Fleming admitted his play through the season's first nine weeks had been below the standards he expected of himself and of those set forth by the Irish coaching staff. Notre Dame was mired in mediocrity at the time: a 4-5 W-L record the only relevant evidence of the work Fleming and his cohorts had invested. But instead of riding out a third consecutive disappointing season, Fleming sought the advice of his new defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco.
"I talked to coach Diaco (about his struggles). I was playing the defense that was written on the board," Fleming said of his first two months as a Cat linebacker last season. "I wasn't being a player on the field. After the Tulsa game I started to get more comfortable and it allowed me to play faster and stop thinking so much."
Eight months later, Fleming was singled out by Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly as one of the team's defensive playmakers…and maybe one of the nation's best.
"He'll be one of the more explosive players in the country," Kelly said in early August. "He's just more comfortable now. Last year it was all robotic. It was ‘get to this spot.' Now he flows to that spot.
"It would not surprise me that he becomes one of the players regarded as a national player."
At Tuesday's Media Day gathering, Kelly continued to praise Fleming and the Cat linebacker's role in the defense.
"He has the dual responsibility of putting his hand on the ground and rushing as a defensive end as well as dropping off in coverage," Kelly explained. "He, that individual position, builds that uncertainty in what (the offense) is getting as a pre-snap look.
"If he's one dimensional (the Cat linebacker) – if he can only rush the passer and can't drop – then everyone knows what you're doing defensively," Kelly continued. "He's now taken that next step: he's as good in coverage as he is on the line of scrimmage, defending the run or rushing the quarterback. That was the dimension that we needed in Year 2."
Opposite Fleming is a new starter at the equally important Dog (Drop linebacker) position, where sophomore Prince Shembo takes over for graduated senior Kerry Neal and brings a new dimension to the role.
"Now you have to deal with that same scenario on the other side of the ball," Kelly noted of the pass-rushing/coverage option. "What is (Prince) Shembo doing? Is he rushing or is he dropping? We didn't have that last year, quite frankly. We were at times a liability when we were dropping in coverage from that end. Now that's no longer the case."
(The 2010 starting drop linebacker spot totaled 38 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one pass defended, one QB hit, one forced fumble, one recovery, and an interception in 13 games last season.)
Potential vs. ProductionFleming ranks 10th in program history with 11.5 career sacks (classmate Ethan Johnson is 9th with 12.5 in 38 contests). The former is likewise the roster's active leader in tackles-for-loss with 25.5 over 37 contests.
To date, Fleming's numbers are neither in congress with Irish legend, nor with the lofty expectations placed upon him. Why such supreme confidence in a senior-to-be who has proven a good but not great player?
"It's the continuation of later in the (2010) season as well as what happened in the spring," Kelly began. "Those things gave us a lot more confidence in knowing that he could bring his game to a new level, and that has continued through pre-season camp.
"He's been a dominating player; he has overwhelmed our position on the offensive side of the ball at times," Kelly continued. "I don't use that word lightly; he has ‘overwhelmed' some of our players."
"Prince Shembo will bite your nose off," Kelly said of his sophomore over the off-season. "We knew that from the very beginning. He's just a tenacious football player. That's the way he plays the game."
Dominating. Overwhelming. Tenacious.
Three adjectives that have, with the possible exception of 2002, rarely been attributed to Notre Dame's defense over the last 17 college football seasons.
For Fleming and his fellow seniors, it's about time.
"We've been down rough roads, but that's part of the game," Fleming said of himself and his senior classmates. "We're at a point right now where we still have an opportunity to do great things. We just have to focus."
For Fleming, that focus is easier in the wake of late-season success and its carryover for 2011.
"I'm more confident in myself and my ability to play this position at a high level," he said of his progression. "At the beginning of the (2010) season I thought I was ready. But I wasn't. I needed those snaps during the first half of the season. I made mistakes, but they were needed to grow for this season."
If Fleming fulfills the soaring expectations of the coaching staff, it's a final season that could take the Irish defense to new heights – or better yet, for long-time followers of the program – to a familiar place in program lore.
Pressure Prevents PointsDespite recording just 27 sacks, the 2010 Irish boasted the third-best scoring defense at Notre Dame since the turn of the century (20.23 ppg allowed).
Just three Notre Dame teams over the past 20 seasons have yielded fewer than 17 points-per-game. Each has boasted a powerful pass-rushing punch:
- 1992: 36 sacks, 16.2 points-per-game en route to a 10-1-1 consensus #3 national finish. Outside linebacker Devon McDonald and defensive tackle Bryant Young combined for 15 sacks on the season.
- 1996: Set the program's single-season record for sacks with 41.5. Yielded just 16.5 points-per-game but finished a then-disappointing 8-3. Defensive end Bert Berry led the team with 10 sacks while fellow defensive lineman Renaldo Wynn added nine and outside linebacker Kory Minor chipped in eight.
- 2002: 37 sacks, 16.7 points-per-game, 10-3 (a worn-out Irish defense allowed 9 touchdowns in the final two games after yielding just 14 over the season's first 11 contests). Defensive end Ryan Roberts led the way with eight sacks.