Departing senior Joe Brockington led the linebacker unit with 108 tackles and only started 10 games. Junior Maurice Crum started all 12 games and logged just 84 tackles on the season, or an average of just seven per game.
The outside linebacker position was really a problem for Notre Dame last season. Neither side seemed to be able to stop the outside run, nor did either side log a great number of tackles. John Ryan started 10 out of 12 games and was credited with just 39 tackles on the season. The Irish used a platoon on the other side with Anthony Vernaglia and a couple of true freshmen. That side didn't produce much better results, although Kerry Neal and Brian Smith showed much more attitude, activity and athleticism to make plays.
It's just not the number of tackles, either. It's where those tackles were made on the field. A linebacker could end the day with 15 tackles and still have a poor game if most of those tackles were made 12 yards down the field, which is something we saw far too often in 2007.
One has to remember that a lot of the players currently on Notre Dame's roster were recruited for the 4-3 defense. They're essentially playing positions they aren't ideally suited for.
Maurice Crum returns for his senior season after serving as a captain for the 2007 season. The Irish simply must get more production out of Crum. To be fair to him, he was playing with much more weight than he's ever carried on his 6-foot frame. The extra weight made him look slow and plodding. Is it better to have a 240-pound Crum to be able to get off blocks or a 225-pound Crum who can use his quickness to make plays? Crum didn't get off too many blocks at 240, so I'd like to see his regain his athletic ability and see if he can make some plays behind the line of scrimmage. Notre Dame will give up yards in 2008, so their best bet to stop teams is to make plays behind the line of scrimmage, and you need athletes to do that. At 240, Crum doesn't appear to be an athletic player.
Toryan Smith will be the most likely candidate to step in for Brockington. Smith started two games last season and played in 11. Unfortunately, he only logged 14 tackles in his playing time. Smith is known as a run-stuffer, but he didn't have much production with that last season. Smith also isn't the most athletic linebacker and could be a liability in coverage. But, he was only a true sophomore and just learning his position. The Irish will need him to blossom this season.
The time is now for three junior linebackers. If they want to play at Notre Dame, they'll have to step up this year or they'll be passed by with a strong youth movement taking charge. Scott Smith, Kevin Washington and Steve Quinn will have to make a positive impression this spring and fall to stay in the hunt. Scott Smith appears the best candidate, and will compete for playing time inside most likely. Smith appears more athletic than Toryan Smith at this stage, and he has a big frame. It would be a pleasant surprise if any of these three stepped into a strong role for the Irish next season.
One current sophomore to keep an eye on is Morrice Richardson at the outside linebacker position. Richardson will have stiff competition with Neal and Smith, but he's a good pass rusher and can get after the quarterback. If Richardson can get the pass coverage part of the position down, expect to see him more than some think next season.
John Ryan is kind of a man without a position. Unfortunately for Ryan, he's probably more of a 4-3 defensive end. He just doesn't seem to be athletic enough to play outside linebacker in this 3-4 look defense. He's also not big enough to play defensive end at this point. My guess is he'll eventually move to defensive end, but I haven't heard if that change will happen this spring or at all at this point.
Along with Richardson, the Irish do have two very athletic and exciting players in Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Both players show excellent pass rushing skills and a desire not seen amongst many Irish defenders recently. Both players play 100 percent all the time. ….a sight for sore eyes amongst ND fans.
Smith is probably the better linebacker at this point. Neal is the most athletic. Both players should develop into great players at Notre Dame, but both did struggle getting off blocks and holding the point of attack on the outside. Once these two add some strength and improve their technique, the sky is the limit for both. If I'm Irish defensive coordinator Corwin Brown, I have to be considering moving Smith to an inside backer position and using both Neal and Richardson on the outside. The idea is to get your best players on the field, and I believe Smith, Neal and Richardson are some of the best three linebackers at this point.
Speaking of inside backers, the Irish do have two current freshmen in Steve Paskorz and Aaron Nagel. Thus far neither player has shown much. The scuttlebutt is that Paskorz is probably more ready to play than Nagel at this point. It will be a very important spring for both players. They'll need to improve their game a great deal to distance themselves from some talented freshmen reporting next fall.
The Irish currently have four linebackers committed in this 2008 recruiting class—three inside backers and one outside. They may add another outside backer in Keith Wells, but for now there are just the four.
Steve Filer was an inside backer the Irish targeted very early. In fact, he was one of the very first players offered in his class. At 6-foot-4, 230 pounds, Filer is the ideal size for an inside backer in this defense. He runs very well for his size, and can get sideline-to-sideline. The only question on Filer is if he's a better inside backer or outside backer at this point. Most expect him to have a great career regardless of where he ends up playing for the Irish.
David Posluszny is kind of the forgotten linebacker in this class. He's the lowest ranked, but he also hasn't played a lot of football the past two seasons due to injuries. Without solid film to judge, he wasn't going to get ranked high by anyone. Two things stand out to me when watching Posluszny on film. He shows excellent coverage skills for a linebacker—probably because he was a safety earlier in his career. He seems to anticipate things very well. And, he also shows an impressive leadership quality on the field. He looks quick and active for his size, but he's not the biggest linebacker out there at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. He'll have to gain some weight and get healthy before he'll see the field much at ND.
Anthony McDonald is a player I like a lot on film. He's a very instinctual player. He's always around the ball, and seems to fill the hole with authority. He seems to get through traffic very well to find the ball carrier. If there's a knock on McDonald it's probably his overall foot speed. Is he fast enough to be a sideline-to-sideline player? The difference is important because it's usually a difference between a stop at the line of scrimmage or seven yards down field. I think he'll be just fine in this defense, and should be the type of linebacker ND has been lacking for awhile.
Finally, the highest-ranked linebacker in this class is Darius Fleming. I'm a big fan of Fleming because he's a highly productive player while also being very athletic. In fact, I think he'll have as much impact on the Irish defense next year as Smith and Neal last year. I expect him to play right away and only get better and better for Notre Dame. He's the perfect fit for the outside position. He's a great pass rusher, and has enough athletic ability to cover in the passing game. He should become a great player for Notre Dame.
As I mentioned, I'm worried about the Irish linebacker position next season. I do think you'll see marked improvement at the outside backer position, but they'll still be very young there. I do think they'll still struggle a bit holding the point of attack there. Inside backer is another area of concern. I just don't think Notre Dame is currently athletic enough at inside backer. I think that hurts them a great deal in the run game. They will improve some over 2007, but how much will be a big key in how much success Notre Dame has on defense next season.
My guess is we'll see a very aggressive defense next season. I just don't think Notre Dame can line up toe-to-toe with the best teams and expect many three-and-outs. They'll need to make some negative plays to get teams off the field.
More athleticism is on the way with this 2008 recruiting class. The Irish are slowly building to what will hopefully become a championship defense sometime in the near future. They'll need to add some more talent at linebacker next season to get there.