Final Impressions: Linebackers

Our final positional breakdown examines the team's deep, competitive linebacker unit.

Final Impressions: Offensive Backfield

Final Impressions: Wide Receivers

Final Impressions: Tight Ends

Final Impressions: Offensive Line

Final Impressions: Defensive Backs

Final Impressions: Defensive Line

Linebackers: Rotation

Darius Fleming was very good last November and dominant at times vs. USC in an upset of the Trojans; for the Irish to be a great, rather than very good defense in 2011, Fleming must continue his ascent…Both defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly noted Fleming as a potential national breakout star this fall – a far cry from the inconsistent, still-learning Cat linebacker that took the field for the 2010 season's first two months…Fleming and defensive end Ethan Johnson form a rock-solid edge when aligned together on the boundary side (near-sideline) of the defense…

Manti Te'o must still show he can contend with ‘backs and talented tight ends in one-on-one situations, but I'm convinced he's the best in the nation vs. screen plays: tunnel, standard, and otherwise…Look for slightly fewer tackles (he posted a 25-year program high 133 last year) but more big plays from Te'o this fall… As noted here in May: Te'o is the player the Irish can least afford to lose to injury this season…

Through no fault of his own, Prince Shembo might be the guy that doesn't break through as expected as he learns the challenging DOG linebacker role…I think Shembo is your starting CAT linebacker next year when Fleming and backup Steve Filer graduate…Regardless, the sophomore is one of the team's 10 best defensive players and he had to be on the field; he's an upgrade over senior Kerry Neal as a college linebacker and should provide major impact coming off the edge as a pass-rusher…His performance vs. play-action and mis-direction over the first three weeks will be crucial.

Junior Dan Fox is the surprise of the group: while I was higher on Fox than most over the summer, I never thought he'd seriously contend with Calabrese for the starting role opposite Te'o inside…Though they'll split snaps, Fox's official starter designation is a testament to his improvement, but possibly, also to the season's opening month during which the Irish will face three offenses that will force linebackers to cover dangerous backfield weapons in short zones…Calabrese's physical play is essential for this defense's ultimate success; as his former high school defensive coordinator Joe Carollo noted in a recent interview: "Carlo knocks people on their (butts)…that's a hard thing to find…The junior thumper is underrated when employed in delayed blitzes as well...For those still shocked by the 50/50 designation between fan favorite Calabrese and the little-known Fox, it's relevant to note Fox can really move out there; I saw him smack and defeat bigger, veteran offensive linemen in the team's spring rodeo drills (one-on-one) as well...

Bob Diaco noted last week that senior Steve Filer is considered "a starter" entering Week One; he was likely referring to certain packages (Nickel, Dime, or both), but after two seasons of hearing similar rhetoric from Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly – I'll believe it when I see it…Filer is a fan favorite due to his athleticism and yes, status as a 2008 recruit, and he's a media favorite due to his personality and temperament in interviews – his success would be a welcomed 2011 storyline…I can think of at least five Notre Dame-related message boards that would explode should Filer became a pass-rushing force this fall…

Sophomore Danny Spond is a solid No. 2 DOG linebacker behind his classmate Shembo; Spond is a natural in coverage but its understandable the former safety needs seasoning to consistently handle the off-tackle power games that await the Irish this fall…Off-the-cuff prediction: Spond will see his playing time increase in Week Three…

Linebackers: Reserves

Senior linebacker Anthony McDonald has worked through a string of injuries to win a two-deep role at MIKE linebacker – not exactly a role with bountiful playing time options behind the All-America and Butkus candidate…Sophomore Kendall Moore is the assumed next ‘backer in line – reading between those lines, it appears McDonald's grasp of the defense and ability to align and communicate with the front seven gave him the edge on the 2010 Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year…Expect Spond and Moore to be regulars on the Irish coverage units…

Senior David Posluszny and sophomore Justin Utupo continue to battle but scrimmage time appears scarce (barring a string of injuries) this fall – I witnessed both on the two-deep coverage and return units though that was midway through camp…Reports on 6'3" 240-pound freshman Jarrett Grace have been positive across the board – he's the future at MIKE linebacker following Te'o's departure…Classmate Ben Councell has a leg up on Grace in terms of special teams work entering 2011 though expect both to be withheld from action…So too will be Anthony Rabasa as he acclimates to life inside; Rabasa is working at the WILL linebacker spot behind Fox and Calabrese…

Early Enrollee Ishaq Williams is in an interesting position: he appears destined for third-team CAT linebacker duties this fall but his athleticism suggests he should find his way onto the field over the course of the season – I'm not sure a redshirt would go over well here and there's no reason Williams speed/size/skill wouldn't work well on special teams…The highly touted frosh noted in August that he was tasked with learning to play hard at all times over the summer: therein could lie the early rub...Williams and Shembo could put on a tour de force battle next spring for the CAT role, though the prospects of putting them both on the field (with Shembo remaining at the DOG) must be enticing for the staff – still, better to ensure constant competition among the younger ranks.


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