LinebackersThe unit won't incur heavy losses in terms of 2011 production, though four contributing players will likely not be in an Irish uniform in 2012:
Departing: Senior outside linebackers Darius Fleming and Steve Filer have exhausted their eligibility and cannot return for 2012. Senior inside linebackers David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald are eligible to apply for a 5th season but both could be denied an extra season by the addition of more commitments to the 2012 recruiting class.
Players Returning: The 12-man crew should see some spring and off-season shuffling:
- Junior (Mike) Manti Te'o – The Butkus finalist is the undisputed key to the 2012 defense. Can he emerge from the "land of the very, very good" and become great?
- Junior (Will) Dan Fox – Won the starting role over Carlo Calabrese in fall camp and surprised many by starting 12 games, then winning the team's Top Defensive Newcomer award at season's end.
- Junior (Will) Carlo Calabrese – Production dipped from his breakout redshirt-freshman season but will enter the spring ready to battle for his starting spot with Fox (above).
- Sophomore (Dog) Prince Shembo – Performed admirably but appeared a fish out of water in space this fall. Shembo served as the team's dime package defensive end – a role for which he's much better suited than that of covering receivers, ‘backs, and tight ends in space.
- Sophomore (Dog) Danny Spond – Early hamstring injury dented his total scrimmage snaps, but Spond is a valuable special teams player entering his second spring.
- Sophomore (Mike) Kendall Moore – Won the backup job behind Manti Te'o during the season which is akin to being Tom Brady's backup quarterback…not a lot of meaningful playing time was possible for the redshirt-freshman competitor in 2011.
- Sophomore (Mike/Will) Justin Utupo – Has found a niche blocking on the kick coverage unit. (We'll have more on Utupo when we review the Irish special teams)
- Freshman (Dog) Troy Niklas – I'd be shocked if he stayed at Dog/Drop, regardless, he'll be on the field more in 2012. A physical specimen that should evolve into another pass-rusher up front.
- Freshman (Cat) Ishaq Williams – Was (technically) the first freshman to hit the field in 2011 but likely could have used a year of seasoning as he had minimal playing time from scrimmage. Ascends to the No. 1 Cat LB if no players are moved to the spot to compete with the promising sophomore athlete.
Potentially Returning: David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald. The former was a solid special teams contributor for most of 2011. His classmate McDonald has suffered myriad injuries since enrollment in 2008 (ACL, concussion, hyper extended knee, shoulder to name a few). McDonald challenged for the Will LB starting role in August camp 2010.
Incoming: A trio of current freshmen were withheld from action in 2011:
- Freshman (Dog) Ben Councell – Athletic, rangy, the perfect Dog/Drop linebacker prospect though Notre Dame turned to safety Jamoris Slaughter for the role late in 2011.
- Freshman (Will) Anthony Rabasa – Viewed by many as a pass-rushing edge player coming out of high school, Rabasa moved inside early in his Irish tenure but his progress last season was cut short by September shoulder surgery. He's expected to be ready to compete for a role in the spring.
- Freshman (Mike) Jarrett Grace – Mentioned throughout the season by head coach Brian Kelly when the coach was asked about the team's top scout team defenders last fall. Athletic at 6'2 ½" 240 pounds and will have quite a battle with Kendall Moore (above) for the backup role to Te'o.
Potential linebacker recruits include safety Nick Baratti and defensive end Romeo Okwara (a potential Cat ‘backer down the line). Baratti falls into coach Kelly's "Big Skill" recruiting profile, which means the head coach could evaluate him at safety, inside or outside linebacker, or even running back (unlikely, but within profile as an example).
Potential Position Switches: Troy Niklas to defensive end or Cat linebacker; Prince Shembo to Cat linebacker.
Hunch: Niklas emerges on the team's two-deep at defensive end next season (Aaron Lynch, Kapron Lewis-Moore, and Stephon Tuitt are locks), playing often in dime packages as a pass-rusher and player that can drop into short zone coverage when needed.
Projected Spring Depth ChartBelow is my best guess at both sets exiting spring ball (a change from the norm in our position breakdowns because it's irrelevant how this group enters the spring session. Movement is guaranteed):
First Unit: Troy Niklas (Cat), Manti Te'o (Mike), Dan Fox (Will), Prince Shembo (Dog)
Second Unit: Ishaq Williams (Cat), Kendall Moore (Mike), Carlo Calabrese (Will), Ben Councell (Dog)
Third Unit: Prince Shembo (Cat), Jarrett Grace (Mike), Anthony Rabasa (Will), Danny Spond (Dog)
Reserve: Justin Utupo
Hunch II: Shembo will get work at both the Cat and Dog, with August camp determining his main position for 2012.
Note(s): Notre Dame's dime package defense included two outside linebackers: Darius Fleming and Prince Shembo, as defensive ends in a 4-3 front. Expect a heavy dose of that next season as well, with Williams, Niklas, and Shembo all in play for the role(s).
Next in our position previews – the Irish defensive backs.