligibility)
  • Sophomore Kendall Moore (4 yrs eligibility)
  • Sophomore Justin Utupo (4 yrs eligibility)

Incoming freshman Jarrett Grace will likely join the inside ‘backers in August camp.

Quick Hits

A few predictions for spring, August camp, and beyond:

  1. Junior Dan Fox will evolve into a legitimate third linebacker inside. Te'o rarely exits in meaningful situations, and the staff has made it known that if a top playmaker can handle the rigors of full-game action, he won't necessarily rotate out of the proceedings. Thus, aside from natural injury concerns, the need for a true two-deep is lessened at the MIKE.

    Fox has the ability to cover in short space and is at least on par with older classmates McDonald and Posluszny in run support. Sophomore Kendall Moore should see time as the fourth ‘backer as well, and his continued development is essential as the North Carolina native will have two seasons of eligibility remaining when Te'o graduates following the 2012 season.

  2. Calabrese will finish second on the squad in tackles behind Te'o. It will mark the first season in which an Irish safety doesn't rank among the team's top two tacklers since 2007 (Trevor Laws and Joe Brockington).

  3. No Irish inside linebacker exhausts his eligibility following the 2011 season. Seniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny must carve a necessary niche – either on special teams or from scrimmage – to return to the roster as 5th-year candidates next spring.

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