Half-full...I think

Off-season argument No. 2 (with myself) involves the team's linebacker depth for 2011.

Off-season arguments among Irish fans and detractors has caused minor re-evaluation of my prevailing belief since the 2010 season's conclusion:

Notre Dame's going to turn the corner in 2011. In other words, the days of consecutive defeats season after season have passed – no longer will three wins be considered a streak of which to boast.

But a closer, critical look often offers ample contradictory evidence to to any viewpoint.

I figured the best way to work through these incongruous feelings is through a series of healthy, unbiased arguments – with myself.

Next in this summer series: a half-empty/half-full overview of the Irish linebackers.

For the first installment, and a review of the team's solid defensive line, click here.

Glass half-full: talented, tiered two-deep

Three returning starters, including one first-team All-America candidate and another potential top 10 nationally at his position: the 2011 Irish linebackers corps is poised to make plays, both off the edge and at the point, en route to a standout defensive season.

MIKE LB Manti Te'o and CAT ‘backer Darius Fleming lead the experienced group, one that boasts 41 starts and 118 games played among its ranks. Junior Carlo Calabrese returns after starting the season's first eight games last fall – arguably matching Te'o's on-field impact in three of his first five career contests (Purdue, Michigan and Boston College – during which the he was the game's defensive MVP).

Three starting spots are nailed down with the fourth in heavy competition between a pair of sophomores with disparate, but in tandem, complimentary skills: Prince Shembo and Danny Spond.

Each class is well-represented in the backup ranks, with seniors Steve Filer and Anthony McDonald slated for reserve duty, junior Dan Fox fighting sophomore Kendall Moore for the role of third inside ‘backer at the conclusion of spring ball, and January freshman Ishaq Williams capable of both an early and late-season impact, much like his predecessor Shembo last year. Senior David Posluszny – the unit's least experienced veteran – and a trio of incoming freshmen add further competition to the ranks.

Most important, the unit will have more than a calendar year in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's system by the time it endures its first test next September. From the indomitable Te'o through the incoming summer trio, the Irish linebackers boast prowess and potential in 2011.

Of course, on the other hand…

Glass half-empty: house of cards?

During his four seasons as a contributor, Irish fans were often split in their opinions of graduated senior Brian Smith. That divide continued through the first eight weeks of the 2010 season as Smith served the unfamiliar role of first linebacker off the bench (after starting 21 of his previous 23 contests). Then, opportunity knocked.

Starting WILL LB Carlo Calabrese injured his hamstring vs. Navy; Smith shifted from backup DOG (outside) to starting WILL (inside) and proceeded to play the best football of his college career: five games, five starts, 27 tackles (including two for lost yardage), a sack, an interception, a forced fumble and four of his six passes defended on the season.

That tour de force not coincidentally coincided with a 4-1 Irish record over a five game finish, included among them for Smith: an Irish Eyes' defensive game ball for his career-defining effort in the streak-snapping victory at USC.

In 2011, the Irish don't have that level of competitor ready and waiting among their backups at the position.

Behind Te'o (23 starts), Fleming (26 starts), and Calabrese (8 starts) is a group of eight veteran and three incoming competitors with zero (0) starts among them.

Dan Fox is purportedly the group's most versatile player, capable of work in a pinch both inside and on the perimeter; and Kendall Moore ranks as the reigning defensive scout team player of the year – would you trust either to perform in a multiple game starting stint as Smith did last fall? (If the answer is "yes", its inarguable you're basing that on faith and hope, as neither has endured extended, or in Moore's case, any, game action.)

Steve Filer and Ishaq Williams have the tools to fill-in outside, especially in a pass-rushing role, but there's more to the CAT position than going after opposing quarterbacks. Darius Fleming admits to struggling with the position through the first nine games of 2010 – imagine the adjustment for two newcomers to the role (Filer played just 38 scrimmage snaps last season).

Shembo could seemingly replace Fleming in the CAT spot, though that move leaves Spond and a host of completely untested players to compete at the DOG. And speaking of untested, Spond enjoyed 10 total snaps last fall. Shembo was a comparative mainstay – though in a defensive package that placed him along a four-man front with his ears pinned back to attack the backfield. Now he'll be asked to drop into space, covering ‘backs, tight ends, and slot receivers.

Finally, Smith proved to be light years better in pass coverage than was Calabrese last fall. Te'o and Smith keyed November's improved short-zone (and flats) pass defense, and Calabrese must improve "his fits" (to borrow a phrase from the coaching staff) if the defense is to return to its late-season form of 2010.

That's a lot of "ifs." And don't get me started regarding the need for 13 games of good health from Manti Te'o – without whom the defense would regress from potentially outstanding to eminently beatable in one fell swoop. Te'o's the key to the team's front seven, and our no-brainer No. 1 choice among the team's Indispensable Players. On a team that prides itself – and thrived last season – on the "Next Man In" philosophy, Te'o is one man that a surging, veteran defense cannot dominate without.

In other words, we've projected prowess upon the linebacker unit due to its featured trio rather than its foundation. Notre Dame's LB building blocks are in place – but the mixture for the mortar remains a bit thin.

Next in the series: The team's punt and kick return units serve as its obvious weakness…or maybe not?


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