"I would say that, the production of interceptions was a rare, unique piece from the inside linebacker position," said Diaco of Te'o's absurd seven-pick performance last fall. "That was not necessarily an anomaly, but not something commonplace. But I don't see the tackle production going down at all. With that said, Manti will never be replaced here. He won't be replaced for me as a player, and he won't be replaced for Notre Dame as a player or student. He's irreplaceable figure for a University and a team."
But someone will replace him as the team's chief run-stopper, a reality which leads us to the next prediction in our season preview series:
Prediction #4 -- Calabrese will lead the team in tacklesFrom 1976 through 2006, 29 of Notre Dame's 31 season-tackles leaders played an inside linebacker position. The exceptions were safety Brian Magee in 1994 and A'Jani Sanders in 1999 -- both toiled for mediocre Irish run defenses.
In 2007, the trend came to an abrupt halt, as star defensive end Trevor Laws became the first defensive lineman to lead an Irish team in tackles since Steve Niehaus in 1975. The difference? Niehaus' '75 Irish rush defense was average (perhaps at best) while Laws' '07 crew was the worst in the history of the program.
Following Laws' one-man show in '07 was the purple heart effort of gritty safety Kyle McCarthy, who led Charlie Weis' final two Irish squads in tackles in both 2008 and 2009. Laws and McCarthy for all their efforts though led rush defenses that were porous at best ('08) and all-time awful at worst ('07 and '09).
Since, the rush defense has become the program's accepted strength, led by assistant coach Mike Elston's defensive line and Diaco's linebackers/scheme.
Despite their potential greatness, 2013 All-America candidates such as senior nose guard Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt aren't realistic choices to pace the current Irish in tackles. Both will see their fare share of double-team blocks this fall, but more relevant is that the pair's primary function in Diaco's scheme: to control their gaps and allow linebackers to make plays behind them.
Said 5th-year senior Dan Fox of Nix, "The way team's have to block him because he's just so physical and big, really kind of frees us up a little bit," he said of the inside linebackers. "You know, when the line comes off, it takes them awhile to get to us just because of how physical he is, how big he is.
"(Tuitt) plays on the end, but is just as physical with those (offensive) tackles. I know the tackles are going to have a hard time coming up to us."
With that in mind, below are the prime candidates to lead the 2013 Irish in total tackles:
5th-year senior Will linebacker Dan FoxRecorded 14 more than did Calabrese splitting snaps last season, though to be fair, Fox also started nine games (vs. Calabrese's five) and stayed on the field in more passing situations than did Calabrese. Fox's versatility should open the door for more snaps in more packages than either Calabrese or Jarrett Grace (below), at least in the season's trying opening stretch of games through early October.
Fox's greatest hurdle might be off-season shoulder surgery to repair a labrum injury he suffered -- and played through -- for two-thirds of 2012.
Junior Mike linebacker Jarrett GraceFans and media have been convinced for at least seven months that the rangy Grace will take over Manti's mantle at the Mike. I was among them. But closer examination of comments by head coach Brian Kelly and Diaco indicate that's no sure thing:
"I think the four guys that we know: Calabrese and Fox for certain, and then you add Jarrett Grace into that," said Kelly of the inside linebackers at spring's conclusion. "Kendall Moore is your fourth guy. He's got to find his reps along the way. That's pretty established, and then you have Michael Deeb coming in. Joey Schmidt has done a great job. We're really confident in his ability to give us some quality. He's not as big as we'd like, but he's very smart, he's on task, he knows his assignments, he's assignment correct to everything he does. So there are five, six guys right there."
Diaco likewise never dubbed Grace the No. 1 guy at the Mike, though he's never wavered in praising one aspect of the third-year player's game: "Grace is a high-effort player. He's a tough guy. He plays defensive football like you'd like to see it played. He's still new to all the small nuances of his fits in run and pass but we're well-pleased with him and his development this spring."
A source close to the team told me this week that he expects Fox (Will) and Calabrese (Mike) to start vs. Temple. Thereafter will likely be determined by the overall performance and grades of the trio when bullets go live.
Junior boundary safety Matthias Farley: Will be active in the box this fall but Notre Dame's safeties don't play the same style that enabled the aforementioned Kyle McCarthy to lead a team in tackles. If the front seven does its job, Farley won't finish higher than No. 3 this fall.
Senior boundary cornerback Bennett Jackson: Let's hope not, but Jackson finished with more tackles, 65, than anyone on this list last fall. He's the team's returning leader, trailing only Te'o and Zeke Motta in 2012 and will see plenty of action on the boundary vs. modern short passing games (bubble screens, quick looks, etc.)
5th-year senior Will (and Mike?) Carlo CalabreseCalabrese played the best football of his Irish career in the final three games of 2013, including against Alabama where he finished plays no other Irish linebacker could over the course of a frustrating evening.
The 5th-year senior noted last spring that his final season in South Bend is no longer a juggling act: he's a college graduate that can take a relieved class load and concentrate on football:
"I've been working on my strength and speed and diet," said Calabrese. "I think that will change a lot of my missed opportunities that I had. Just feeding off that, all those missed opportunities, I'll be watching that on film and tape and everything. Just having a better body this year, and toning down, I'll be able to make more plays I think."
Diaco noted near spring's conclusion that Calabrese had made necessary changes to his frame. "Carlo is changing his body composition. He's always been able to play everything we've asked him to, I think you'll see a different level from movement from him in that there'll be a lot less missed opportunities than there has in the past. I'm pleased with how his professionalism and his approach has changed."
Looking for an objective point against Calabrese's candidacy? Freshman cornerback Keivarae Russell made more stops (58) than did Calabrese's 49 last fall.
But my selection is final. Playing both the Mike and Will linebacker position, Te'o's former roommate Calabrese will take Manti's mantle as the team's tackles king -- with the lowest finishing number since Anthony Denman's 84 in 2000, a season that finished with a BCS bowl appearance.
Too many Irish defenders will be involved for Calabrese to break the 90-tackle barrier as the team's No. 1.
Note: Click the links below for the first two predictions in our season preview series: