Hit first...cover later?

Irish Eyes offers a Pre-Camp Assessment of junior inside linebacker, Carlo Calabrese.

He was September's surprise – a throwback thumper at inside linebacker and the perfect compliment to All-America candidate Manti Te'o in the middle.

Then a sophomore, Carlo Calabrese had never played a down prior to his debut: a solid season-opening victory over Purdue. Four games later, he was the best player on the field in an unexpected blowout win at Boston College.

But Calabrese, and Notre Dame's season, took a turn shortly thereafter when he played the only poor game of his collegiate career and added injury to insult with an ugly hamstring strain in the team's humbling at the hands of Navy.

In his stead, the Irish defense played its best ball of the season, with the WILL linebacker spot occupied by senior Brian Smith and the position arguably enjoyed its most consistent, extended play with Calabrese, its past and future starter, sidelined.

Entering 2011, job one for Calabrese is to return to, and improve upon, that standout evening in Chestnut Hill, aiding the Irish defense in its return to the stellar 2010 season-ending form.

Essential Cog

"I've been well-pleased with maybe the last two-thirds or three-fourths of Carlo's spring. I feel good about where he is. After that, that next man in…I'm still concerned. It's still a liability. Those players are not able to come in and function at a level of Coach Kelly and the team and the community."– Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco on the team's inside linebacker position near the conclusion of spring practice (April 13).

Calabrese will again be viewed as a complimentary piece to his teammate and star-in-the-making, Manti Te'o, but the former's importance to the 2011 squad is evident in Diaco's telling quote – either physically, mentally, or in both facets of the game, the team's inside reserves aren't close to being on par with the position's starting pair.

After a rough go through early spring, Calabrese re-earned the trust of his frank defensive coordinator.

"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," Diaco said at the tail end of the spring session. "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."

The concluding statement serves as a subplot to the defense's near-future: Calabrese (and especially Te'o) show obvious separation from two-deep depth chart competitors – good health for both is essential if the Irish defense is to reach its potential in 2011.

Fan favorite: not enough

Two minutes spent with Calabrese is more than enough. More than enough to realize his approach to the sport harkens to a different era, one in which a true thumper in the middle, a fearless, block-destroying run-plugger that, though he might be missing that innate quality of self-preservation that gets in the way of a successful linebacker, still served as the key piece to every defense.

Calabrese loves to hit; to hit something, anything. Whether it be the guy with the football, the guy in the way of the guy with the football, or both of them. And like all relevant love affairs, Calabrese remembers when his began.

"The first time I smashed someone? I think it was my freshman year in high school. I didn't really know what was going on, but in my first couple scrimmages I went out there and started banging kids around – I knew I had a feel for it. It felt kind of natural."

It's an approach that immediately endeared him to Irish fans last fall, a season he entered as the chief unknown for an otherwise veteran defense.

One year later as one of six defenders to receive multiple Irish Eyes game balls for his efforts in 2010, Calabrese nonetheless has an obvious area for necessary improvement: his "pass fits." And the junior 'backer is working diligently to become a reliable low zone pass defender in his second season as a starter.

"Field spacing and coverages," Calabrese offered as the biggest challenges for both the Will and Mike linebacker positions, both of which he and Te'o have cross-trained. "If you get those down, you'll be better at both aspect. If you're at the Mike, and you know what the Will is doing, then you know exactly where to be and how to help the other guy (and vice versa). In the beginning it's tough to get down but it gets better as you practice more."

Should he continue to improve on both his current deficiency and obvious strengths, Calabrese will soon add to his resume the moniker of "Coaches' Favorite," as well.

In the film room: Calabrese in 2010

A look at Calabrese's telling moments from last season:

  1. Calabrese's best snap/contest: Leading 14-0 at Boston College with 6:11 remaining in the opening quarter, Calabrese shot through the left B Gap and hammered Eagles' running back Montel Harris a tick after he received the hand-off. The play resulted in a three-yard loss and BC punted two snaps later. Calabrese earned Irish Eyes' game MVP honors for his 10-tackle effort, with 3.5 of his stops resulting in lost yardage, with a QB sack intermixed.

  2. Unsung moment – Michigan: Delivered a big hit on tailback inVincent Smith in pass coverage, drilling the runner after the catch to force a punt with the Irish trailing 21-17. Calabrese was targeted in coverage on the play and he responded, his efforts leading to the go-ahead touchdown pass from Dayne Crist to Kyle Rudolph, a thrilling 95-yarder just one scrimmage snap later that gave the Irish a 24-21 lead with under four minutes remaining.

  3. Unsung moments – Michigan State: Stayed home on 3rd and 6 as the inside spy vs. QB Kirk Cousins, then stepped up to record the team's first sack of the evening, forcing a fourth-quarter punt with the Irish holding a 28-21 edge. Calabrese later recorded the singular key stop of the Spartan's final regulation drive, combining with nose guard Ian Williams and outside linebacker Darius Fleming for an 8-yard sack of Cousins on the Spartans 31-yard line. MSU lost yardage on the next two snaps as well, and punted to the Irish with 33 seconds remaining.

  4. Room to improve – Navy: Calabrese failed to make a solo tackle as a starting inside linebacker in nearly three quarters of football vs. a triple-option offense. Late in the first-half, he correctly read a pitch to the wide side but was stiff-armed to the ground by slot-back Gee Gee Greene, who sprinted 9 yards for a diving TD to end the half, giving the Midshipmen an 11-point edge entering the break. Calabrese was then controlled by 5'8" 168-pound slot-back Aaron Santiago on the second half's opening play, a 12-yard gain over right tackle, and treated the same by fullback Alexander Teich on the drive's concluding touchdown run that gave Navy a 28-10 lead.

    After a strong first two months, Calabrese struggled mightily in his first-ever matchup with a true triple-option offense.

2010 Observations: Knows how to attack the gap with authority, both to make a play and simply fill his role as a team defender up front…Effectively cleans up runners fighting through a teammate's tackle with authority...If this were 1990, and football still featured power offenses, Calabrese would be an All-American candidate by 2012; he ultimately fared well as both a two and three-down player in Diaco's defense, though had his share of struggles in low zone coverage...

Was arguably the third-best player on the back seven through the seasons' first five games (behind Manti Te'o and Gary Gray) but its also relevant that the defense played its best ball late in the year with Calabrese sidelined, or limited by a hamstring injury…

Numbers of Note: Made just one solo tackle (four games and one start) from Game 8 through Game 13…19 tackles in season's first two contests ranked second on the squad, while 18 combined stops in back-to-back wins vs. BC and Pittsburgh paced the defense in Weeks 5 and 6…Started the season's first eight games and played in 11, missing the Tulsa and Utah contests due to a hamstring injury – has not started since injury in Week Eight loss to Navy…Recorded at least seven tackles in five of eight starts…Did not force a fumble, recover a fumble, record a pass breakup, or interception, last fall…His 3.5 sacks tied for sixth on the squad while 5 TFL tied for fifth…

60 tackles and 5 TFL in 8 starts/11 games compared favorably to Manti Te'o's first year numbers of 63 tackles and 5.5 TFL in 10 starts/12 games (both played the bulk of eight contests, though Te'o was a true freshman while Calabrese was in his second season at the program)…Calabrese's 60 stops was the highest total for a redshirt-freshman at the program since Chris Zorich's 70 as the starting nose guard in 1988.

Best Game: Boston College
Toughest Outing: Navy

At his best, Calabrese reminds me of: Former Irish linebacker Don Grimm (1987-90), a Sporting News honorable mention All-America in 1989…

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