Impressions: Outside Linebackers

There's a lone starter set in stone entering the off-season, but the remainder of Notre Dame's OLB competitors offer the staff varied skill sets from which to choose.

Good…maybe great?

For the first time in his four-year career, senior linebacker Darius Fleming returns to the position he manned the previous season – expect Notre Dame's set-in-stone starting CAT linebacker to shine, leading the team in sacks and finishing among its top three in total tackles-for-loss…Fleming's self-assessment last October following the Tulsa contest (preceding the team's Bye) speaks to his maturity as a player. His frank conversation with defensive coordinator Bob Diaco allowed the outside ‘backer to blossom in November. (We'll have more on that transformation in Fleming's Pre-Camp Assessment this summer)…

Fleming's on the short list of most talented pass rushers on the current squad, slightly ahead of sophomore DOG linebacker Prince Shembo, senior defensive end Ethan Johnson, and, apparently including thee necessary addition of freshman defensive end Aaron Lynch – Fleming and Johnson are both within two sacks (1.5 for Fleming; a half-sack for Johnson) of reaching of the program's top 10 among all-time sack masters entering their final seasons…Fleming's 728 snaps last fall ranked second only to Manti Te'o among Irish ‘backers and third behind Te'o and Harrison Smith for Diaco's defense.

Dogfight

Fleming's early-season struggles in coverage were not surprising as the CAT position is much more involved than his previous hybrid pass-rushing roles of season's past – expect more of the same from Prince Shembo who'll play to the field side as the DOG/Drop (Fleming covered/covers the boundary) next fall…Early returns showed the staff as pleasantly surprised by Shembo's assimilation to the difficult task – but they noted the same of Fleming last August…

Don't expect classmate Danny Spond to struggle similarly in the DOG role, the true sophomore is a natural in space, though he admits his ability to take on the edge vs. power running attacks needs work…I don't think Spond will beat out Shembo (the latter is too valuable as a pass-rusher) but Spond should see time in various defensive packages as the team's second linebacker next to Manti Te'o…Then again, I said the same regarding Steve Filer after last year's Blue Gold Game. (Lesson learned: don't base any season projections on what you see that annual spring scrimmage.)

Shembo adds a presence on the edge vs. the run as a bigger, more imposing player than graduated senior Kerry Neal (though head coach Brian Kelly often noted Neal's "toughness")…Shembo's burst in both short space and covering distance is a given – capitalizing on those athletic gifts won't happen until he learns the nuances of pass coverage and how to deal with crafty zone slot receivers/tight ends; in other words, like his mentor Fleming, the sophomore will also likely find himself playing the defense as "drawn up" rather than just playing football…

Shembo mentioned in a late spring interview that he can't trust his instincts, because his instincts tell him to "go after the ball." That came to fruition on a first quarter pass play in which he bit inside on a fake hand-off and was then victimized by an outside pass to Robby Toma, Shembo's responsibility from the slot….Its given you'll see that error from the still-learning Shembo in early September…

Spond's adjustment issues are polar opposite to those of his classmate and competitor, Shembo, as the former will likely encounter problems at the point of attack, but excel in space while re-routing quicker, smaller targets…Freshman early enrollee Ishaq Williams will have a tougher time getting on the field next fall if he's challenging the Shembo/Spond duo at Drop than in a head-to-head battle vs. senior Steve Filer (just 38 scrimmage snaps last year) as the backup CAT…Still, I'll stubbornly cling to blind faith that Filer will emerge as a pass-rushing threat, though that's all anyone outside the program can point to regarding the special teams stalwart: faith and hope...

I can't recall a single impact play by Filer (from scrimmage) last fall though he showed well in mid-season action as a pass rusher (defensive end) in 2009, notably vs. USC in a 34-27 loss…The senior enters his final year as the team's most accomplished special teams contributor and the leading tackler for the coverage units in back-to-back seasons (11 both last year and in 2009)…Filer dominated the 2010 spring game – he was a non-factor (along with about 50 other players) last week. The senior struggled and was turned often vs. offensive tackle Zack Martin at the point of attack, though that's likely as irrelevant as his 12 tackles in last year's spring game.

Reinforcements: Barring an obvious knack for, or the necessity of, incoming frosh Anthony Rabasa (early slotting: CAT) and Ben Councell (DOG) on special teams, both competitors could receive the luxury of a redshirt-freshman season...

Fleming and Filer will exhaust their eligibility at season's end, opening a free-for-all among Spond, Shembo, and the trio of freshman (Williams, Rabasa, Councell) on the outside…Current starters and assumed key contributors such as Harrison Smith, Gary Gray, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Sean Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Chris Watt, Andrew Nuss, Carlo Calabrese, Jamoris Slaughter, Louis Nix, Taylor Dever, Zack Martin, Braxston Cave, John Goodman, Tyler Eifert, and Cierre Wood all sat out as freshmen – each has 2-4 seasons of eligibility remaining (or is in his 5th year) as a result…The season on the Scout team only (briefly) hurts your ego, not your collegiate career.


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