Insider Training

The graduation of the program's best middle linebacker of at least the last two decades leaves an undeniable void for Notre Dame's defense.

In 2012 and over the course of his three seasons under the Brian Kelly regime, Manti Te'o took nearly as much as he gave on fall Saturdays.

Sure he gave his all to his teammates, the program, and Notre Dame fans in his daily approach, but it's what he took from opponents -- and what they might take back as a result of his absence -- that's of chief concern for 2013.

For three seasons, Te'o took away the tunnel screen (or "Rocket Screen" for fans from the Lou Holtz era) from opposing play books, his instincts and tackling skills vs. the tactic too keen to challenge. You'll see it return to foe's game plans this fall.

Throughout last season, easily his best with the Irish, Te'o took away the middle zone read for quarterbacks, or at least made opposing passers pay with a decade-best in college football seven interceptions by a linebacker.

And for the first 12 games he took the opponent's will -- serving as the rock in the middle of the nation's stingiest defense. When yards were gained, touchdowns were not.

Notre Dame's new middle linebacker could play well in 2013, then likely play better -- or failing that, the position will be better -- in 2014 and beyond.

But a drop-off in terms of production and prowess from the most decorated defensive player in college football history to his successors is inevitable, and the candidates to mitigate that reality are in short supply.

Short Bench

Notre Dame's inside linebackers meeting room needs only a few chairs this spring, and even fewer of its competitors will be smashing pads.

Position Coach: Bob Diaco -- Enters his fourth season as the program's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. The former all-Big 10 selection inside likewise enters his fourth season with 5th-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox under his guidance. No Irish linebacker has played a college down coached by someone other than Diaco.

Spring Combatants: 5th-year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox; senior (redshirt-junior) Kendall Moore; junior (redshirt-sophomore) Jarrett Grace. Junior referred walk-on Joe Schmidt has been with the program and practicing at the position since the outset of the 2011 season.

Incoming Talent: Three-star prospect Michael Deeb (Plantation, Fla.). Its also possible that Cat prospect Doug Randolph will receive his initial evaluation inside, due largely to the dearth of scholarship bodes.

Returning Starters: Calabrese and Fox split the Will linebacker role in both 2011 and 2012. Calabrese started there in 2010 before an injury opened the door for then-senior Brian Smith, who starred over the season's final five games.

Fox and Calabrese will exhaust their eligibility this spring, which means even a roster novice knows that inside linebacker becomes a focal point for the staff's 2014 recruiting plan.

At least one current member of the roster will receive spring evaluation inside (Senior Dog Danny Spond is the best bet, and one noted off-the-cuff by Kelly in February). And preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt has cemented his spot on the team's 2014 travel roster, though the junior from Mater Dei High School (Orange County, CA) did well in that regard last fall, appearing in 10 games on special teams.

The Irish can survive the 2013 season with the quartet it has in place, especially with a true middle 'backer in Deeb joining the fray this summer. But improvement across the board is paramount, from Schmidt to starters alike.

Saving Grace

The most talked about true backup of the Brian Kelly era in South Bend is expected to ascend to a starting role this spring. Junior Jarrett Grace was lauded for his efforts on the 2011 scout team by both Kelly and Diaco. The same occurred last season (a better sign of his talents, as Scout Team plaudits are generally tossed around with impunity), whenever either was asked about an up-and-coming player fans had yet to see star on Saturdays.

Manti Te'o noted of Grace, "He's going to be the next big thing. His physical ability and his character. Jarrett Grace is one guy who loves football. He wants to go out there, he wants to smack somebody, he wants to run, and you will never, ever see Jarrett Grace slack off. Ever.

"I look up to Jarrett, he encourages me. Every play that goes by, I want to be like #59."

If Te'o can evaluate talent on his side of scrimmage as well as he tackled it on the other, the Irish middle of the Irish defense remains in good hands.

But Notre Dame needs more than just Grace to feel comfortable over the arduous five months between training camp and the 2014 BCS Championship Game.

More from Moore?

A redshirt-freshman season in 2010. The standard special teams action plus mop-up duty in 2011. But no step forward in 2012. In fact, at least early, Moore seemed to take several steps back, both in kick coverage and in his approach when he finally played from scrimmage long after games had been decided.

But to his credit (or perhaps to Diaco's), Moore reengaged for the remainder of 2012, the highlight of his season four total tackles in late season crunch time matchups vs Oklahoma and USC.

Now he has a chance to start. And though most of Irish nation has anointed Grace, there's no doubt the Mike linebacker role is a true open competition this spring.

Notre Dame will be better off its its not a slam-dunk decision from the outset.

Filling the Gap

Like the comfort of an old shoe…

*Expected 5th-year returnees Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox have logged more snaps than any member of the 2013 defense. Their experience and knowledge in the defense, and varied skill sets will be invaluable in a transition season in the middle.

Their improvement is essential.

For Fox, the spring will be about recovery after playing most of last season with an injured shoulder, one that required post-season surgery. For Calabrese, its a chance to ascend to a leadership role by example, less than a calendar year removed from an embarrassing arrest and subsequent suspension.

Fox was at his best vs. Michigan State, Stanford, and Oklahoma last fall -- that's encouraging. Calabrese vs. Stanford and perhaps Alabama -- that's remarkable, considering the play of those around him.

Whether the pair remains in a true rotation at the Will, or if the Will (weak side) and Mike (middle) become a three-man rotation, the Irish can't make it back to the BCS without improvement from the 5th-year senior pair, because the bell cow next to them is no longer around to pick up the slack.

(*No official announcement on 5th-year seniors has been made, but both were referenced by Kelly in January in regards to the 2013 season.)

Note: Previews of each unit in our spring series can be found at the links below:

The Next Wave: Running Backs

Searching for Six: Wide Receivers

Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight Ends

The Elephant Has Left the Room: Quarterback

Links Remain: Offensive Line

Power of the Program: Defensive Line

Safety in Numbers

Living on the Edge: Cats and Dogs (OLB)


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