Second Level ReclamationEntering the season, Notre Dame's defense had, by most judgments, two sure things among its four-man linebacker corps: MIKE linebacker Manti Te'o inside, and CAT ‘backer Darius Fleming on the perimeter.
The position opposite Fleming – the Drop/DOG – would be manned by the team's reigning Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Prince Shembo, but the sophomore was in a far different role than the pass-rush heavy duties he fulfilled in 2010.
According to Irish head coach Brian Kelly, both outside linebacker positions have enjoyed much more consistent play than last year's output.
The sextet has produced 35 tackles including 6.5 for lost yardage, with 3.5 sacks, a pair of QB Hurries, and a pass breakup. The majority of those numbers – half in nearly every instance – have been supplied by Fleming.
"I would say that we placed a high demand on him and we're demanding that kind of play from him," Kelly said of Fleming's performance in Pittsburgh that included a pair of sacks and generally fantastic effort in the fourth quarter. "Instead of just being a good player, we're demanding him to be a great player. And he's risen to that challenge. We're challenging him every day: ‘Two sacks one weekend; are you a real player? You need two more next week,' Kelly offered of his next-day treatment of his senior.
"So it's always been those jabs at him to keep pushing him to be the kind of player we think he can be. And then along the way, you're gaining confidence as well. So I think both of those, demanding greatness and then confidence coming along with that."
Fleming hasn't attained greatness, but Notre Dame's two-game winning streak included nine tackles (three for loss) from the versatile ‘backer. Coupled with Shembo's pass-rushing effort in the fourth quarter at Pittsburgh (a key hurry and the game's decisive sack to force 4th and 26 on the Panthers final drive), the Irish outside linebackers have begun a necessary ascent if the team is to challenge for 10 wins by season's end.
But neither player technically fits Kelly's recruiting profile for the position, one referred to as "Big Skill" that includes a player in the 6'4-5" 250-pound range when he hits campus. Kelly however, was quick to point out the nuances of his oft-referenced recruiting profile.
"Profile is such that we consider speed, size, (and) all those things. But there's a category called ‘compelling features.' And each young man that plays that position has a compelling feature about them. And those can overcome profile at any time," he explained. "It might just be grit and determination or football intelligence. It might be that he's 5' 11, but he plays 6' 3 just because of his reach and size.
"So I always stay with compelling features because I always have to find those in Division II. I wasn't allowed to go profile; there was no profile for me," he noted of the sparse top prospects he encountered at Grand Valley State. "So I always look for compelling features when it comes to recruiting in our players."
Inside the game: While Te'o predictably leads the Irish in tackles (41 through four games), the job-share tandem alongside him has done its part as well, combining for 30 stops with 15 apiece from junior classmates Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
"It's been really good. Both of them have really done some great things," Kelly offered as an assessment of the WILL ‘backer position. "We matched up a couple of times one-on-one with the ‘backs (notably Ray Graham of Pittsburgh), so it forced us to go to nickel because we didn't like that matchup. But by and large our will linebacker has been outstanding in pass coverage.
"Calabrese has had a couple of really good plays in pass coverage for us (and) Danny's done a great job," Kelly said of the pairing that has also produced two sacks and three tackles-for-loss. "We've got some really good plays, especially on his pass coverage from our WILL linebacker position."
Barring rapid progression from Te'o over the next two months, the inside trio should remain intact for 2012. All are juniors, with Fox and Calabrese both eligible to apply for a 5th-year of football in 2013.
Notre Dame's rush defense has yielded one touchdown – a fumble recovery score by Michigan's Denard Robinson – while limiting foes to 2.8 yards per carry over the season's opening month. Only eight other teams have allowed but one score: Stanford, Alabama, Louisville, Utah, Wisconsin, Ohio, Arkansas, and Michigan), with Florida the only school among 120 FBS programs yet to be breeched. The Cardinal, Crimson Tide, Gators, Cardinals, Utes, and Badgers each rank among the nation's Top 22 rush defenses; Notre Dame is currently No. 25.
When in doubt, leave it shortModern quarterbacks, both college and professional, have apparently forgotten the long-time mantra of an uphill wedge-shot: Don't Leave it Short.
It's likewise the lament of free throw shooters in the clutch, mid-range putts, and every Hail Mary Pass in football history. But intentionally under-throwing wide receivers in one-on-one situations, especially near the end zone, is all-the-rage.
Whether you call it a back-shoulder fade (when performed expertly by the likes of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady); or it a bail-out play (B.J. Daniels knows its true); or simply call it a terrible pass with game-changing results (ahem, Denard Robinson) – regardless, a pass short of the target with the intention of drawing defensive pass interference has become the staple of the college passing attack.
The Irish secondary has been burned repeatedly by the tactic, and Kelly was asked how to coach against it. "It's a difficult proposition. If there was an easy answer for it, you wouldn't see them all," he offered. "I think the most important is you have to make a play on the ball when it's in the air. If you don't make a play on the ball, you have no chance, first of all, of not getting called."
5th-year senior cornerback Gary Gray has been penalized on four occasions by the under-thrown pass – three times in the end zone and another inside the 5-yard line. Two of those passes were caught for touchdowns regardless of the interference.
The Irish offense, of course, has used the ploy to its advantage as well, earning end zone interference vs. T.J. Jones in Ann Arbor and twice this season on post patterns to Michael Floyd. "We're good at under-throwing," Kelly joked in reference to multiple interceptions by his quarterbacks. "We don't need any more work on that. We'd like to overthrow it once in a while.
"What we stress on (offense) is make sure that the ball has enough air, and is in play that if we can't make a play on it, that we may get a DPI (Defensive Pass Interference). So I'm coaching both sides of that one," he said. "One from an offensive strategic standpoint, and then defensively, you gotta get your head around to have a chance, but (it's a) very difficult proposition as it relates to that singular one-on-one throw."