Turning the Tables

Our Player Improvement series continues with a look at Notre Dame's linebacking corps, one that generated just three turnovers last fall.

We began our Player Improvement series Monday with a review of the team's three returning running backs and later covered its quintet of Wide Receivers.

Tuesday we examined the team's tight ends as a likely focal point of the offense, and Wednesday moved onto the quarterbacks, discussing the position rather than initiating another debate regarding the eventual starter. Yesterday we reviewed the relatively successful Irish offensive front of 2011; one that now must take the next step in development and play its best vs. the toughest defenses in 2012.

For the rest of Memorial Day Weekend we'll switch to the other line of scrimmage with a look at Notre Dame's need for defensive improvement among the position groups:

Producing the Pigskin - Linebackers

Days following the opening game loss to South Florida in which Bob Diaco's defense played well, if not heroically in defeat, the second-year Irish defensive coordinator was asked about the turnover differential: The Bulls forced five; the Irish zero.

"We had an opportunity. The ball batted (by Zeke Motta) and it pinwheeled in the air," Diaco said of a second quarter incomplete pass that could well have been intercepted by the Irish. "Another player (Harrison Smith) dove in and we have four guys loafing on that one particular play. Had they been giving effort, like they needed to be, and they gave great effort on all day, but on that one play, you could spot it. And it was a young player (film review showed Stephon Tuitt in his first game)."

"And as we move forward, understand why we were two steps away and if your play was a little different, how you would have been right there."

As a unit, the Irish were rarely there for the big turnover last fall, forcing just 14 while the team's offense suffered a whopping 29. And of those 14, just three were caused by Irish linebackers, including one on special teams:

  1. Navy: Freshman linebacker Troy Niklas recovered an unforced Midshipmen fumble on a kickoff return. The Irish capitalized with a touchdown on the ensuing possession for a 28-7 second quarter lead.

  2. Stanford: Darius Fleming's interception of an Andrew Luck pass is returned 34 yards but results in no points as the Irish offense continued its season-long red zone struggles.

  3. Florida State: Manti Te'o's strip of Florida State running back Devonta Freeman is scooped up by Zeke Motta for a 29-yard touchdown and 7-0 Irish lead.

The group wasn't replete with ballhawks in 2010, either, but the group forced four fumbles (Te'o, Prince Shembo, Kerry Neal, Brian Smith), recovered another (Neal), and intercepted two passes (Smith and Fleming). Seven turnovers forced might not seem like much from a position group, but it was much more helpful to the overall cause than last year's total that didn't see a pivotal play made until the regular season finale.

For Te'o, Calabrese, and Fox, the senior inside linebacker trio that will take the lion's share of defensive snaps, the goal is simple: pull off a series of career firsts. That is, neither Te'o nor Fox has recorded a collegiate interception, and Calabrese has neither forced a fumble or picked off a pass. (Te'o has forced two fumbles while Fox has forced one.

None of the three have recovered a bouncing pigskin in 57 aggregate starts, a statistic that appears remarkable until you realize that Notre Dame's defense has forced just 17 fumbles during the 26-game Diaco era (opponents have conversely forced 26).

Playing fundamentally solid, gap control defense has been the hallmark of the brief Diaco era. The Irish rush defense is solid, with Te'o an excellent run defender, Calabrese at times fantastic (early 2010) but of late pedestrian, and Fox likely a touch underrated by fans in that regard.

None of the trio has made many plays vs. the ball in the air. No modern defense can be counted upon if its ‘backers don't perform well vs. both the pass and the run on a consistent basis.

Changes Outside Too: Prince Shembo was mis-cast last fall as a Dog/Drop linebacker. PLaying in space was clearly not his strong suit and this fall he'll work in tandem with sophomore Ishaq Williams as the Cat/Boundary side ‘backer. It should be a formidable pair of pass-rushers and it is to be hoped the duo can handle coverage responsibilities on the boundary (near the sideline) as Darius Fleming did over the past two seasons.

The Dog will be manned by a trio: linebackers Danny Spond and Ben Councell, as well as safety Jamoris Slaughter. The latter will obviously excel vs. the pass but Slaughter might not be able to hold up on the edge vs. the better rushing attacks the Irish will face. Either Spond, Councell, or a combination of the two must provide improvement at a position that struggled mightily last fall.

The Irish staff expected Shembo and the position to be an "upgrade" over senior Kerry Neal From 2010. It definitely was not. Consider the Dog a 3-for-1 proposition next fall. The Will (Calabrese and Fox) and the Cat (Shembo and Williams) will include job shares as well. In congress with Te'o, the eight players noted above must contribute more possession changing plays than the the unit has seen over Diaco's first two seasons.

Yardage differentials don't win games. Turnovers do.

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