In the end, the distance from Chicago to South Bend was one of the primary reasons as to why Darius Fleming chose Notre Dame.
"Oh definitely, that's the one thing I wanted to choose about here," the St. Rita High School product said. "Because my family can come and visit every game. My dad is really enjoying this experience as much as I am. This is a dream of his, I didn't even know about it. I like to see my parents happy as much as I am."
Picking Notre Dame, however, wasn't his first choice at first. As a matter of fact, the University of Illinois was a place that Fleming thought was right for him for some time.
"Honestly, me and my dad, we weren't looking at Notre Dame when I was being recruited," Fleming said. "But I really wanted to go somewhere where the program wasn't doing so great so I was really looking at U of I, but then it happened to be that we didn't have a great season, but I committed before the season, so it turned out pretty well. I wanted to go to a place where I can go to help rebuild."
Even though Notre Dame had arguably the worst season in its storied history, Fleming had no doubts that he wanted to stay committed to head coach Charlie Weis and the Irish.
"Actually, that really didn't bother me so much," he said. "It kind of turned out exactly like I wanted it to be. Like I said, I wanted to go somewhere where they weren't that great at the time. I looked at it as like, this is perfect. This is what I wanted to do. I mean, they had a rough season, but it happens to everybody, so I wasn't like, ‘oh my God, we're going to suck now,' I just wanted to go in there and help out as much as I can."
Although Fleming is slotted as an outside linebacker, the Notre Dame coaching staff feels that he could fit the mold of playing from a three-point stance. This is one of the main reasons as to why he chose the Irish. As a result, Fleming has been getting reps with both the linebacking unit in addition to the defensive line group. This experience has given him an opportunity to soak in the techniques and patterns of each position.
"Oh, that's helped me out a lot," Fleming said. "Like I said it's helped me learn those spots. That way I can show my athleticism a little. I can drop back or rush the passer. That's another reason why I came here, you know, it's something different, it's not just the same thing. I want to get a couple of interceptions and like three or four sacks a game, so I'm looking forward to that."
Because of the similarities between their situations, Kerry Neal and Fleming have established a strong connection with each other. A big reason as to why they get along so well is because they are similar players and help each other out continuously.
"Oh me and Fleming is real close," Neal said. "We get along real well. We sit in the meeting room next to each other and I try to help him out with some things that he asks me of. He's got some real physical gifts. He's got great speed."
With this speed, it didn't take long for Fleming to turn some heads. Days into his first fall practice with Notre Dame, he did just that showcasing his velocity and pursuit ability. During a drill, Armando Allen had broken outside and seemed to have daylight. That was until Fleming chased down the speedy running back to break up the play.
"We'll be in the film room all the time and they joke about how fast I am," Darius Fleming said of the play. "I don't really see it too much because it's me, but they see it when we watch film. On that one I was like half a step behind him and I could've caught him, but we weren't bringing each other down. And everybody was like ‘oh my God.'"
For Fleming, speed is by far his best asset on the field although he is still looking to improve upon his velocity in addition to his strength.
"Definitely," he said. "At this point my speed is my biggest asset. My strength is definitely my speed. I think I'm going to be all right. My strength is up there but it's not where it needs to be where I can compete a lot with some of the bigger guys. I mean at practice, I don't have too much trouble going against some of the bigger guys, but I definitely want my strength and speed to be higher."
One theme the majority of the freshmen have voiced is the desire to overcome last season's struggles and return Notre Dame to a position of prominence in college football — a position at which Fleming thinks the Irish belong.
"I just want to help the team and get out there," Fleming said. "And help in any way I can. In the first game hopefully we'll take care of them and win and just get it done and bring back Notre Dame to what Notre Dame is. We're not thinking of the past, we're thinking about the future."
The Chicago, Ill. native thinks that to achieve this feat, all the Irish must do is perform to their capabilities through relentless play.
"We just want to try to win as many games as we can," he said. "Just play the football that Notre Dame is known for playing. I mean, last year wasn't a great year, but we're not focusing on that to get better. We know what we can do and what we're capable of doing. As long as we give everything that we've got every game, we're going to be all right."
To perform at this level, Fleming has been undergoing a process of self-evaluation, determining his strengths and weaknesses throughout fall practice. Like most freshmen, he has done well in some areas, and needs to work in others.
"I think I need to get more physically in shape," he said. "My speed is still there and they've been working us really hard. Some things I'm good at and some things I'm not, but there's a lot of areas that I need to get better, but the coaches and players have really been helping me along that path."