Rookies -- Relative and Otherwise: Junior Ben Councell (field), sophomore Romeo Okwara (field/boundary), freshman Jaylon Smith and Doug Randolph -- the latter could receive an initial evaluation inside due to a dearth of bodies at the position.
Position Coach -- Bob Diaco: Enters his fourth season as the program's defensive coordinator and technically his third consecutive tutoring the outside 'backers (co-defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks held the title in 2010). Diaco's primary boundary 'backer has produced the following numbers over the coach's first three seasons in charge:
- Darius Fleming 2010: 49 tackles, 11 for loss, 6 sacks, 5 QB hurries, 5 PD, 1 INT
- Fleming 2011: 55 tackles, 7 for loss, 3.5 sacks, 7 QB hurries, 4 PD, 1 FF, 1 INT
- Prince Shembo 2012: 51 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 7.5 sack, 12 QB hurries, 1 PD
Established Stars: Shembo has graced a handful of pre-season watch lists; he finished among the Irisheyes.com Top 10 player list at season's end 2012. Shembo led the Irish with 12 QB hurries last year and finished second to Stephon Tuitt with 7.5 sacks/10.5 tackles for loss. Spond was the unsung hero of the 2012 front seven, even playing cornerback in certain sets and rarely leaving the field. The only Irish front seven player to garner more snaps over the final 10 games than Spond was Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te'o.
Camp Buzz: With starting positions set, incoming freshman five-star Jaylon Smith represents 2013's biggest camp curiosity -- and perhaps its best overall football player by the time the entire roster ends its collective stay in South Bend. Barring injury, Smith will play in 2013 (the guess here has been as a nickel package defender). He'll likely receive an initial position evaluation as the field or "Dog" linebacker behind Spond and Councell.
The Pressure is on… Ishaq Williams. It's time for the enigmatic former five-star prospect Williams to harness his athletic gifts and become one of Notre Dame's top 10 (perhaps top 7-8?) defenders this season, regardless of his reserve status behind potential All-America Prince Shembo. Diaco noted Williams was set to receive another, "10 to 20 reps per game doing different jobs." Those likely include a 4-3 edge rusher, a 3-4 boundary 'backer, and a nickel linebacker in place of one of the slower-footed inside 'backers.
The Battle is Between… Councell and Smith. Spond is the clear-cut starter at Dog entering and surely exiting camp. Councell was Diaco's "most improved player" during spring practice 2013. Councell enters his third year in the system, each of which has been playing the field/dog position. Smith's first collegiate practice is next week. The question is: where will Councell and Smith be in the pecking order after Smith has 10, 20, or 30 practices under his belt?
Wither? Romeo Okwara. The nation's youngest true sophomore (he turned 18 in June) earned a monogram as a 17-year-old freshman last fall, appearing in all 13 games. Unfortunately, that means the conclusion of 2013 will end the first half of his collegiate football eligibility. Buried behind Shembo and Williams on the boundary, and both Spond and Councell (and soon-to-be Smith at the field spot, could the 6'4" 260-pound Okwara (up 20 since he enrolled) grow into a defensive end for 2014? If that's a possibility, and barring injury to players ahead of him in the pecking order, would the staff redshirt a sophomore player that can obviously help them on special teams and in package roles this fall? Okwara will be a far stronger player when he's 21 -- it'd be nice if he were wearing an Irish uniform for the occasion.
BCS Dreams Because... Shembo is a legitimate top tier player and Williams ranks among the nation's most talented true backups. Spond is an undervalued, unsung player that excels vs. both the run and pass. He's backed up by two superior athletes including the nation's best prep linebacker last season in Smith. The position is stacked with both proven and potential players.
Cause for Pause: None. Notre Dame's outside linebackers were legitimately great for the last 10 regular season games (and the one in Navy) last fall before taking a heavy dose of humble pie in the BCS Championship game courtesy the Crimson Tide. That can't/won't happen again unless there's a rematch, and it won't look like that (defensively) if there is. This is Notre Dame's best and deepest position group by any reasonable measure.
Take it to the bank: Shembo will finish 2013 as one of the team's five best overall football players.