Impressions: Inside Linebackers

Irish inside 'backers: the nation's best backed by the unknown.

Breakthrough to bona fide?

I'm confident junior middle linebacker Manti Te'o will take the third step in his evolution over the calendar year: breakthrough performer (early 2010), to borderline All-America (middle/late 2010), to bona fide top tier collegiate linebacker (2011)…Should he continue his developmental pace (remember: he was light years better last fall than as a frosh), and then remain in school for a fourth season in 2012, Te'o could rank among the top five players in the college game as a senior…

Te'o's instincts are tremendous (he's nearly eradicated the screen and bubble screen from opposing playbooks) and he arrives at the point of impact with force, but if you're looking for holes still to be filled in his resume, he can occasionally over-pursue, which causes the surprising missed tackle in space – and he'll have to overcome his obvious hesitancy vs. true cut-block option teams with Air Force and Navy visiting South Bend over a three-game October home stand (The Cadets of Army are nowhere near as efficient in that skill as their service academy brethren)…

My third annual "Indispensable" column will hit these pages in early May – your obvious sneak peak is that Te'o's name will top the list...Head coach Brian Kelly noted that the second half of the Stanford contest marked Te'o's ascension from potential to actual star; I was convinced one week prior in his second-half effort vs. Michigan State…

Last year's early-season surprise was November's forgotten man, as first-time contributor Carlo Calabrese was sidelined for the bulk of his team's best defensive efforts. Calabrese returned a bit behind the pace expected of his defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, but has since rebounded:

Diaco early spring: "Carlo has to clean his game up. He has to get himself to a point where he's not a liability of one of those 11, and right now he is."
Diaco late spring: "I would say Carlo has really stepped his game up through the beginning week of spring where you wanted him to connect the dots faster. Now he's connected the dots faster, he's cleaned up his run fits, he's cleaned up his pass fits. He can play harder, longer."

A noted gamer by none other than his head coach (Kelly stated Calabrese simply played better in games than he showed in practice heading into the season – a quality I'm sure we can all embrace), Calabrese is a necessary ingredient in the 2011 defense, because for any potential shortcoming he may have in coverage, the need for a true thumper inside next to Te'o cannot be overstated…Its worth noting that Calabrese has three seasons of eligibility remaining – not bad for an 8-game starter with 60 tackles (5 for loss) under his belt…

Should Calabrese struggle in zone coverage, classmate Dan Fox could earn occasional snaps in his stead…Of note regarding Fox: 55 snaps last season – 20 tackles, though that includes eight as a member of the team's coverage units…Fox first caught my attention in emergency duty vs. Navy, replacing the injured (hamstring) Calabrese:

Notes on Fox that afternoon: Entered in the 2nd Half in relief of injured ILB Carlo Calabrese. Fox was shoved backwards to the ground on his second snap, an Alexander Teich 3rd and 2 gain of 14 yards down to the ND 7-yard line. Welcome to triple-option football…Got a low hit on Dobbs that stopped Dobbs short of the goal. Nice effort by Fox to shed a block, come across traffic and hit the QB the only place that could have stopped him from scoring…Poor pursuit angle (caught up in traffic) on the following series contributes to a 16-yard gain past Cwynar/Lewis-Moore/Te'o…Fought off a lead block and helped stop Teich one-yard shy of the marker on 3rd and 4, forcing a rare Midshipmen punt to begin the final period.

Good and bad to be sure, but Fox showed he had the ability to compete under the worst possible circumstances: in a blowout, cold off the bench, vs. a triple-option machine…Fox, who began his 2009 freshman season as a 4-3 outside ‘backer, was first evaluated by the current staff as a DOG/Drop competitor. He slid inside last August and has found a home – relatively speaking – as a hybrid MIKE/WILL inside ‘backer, though not without a few growing pains:

"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," Fox said of his greatest adjustment to the switch. "He has the weight on you, but you have to learn how to smack him and put him where you want him to be. I've learned a lot of positions so I can figure out what to do in certain spots. I think its good I know what to do in each position."

Diaco noted of Fox midway through spring ball: "There's not much Dan can't do…"

A Sleepless (Coordinator) in South Bend

While Fox seems to have an early foothold as the No. 3 inside ‘backer heading into the off-season, he'll receive a stern summer and August camp test from 2010 Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year, Kendall Moore...Moore fills the gap with authority but needs to better shed his initial blocks – key to his development: he doesn't appear to run around blocks, a testament to his aggressiveness and season of tutelage under Diaco...Blue Gold Highlight: Moore popped starting RT Taylor Dever on a second quarter sweep and finished with a tackle in the backfield…Further key to his 2011 playing time: maintaining his responsibility, as mis-direction plagued him during the vanilla scrimmage…

Moore is better in pursuit than I had credited him in the fall but he appeared to wear down a bit in extended work…Read a Cierre Wood run in the BG game's first quarter but was summarily snuffed by LT Tate Nichols on a blatant block in the back…Seems to understand pass drops and anticipated/showed quickness in his coverage responsibilities ("path in pursuit") pretty well vs. Irish tight ends…Moore vs. Fox in August is a key second-string battle as the Irish are likely to feature three inside ‘backers rather than four during competitive contests (Te'o will rarely sit)…

Nearly every time I noted a positive from Moore in the Blue Gold review (shedding, pursuit, etc.) a closer look showed Fox performing in a similar manner (through traffic, anticipation, wrap-up tackles)…Fox seems to sift through traffic a bit more naturally and takes better angles than Moore, at least at present…The latter ran with tight end Alex Welch 20 yards down the seam in the first half…I'd place Moore a year away from game-ready duty at a BCS level, though a lot can happen for a developing athlete in a four-month span and with 25+ more practices under Diaco next August.

Blue Gold Reserves, Part II: David Posluszny took quite a few false steps in lateral coverage but looked better vertically…His pass breakup vs. Mike Ragone underneath was due to nice anticipation but also a "nothing" route by the 5th-year senior…Poz showed a few issues taking on and shedding lead blocks…Could have trouble stacking up vs. opposing linemen (backup RT Christian Lombard engulfed him on first drive)… The senior has a chance to join classmate Anthony McDonald (out until early August) as a key special teams cog in his final (ensured) season…Can't be a step slow if you don't bring the heat on every hit – it's a new world in college football and every back seven player must be able to run …Encouraging for Posluszny: he looked better (quicker) in short coverage as the half progressed…Too many false steps when breaking down in space…

Redshirt-freshman Justin Utupo likely has a year on the Scout Team to fully adapt to his new position (DE last fall) – his 2012 spring status and opportunity for advancement increases if both McDonald and Posluszny move on after graduation…Utupo had a few issues shedding blocks in his first half scrimmage action...His struggles in space and ability to bring his feet/come under control, are understandable as Utupo's past experience was that of a forward moving pass-rusher…Four years of eligibility remain, so like converted wide receiver (from quarterback) Luke Massa in his position switch, there's no rush to contribute in 2011 for Utupo.

Anthony McDonald's label as a better coverage player than run support competitor still applies – and August will be crucial for the senior inside ‘backer who must shake off a series of injuries over the last three years: torn ACL; serious concussion; hyper extended knee, torn pectoral muscle (surgery in March)…Can McDonald rebound with a strong August and battle Fox/Moore for the No. 3 or No. 4 inside ‘backer role? Can he reclaim a starting spot on the coverage teams where he excelled in 2009? And more important, can he avoid the injury bug that has ruined two of his three collegiate seasons to date?

Diaco on the backups inside: "To say we're a long way away from being formidable, we're looking at the thing from top to bottom. You may be looking at it from a sheet of paper and one dimension. We're looking at it as a life and a sphere where, if we put the backup MIKE in there, we can't function right now. So we won't be formidable.

"We're going to have to put him in and we're going to have to put a lot of guys in. So we have a long way to go. Those young guys are not ready to go in the game and defensively we have a long way to go." Top Stories