Team Preview: Linebackers

The Irish are loaded with numbers at linebacker, but there aren't a lot of known commodities at this point at the position. Notre Dame is certainly becoming more athletic at the position, but the unit will need to be more productive in 2008 for the Irish to have a better season than last year.

A look at 2007 defensive stats shows that two linebackers were among the top four tacklers in 2007. That should be expected, and fifth-year senior Maurice Crum, Jr. returns as the top returning tackler and leader of the Irish defense. However, Crum logged just 84 tackles in the 12 games he started, or an average of just seven tackles a game. One would expect an inside backer to average quite a few more than seven tackles a game.

There are a number of reasons for the low number of tackles for the linebackers last year, but one of the main reasons was the Irish backers weren't very successful avoiding and getting off blocks from the opposition. Also, the defensive linemen weren't tying up the opposition to give the linebackers the freedom to make more tackles. In other words, it wasn't just a linebacker problem.

As we mentioned in the previous article previewing the defensive line, we're not exactly certain which defense, a 4-3 look or a 3-4 look, the Irish will play most of the time. Some players mentioned in this article could very well become swing players and line up defensive end in the 3-4 look.

The Knowns

Maurice Crum is back for his final season for the Irish. Crum has started three seasons for ND and will also serve his second term as Irish captain for the defense. Crum was banged up most of the year last year, and the injuries are likely the reason his production suffered. Crum has actually played for four different linebacker coaches at ND, and has had to learn three different defenses since enrolling at Notre Dame. He's a steady performer who could be set for a breakout year in his final season. Linebacker coach Jon Tenuta likes to let his linebackers attack the line of scrimmage, and that's probably Crum's best attribute as a linebacker.

Sophomore Brian Smith should also benefit from working under Tenuta. We're just not certain which position he'll play at this point. Last season the 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker lined up as an outside backer in the 3-4 look defense. He recorded 25 tackles in limited action, including 4 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Smith and classmate Kerry Neal added some much needed fire to the Irish defense and we expect him to do the same this season. At the end of spring practice Smith was lining up often at the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 look, and we expect to see that look more often than not in 2008. If we do, the sophomore appears to be the most likely candidate to play the middle backer position.

Smith's partner in crime, Kerry Neal, will also see a great deal of action in 2008. Also listed around 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Neal is a great pass rusher and enthusiastic player who covers a lot of ground quickly. Neal also recorded 20 tackles last season in limited action, and two sacks. Neal should apply a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. He'll likely be used as either an outside backer in the 3-4 or a defensive end in the 4-3 look defense.

Junior Morrice Richardson has made a steady climb up the depth chart and should make a solid contribution to the Irish defense this season. The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Richardson will likely play a very similar role to Neal. He'll line up some at outside linebacker, and should also be a pass-rushing specialist in a defensive end spot in the 4-3 defense. We expect to see a lot of Neal and Richardson on the field, especially on third-and-long situations.

Sophomore Harrison Smith has really turned some heads in his limited time with the ND football team. The Knoxville, Tenn. native enrolled as a safety prospect for Notre Dame, but at the end of spring practice he was lined up often at weak-side backer for the Irish. Listed at 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Smith would definitely be one of the fastest linebackers in recent memory. The sky is the limit for Smith, whether it be at linebacker or safety. One thing is certain; He's caught the eye of the Irish staff and is expected to play a lot for ND this season.

The Unknowns

Junior Toryan Smith will be battling for time at one of the inside backer positions. If the Irish are using more of a 4-3 defense, he'll likely battle Brian Smith for the middle backer position. Smith is very strong with his 6-foot-1, 245-pound frame, but so far hasn't been able to land much playing time in his career at Notre Dame. His best attributes are probably against the run, and he probably needs to work the most on defending the pass.

Senior Scott Smith is listed on the roster as an outside linebacker. Smith's early career looked promising as he played some meaningful minutes as a freshman, but the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Highland Park, Ill. native hasn't seen a lot of action since. Last season he did record 18 tackles in 33:06 of playing time and is a standout on special teams. He should play some in 2008, especially on special teams, but nobody is sure how much at linebacker at this point.

Senior Kevin Washington is another player who hasn't seen much action yet in his Irish career. Last season, his junior year, was the first action he saw where he logged two tackles while playing in four games. Listed as an outside backer, it will be difficult for Washington to replace players like Neal and Richardson at this point in his career.

Senior Steve Quinn is in a similar position as Washington. He's played sparingly at inside linebacker, and it will be difficult for him to see a lot of meaningful minutes this season at linebacker. He does play a lot of special teams and is valuable to the Irish in this role.

Junior Kallen Wade is listed as an outside backer for the Irish, but could also see action at the defensive end position in the 4-3 defense. Wade has played very little in his career and has yet to register a tackle. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Ohio native suffered a personal tragedy with the loss of his mother last season, so he's been through a lot recently. He has excellent quickness for his size and could emerge as a player this season.

The Freshmen

First-year outside linebacker Darius Fleming probably has the best chance out of the freshmen linebackers to get on the field in 2008. Fleming, like Kerry Neal and Brian Smith, is a relentless pass rusher with the strength and athletic ability to play right away. But, he'd have to do a lot this fall camp to take time away from players like Neal and Morrice Richardson.

Chicago, Ill. native Steve Filer also should be physically ready to play in 2008, but he has a host of inside linebackers that he'll have to pass to see the field. Filer already looks like a senior with his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame. Filer is a fantastic athlete and most likely will see special teams action if nothing else.

Weatherford, Texas native Kapron Lewis-Moore is another big body who could be ready for action. At 6-foot-4, 235 pounds, the freshman outside backer prospect could very well grow into a defensive end in the very near future. He has the frame to add quite a bit of weight without losing his athletic ability. Our guess is he'll likely redshirt and will play more of a defensive end position for the Irish in the future.

Sherman Oaks, Calif. native Anthony McDonald is probably the most polished linebacker at this point. He's probably the most mentally advanced, but like Filer, there's a logjam of linebackers ahead of him. Physically, he's already 230 plus pounds and very strong for a freshman. McDonald could see a lot of special teams action, but it's not likely he'll play a lot at linebacker this season.

David Posluszny certainly has the pedigree to be a great player for Notre Dame, but he'll probably need to add a bit of weight to his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. We've heard he showed up in great shape and probably well north of 215 pounds, but like Filer and McDonald, he's an inside backer prospect. There just won't be much opportunity to see a lot of action at inside backer this fall. Special teams would be his best shot to see the field.

Notre Dame has plenty of linebacker prospects to choose from this season. The unit as a whole seems to be bigger, stronger and more athletic than in previous years. Most of these players listed above run very well for their size.

What will be interesting is to see how the Irish defensive staff decides to use them this season and in the future. The idea is to get your best players on the field. At this time, I'd say the best players are Brian Smith, Harrison Smith, Maurice Crum, Jr. Kerry Neal and Morrice Richardson. This is why I think you'll see more of a 4-3 look on defense this year. They may give up some size with this lineup, but it should be a very fast and athletic group who can make a lot of negative-yardage plays. It will likely be difficult for the Irish defense to dominate up front on the defensive line due to the lack of talent and experience up front, so the Irish will have to find ways to make a lot of negative-yardage plays. The lineup mentioned above probably gives them the best chance of doing that.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories