The designation of "starter" isn't a crucial element in the program's structure.
"It's not 1A or 1B, it's ‘or," said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco regarding the Fox/Calabrese competition. "There truly is an ‘or' (designation) there. It's 1 or 1. We see them as both starters. I know that's hard to get your hands around, but as it relates to the game and the season, and different situations that arise during the game.
"Carlo and Dan are going to be 50/50 players unless something happens in the game," he continued. "Its fluid, if someone has the hot hand we'll roll with that, but initially going in, all things being equal, they're going to be 50/50, we see them both as the starters."
Defensive backs coach Chuck Martin has reiterated the same situation for free safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta (Slaughter earned the nod this week), as has offensive line coach Ed Warinner (Chris Watt will start over Andrew Nuss).
But Diaco offered an example that spoke to the team's vision rather than the media's standard practice of slotting players.
"There's first-down and second-down value," he began of players involved in his defensive rotation. "And third-down value. For instance, we consider Steve Filer a starter."
Filer, from an outside perspective, is the No. 2 Cat linebacker behind senior Darius Fleming. Barring injury, Fleming will play an inordinately higher number of snaps than will his classmate, but Diaco's point remains: there are more than 11 starters for his defense; the antiquated notion of a base defense no longer applies.
The spirit was willing…Asked Tuesday about the strides made by Fox since Kelly's arrival at the program nearly 21 months ago, the Irish head coach offered that his Will linebacker learned to embrace the collision aspect of the sport.
For Fox, it wasn't about his will (no pun intended) or desire, as much as honing his technique.
"I think I was a little bit more physical this year than last year," he admitted. "Taking on blockers more than trying to avoid them. Coach Diaco taught me how to take on blocks better. I'm doing that now."
Fox's ascent didn't coincide with a drop-off from Calabrese. The tandem's divergent strengths benefit Diaco's defense and each other.
"You never know what's going to happen. If I have a bad practice, I'm not the starter anymore," Fox offered. "It's not (set in stone) that I'm going to be the starter forever. We're pushing each other in practice so anything can happen with that."
Diaco noted that Fox's recent label as a player that previously deferred from contact isn't entirely accurate.
"I don't think that Dan really ever had contact issues from our perspective, defensively. Dan has not been a great tackler," Diaco said. "We see people that have trouble tackling and sometimes that's based on intent to make the tackle, and that's hard to change.
"If the player doesn't really initially intend to make the tackle, either based on not enjoying contact, or not having self-belief to make the tackle, it becomes hard, no matter how much work we have with them. To me Dan Fox was never in that category; he intended to make the tackle, he just fundamentally needed to have a lot cleaned up."
Re-educationFox, a high school safety and outside linebacker prior to the current staff's arrival, admitted to a steep learning curve.
"It is a lot different than outside linebacker and safety," he said of his current viewpoint inside. "It's a whole different battle, dealing with linemen. You have to learn to take them on because they have a hundred-pound advantage on you. You have to deal with that.
"I wasn't used to seeing linemen pull, and its kind of (an adjustment) seeing the ‘back with him. The more reps I had the better. It became instinct."
While fans may view the linebacker position at its basest form: find ball, hit ball carrier, Diaco noted Fox's responsibility and progression prior to each snap is fundamentally different as an inside player.
"The thing with Dan is he never got used to seeing the game from an inside perspective; he'd always been an outside player. To be in the combat zone, and see the game from that perspective is a hard transition, that was tough on him a year ago," Diaco said. "He's cleaned his eyes up to this point, but if that proves to be a problem, we know that Carlo can see the game from that inside perspective from being there his whole life."
The common phrase for Diaco's "combat zone" is inside the box. The differences between that area and the perimeter are stark in Diaco's scheme.
"The key progression changes (inside to outside). In our system, we don't mind changing the key progression inside, where outside it's basically the same key progression (each play): you put your eyes in a particular spot based on the formation, and that gives you the information you need next.
"Inside, it's really based on the formation. There's a lot more work from a ‘key-eye-focus progression' inside than there is outside. So he had to get used to that."
Fox also had to get used to the idea of hammering into a 300-pound bowling ball such as left guard and classmate, Chris Watt.
What is it about Watt compared to say, the much bigger Chris Stewart from last year's squad that differentiated the two?
"Yeah, that was interesting, too," Fox said of early battles with the 335-plus-pound Stewart. "Watt's a little mean though," he laughed. "He's got that…yeah."
We can assume "yeah" refers to a nasty streak and penchant for the physical. And the pair will take the field first vs. South Florida because of it.
Irish PairingsLook for the following tandems to nearly split snaps over the season's first few contests:
- Free Safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta: The versatility of both will allow strong safety Harrison Smith an occasional rest in what is an enviable three-safety rotation.
- Left guards Chris Watt and Andrew Nuss: Watt starts while Nuss will play extensively as the lead backup at both guard positions and an option at tackle in an emergency situation as well.
- Nose guards Sean Cwynar and Louis Nix: 2010 season-save Cwynar is the starter; Nix will taste his first action vs. South Florida and earn as many as 35-40 percent of the snaps over the 12-game slate.
- Will linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
Key backups: Barring injury, none should start but each should see ample playing time:
- Running back Jonas Gray: expected to bring a power element to compliment starter Cierre Wood's more well-rounded game.
- Cat linebacker Steve Filer: Reading-between the lines when DC Bob Diaco speaks can prove futile, but comments this week suggested the senior could be part of the team's nickel or dime package as a pass rusher.
- Wide receiver John Goodman: Appears to be the first target off the bench behind starters Michael Floyd, Theo Riddick, and Tai-ler Jones. Junior slot receiver Robby Toma is a quality No. 5
- Dog linebacker Danny Spond: His classmate Prince Shembo won the role but Spond's ability to cover the flats could prove valuable in back-to-back matchups vs. Michigan and Michigan State.