Click the links below for the first four position battles in our series:
Remaining competition previews include: the third and fourth wide receivers, quarterbacks, and place-kicker.
(Unless otherwise noted, each player's class designations are referenced in terms of 2012, not last season).
Position Competition #5 – Dog LinebackerOur position battles previewed to date have highlighted positions vacated by graduating Irish seniors. Conversely, the Dog or "Drop" linebacker position, as it's commonly referred, returns its three main competitors from 2011: junior Prince Shembo, who started eight games; expected 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter who manned the position vs. Air Force, Navy, and the bulk of the Wake Forest game, and often against Stanford and Florida State; and early-season backups Danny Spond and Troy Niklas. Niklas started for Shembo vs. Michigan State due to the formers family emergency.
Slaughter won't technically start at the position because of the team's definitive need for his services in the defensive backfield, but the 5th-year senior's versatility will be instrumental in at least seven matchups next season.
Niklas has likely already outgrown the position: it's hard to imagine a nearly 6'7" 255+pound defender dropping into coverage in the modern game. Expect the sophomore to challenge at both the CAT and along the defensive front in the spring and through 2012.
Shembo and Spond – Strengths and Weaknesses: Shembo won the role over Spond last spring, his ability to secure the edge and provide a pass-rushing punch the determining factors. But the position's third and likely foremost requirement: the ability to turn, run, and cover in space and in the flat, never presented as a viable skill for Shembo.
Despite Brian Kelly's November comments to the contrary, I think the pass-rushing force will compete either at CAT linebacker this spring or perform largely in the team's oft-used nickel and dime packages as a pass-rushing defensive lineman, with the raw power to attack the pocket from both the interior or edge.
Spond was a rotation regular in the first two games but a hamstring injury suffered chasing Denard Robinson to the sideline in Ann Arbor knocked him out action for three weeks. He returned for the final eight games but played sparingly from scrimmage, at least in competitive contests. Spond's strength is in coverage and playing in space but he'd be put to the test in the box during matchups vs. power teams such as Michigan State, Stanford, Boston College, and even potent USC.
New Addition: Redshirt-freshman Ben Councell has the measurables (6'4" 235 pounds) and the purported athleticism and skills to play in space and hold up on the edge. Spring scrimmages will put him to the test but the heat of those battles are a far cry from Saturday's in Autumn, a reality discovered by Shembo and any other linebacker that manned the Dog spot last fall.
If the still-learning and developing Councell isn't the answer for 2012 Irish fans will again see multiple competitors at the position–the safety Slaughter among them.
(Barely) Educated Spring Guesses for the Dog Linebackers: No Irish defensive position battle is more difficult to forecast than the Drop linebacker role
- Niklas moves to the CAT position to battle with sophomore Ishaq Williams. Shembo is evaluated at both Cat and Dog but will be used in a unique pass-rushing role throughout the season more so than at any definitive position.
- Councell and Spond go head-to-head and exit the spring much like Shembo and Spond did last fall: 1 and 1A…Shembo won the summer/August camp battle decisively in 2011, due largely to his penchant for getting to the quarterback.
- This is a summer guess, but incoming freshmen Elijah Shumate and Nick Baratti will both audition for Slaughter's role vs. spread offenses that await the Irish. A hybrid backup for 2012 is needed, as is a lead competitor entering 2013.
- Notre Dame's base front will feature more four down looks, allowing the Irish to employ five defensive backs vs. teams that don't feature a power running game. The Drop/Dog position can again be lessened in its necessity as it was late in 2011.
Coach's Quotes to Note: Kelly took time last November to discuss the future of the Dog linebacker spot:
- "I think what you're seeing is we had to match up, we can't play a 245-pound guy out on skilled wide receiver every down," Kelly said specifically of a matchup vs. Wake Forest and his insertion of Slaughter into the role. "We have to make those situational substitutions."
- "It's game to game. Our schedule is such a unique grouping of games," Kelly said of the position's future. "(Against) Boston College, the Drop is very, very important. Michigan State (too). We just have to be flexible with it and realize we're not going to have four (deep) there. We're going to have some guys that have the ability to be hybrids, if you will."