Inside LinebackersThe team's deepest unit in terms of number, Bob Diaco can field a true four-deep at the position with Manti Te'o, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Jarrett Grace, Kendall Moore, Anthony Rabasa, Justin Utupo, and impressive preferred walk-on, Joe Schmidt. Only Te'o will exhaust his eligibility this season.
Given Strength: Manti Te'o – Potentially the nation's best returning linebacker, Te'o has started for the better part of three seasons and has established himself as a top-notch defender of the run while improving vs. the pass and as a delayed blitzer. A likely team captain, Te'o's return for his senior season is the No. 1 off-season storyline to date for Brian Kelly's 2012 Irish.
Emerging Competitors: Redshirt-freshman Jarrett Grace – The heir apparent to Te'o, Grace has impressed with well-rounded play, a hard-nosed demeanor, and what defensive coordinator Bob Diaco referred to as "off the chart intangible traits." Grace told reporters he's worked almost exclusively at the Mike linebacker (behind Te'o) which means his 2012 impact will likely be on special teams and in spot duty from scrimmage.
Unanswered Questions: Will the job share at Will linebacker continue, and can Dan Fox return from a recent PCL injury to again overtake classmate and chief competitor Carlo Calabrese? (Fox started all 13 games in 2011). Can Calabrese regain his pre-hamstring injury form from 2010 when he thrived as a run-stopping thumper next to Te'o? (44 stops in seven games including five for lost yardage). Where is junior (redshirt-sophomore Kendall Moore) in his development? Are either redshirt-freshman Anthony Rabasa or redshirt-sophomore Justin Utupo ready to contribute from scrimmage? Can preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt earn a starting special teams nod, working his way ever closer to the field?
Can Te'o evolve past very good to great in his final season? Can he become the big playmaker inside the program has lacked since Courtney Watson exploded as a Butkus Finalist in 2002?
Look Out For: Carlo Calabrese – The senior from Verona, N.J. lost his starting job last August and never approached his level of play from a sterling September string of games in 2010, his first season as a competitor. Both Calabrese and Fox have two seasons of eligibility remaining: Calabrese can bring the thunder when healthy and in ideal shape – will it be enough to offset Fox's speed, quickness, and renewed physical approach?
Unsolicited Advice: Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco noted of Jarrett Grace, "There's a lot of jobs to do. Manti has shown that there are times that he doesn't have to be in there or can't be in there. In those opportunities will be a time when Grace will go in. He's a hard guy to keep off the field; it doesn't have to be at Mike (LB). There are four running teams – he could be on all four. There are other sub package roles he could do. If he keeps developing he'll be hard to keep off the field."
If Grace keeps developing, Te'o could use the occasional break (perhaps a series each first half). A healthy, relatively fresh Te'o is crucial for two brutal road tilts: in Norman to end October, and in Los Angeles to conclude the regular season. Grace's occasional presence – if warranted, of course – during a physical stretch of games vs. Michigan State, Michigan, Miami, and Stanford could alleviate some of the wear and tear Te'o is sure to endure in the middle of the action this season.
Outside LinebackersIncoming freshman Romeo Okwara will likely join the unit in the summer. Sophomore Troy Niklas moved from outside ‘backer to tight end this spring, and four-year starter Darius Fleming will take his talented to the NFL.
Given Strength: None, unless you count Jamoris Slaughter's presence as a hybrid Dog ‘backer/nickel defender/OLB/safety, do-it-all defender – the unit's true strength. Though unproven, pass-rushing production is likely from one or both of the pair of Cat linebacker competitors, Prince Shembo and Ishaq Williams.
Emerging Competitors: Ishaq Williams – Has the size (6'5" 255), the speed and quickness, the power, and now, he says, the correct approach. The best sophomore pass rusher in recent memory for the program is Justin Tuck (6'5" 240, red-shirted as a frosh) – that might be too much to ask, but like Williams, Tuck was a rotational player on the edge. The Irish defense would be lights out should Williams emerge similarly.
Look Out For: Danny Spond – The former high school DB/QB/athlete could again be overmatched vs. power running teams on the edge, but his coverage skills are presumed to be far superior to his predecessors at the position (Kerry Neal and Prince Shembo). Staying healthy is Job 1 for the 6'2" 235-40 pound ‘backer after two truncated seasons, both of which burned eligibility.
Unanswered Questions: Will the Dog linebacker position be viable after first down in matchups against Michigan, Oklahoma, Wake Forest, and USC, among others? Is it unrealistic to expect the program to continuously produce a 240-pound ‘backer that can man the position: holding up vs. the run while covering fleet tight ends and slot receivers in space? (For instance, name the last Irish ‘backer who could have?) Would Shembo and Williams, not to mention the Irish pass rush and nickel/dime defenses, benefit from a two-year job share similar to that of the team's Will linebackers (Calabrese and Fox)? Will Danny Spond hold off 6'5" redshirt-freshman athlete Ben Councell as the latter progresses and adds strength? Will either Elijah Shumate or Nick Baratti – both of whom could outgrow a true safety position – receive reps at the position upon arrival in the summer?
Unsolicited Advice: A full-time switch to a four-man front with the use of a hybrid safety/OLB as a third linebacker seems to be the path of the defense if it can't attract multiple elite athletes to man the Dog position.
Notre Dame's defensive packages are numerous; many of them replace the Dog 'backer and/or hide its given weakness each week. If viable within Bob Diaco's scheme, eliminating it might be prudent in for 2013.