Spring forward, Fall back.

Taking a look at the linebacker position at Notre Dame caused me to think back only a few short years ago. In 2006 the Irish were so thin at LB, senior Travis Thomas, the #2 tailback, was moved to LB and actually started. Kudos to Thomas, but I don't think we'll be seeing James Aldridge playing Sam or Will in '09.

While not an elite group of players from top to bottom, the talent level at LB for Notre Dame is on the upswing.

FALL BACK TO 2008

The linebacker corps turned in a solid, but unspectacular 2008 season. I was impressed by their effort but not always by their execution. Some of this can be attributed to a new, attacking scheme. One advantage of a heavy blitz scheme is "more action, less thinking". By that I mean the players are not reading and reacting, they're playing downhill and attacking. However, that doesn't mean there still aren't nuances to learn, and improvements that will result from multiple repetitions and game experience.

One example that was a hot button all fall on the IE forum was the lack of sacks early in the year. The scheme often was still effective, as the pressure applied led to quick dump offs and incompletions. But to truly accomplish their goal, the Irish need to sack the QB. Two factors that cut down the sack totals should be improved through repetition and experience; the poor timing on some of their stunts and the inability to disengage with the opposing blockers.

Both of these talents can come natural to a player, but luckily both can also be learned through experience and coaching. Timing a stunt is important for multiple reasons, including keeping the blockers guessing up until the last moment and actually reaching the QB before he throws. The element of surprise is a blitzing linebacker's best friend.

Avoiding and breaking away from the grasping, holding, cheating hands of offensive linemen and backs (pass blockers are well-known cheaters) was a major struggle throughout the '08 season. Without going into much detail, there are multiple hand-fighting techniques, along with swim moves and rip moves. Blitzing linebackers need to "get thin", rather than simply running into the wall of blockers. Also, the same jukes and moves a RB puts on defenders can be used by pass rushers to set a blocker up and leave him in the dust.

I'm betting the more advanced linebackers will be getting a crash course on these techniques and many more this spring. With a year under their collective belts in this scheme, the focus will shift from mastering the various responsibilities in each defense called to working on the advanced techniques. Those little gimmicks, games, nuances and tricks are the difference between almost reaching the QB and enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes from putting your facemask into the QB's sternum and attempting to drive it into his spine.

GOOD-BYO TO TWO SENIORS

Team Captain and three-year starter Maurice Crum Jr ended his Notre Dame playing career in 2008. Crum was a blue-collar, lunch pail defender. He showed up for work, did his job to the best of his abilities, and knew his responsibilities. Being sound and disciplined allowed him to be in the right place at the right time. This resulted in a few spectacular games throughout his career, and many solid ones. However, he was at times physically out-manned against top competition. He struggled to avoid being swallowed up by run-blocking offensive linemen. All in all, Mo Crum should leave Notre Dame with his head held high. Team Captain, three year starter, degree. Check, check, check. That's a very nice college career.

Although he wasn't a regular contributor, I believe Steve Quinn had quite a bit of potential in this "downhill" defense. He showed very good instincts and an ability to strike in limited playing time in '08. I really wish he had another year of eligibility. One more year in this scheme might have allowed him to show what he can do. He left the Irish on a high note, playing a very good game in his finale against Hawaii.

SPRING FORWARD TO 2009

I would look for extensive work in pass coverage for the linebackers this spring. The various blitzes utilized by the Irish result in multiple check down, or dump off passes. These hot reads need to smacked in the face by a linebacker or safety with a golden helmet. When the scheme is perfected, the defenders will be able to recognize the probable hot route against any formation, depending on the defensive call. This experience should result in the interceptions and highlight reel hits every Notre Dame fan wants to see.

It would be difficult to begin any preview of the Notre Dame linebacking corps without starting with Brian Smith, the returning Mike (middle) linebacker. It's obvious he's the vocal leader of the defense. But he backs it up with his playmaking ability. While he had his difficulties in his first year at Mike, he certainly has tremendous potential. He was most effective coming off the edge in various blitz schemes, but unless another player shows the ability to man the middle, Brian will be the starting Mike next fall. If another linebacker shows the instincts and potential to play Mike, Brian might end up at Sam or Will. Whatever the situation, look for #58 to be on the field.

Toryan Smith had a good game against Navy in his most extensive playing time, but Navy is a perfect fit for his talents. Toryan is a big, strong young man. He should provide depth at the Mike position, as well as contribute in goal line situations and possibly earn playing time against inside run dominant offenses.

Anthony McDonald has the inside track to be the Mike of the future, but he'll be pushed by incoming freshman Carlo Calabrese. Spring practice needs to be a defining moment for McDonald. As the talent level increases, it is imperative for each player to show his talents, or he'll be recruited over. Both of these players are physical, hard nosed linebackers. Instincts, talent and coachability will be the determining factors as the depth chart is set next fall.

Sam linebacker (strong side, unless the Notre Dame coaching staff decides to simply play left and right, rather than strong and weak) is an interesting situation. Darius Fleming is penciled in as the starter heading into spring. Fleming is a tremendous talent. However, last year he spent quite a bit of time with his hand on the ground, playing DE. He registered one of the most spectacular defensive plays of '08 when he looped inside vs Stanford, running over OL Alex Fletcher, who'll be picked in the NFL draft in a few weeks, on his way to a great QB sack. Fleming did show some coverage skills in his limited playing time last fall, so with the right attitude and hard work, he could be entrenched at the Sam position for the next three years.

That is, unless incoming freshmen Zeke Motta or Dan Fox have anything to say about it. I don't watch a lot of recruiting videos, but I've watched both Motta and Fox. Motta had one of the more impressive videos I've seen. Zeke and Destroy. His skill set is similar to Harrison Smith. Is he a safety? Is he an OLB? Time will tell. But he's a very impressive young football player. Dan Fox is no doorknob either (for the Caddyshack fans). Fox is a rangy, athletic defender with very good ball skills. Ball skills are difficult to coach. Fox has a natural talent in this area.

Sophomore Steve Filer has the inside track on the Will (weakside OLB) position. Filer has good speed and athleticism. No player on the team has more riding on his spring performance than Filer. 5th year senior Scott Smith returns to challenge and add depth, as well as sophomore David Posluszny.

Oh, and if you haven't heard, the Irish signed a linebacker named Manti Te'o. Manti will be tried at Will initially, but his talent will be hard to keep off the field, at any of the LB positions. While I think Manti is a special football player, and will probably gain a starting spot at some time during his freshman year, I'd like to submit the following opinion. The easiest positions for a freshmen to play are WR, RB & cornerback. If a player is a freak of nature, he can play at one of these positions regardless of most other factors. Manti is a linebacker. Instincts and freakish ability will take him far, but he lacks experience. Add to that the fact the Irish have very talented players at each LB position. It's one thing to start as a freshman because the depth at your position is weak. It's another to jump over talented, older players. As I stated, I believe Manti can make this jump. But it shouldn't be assumed. Never assume, because… ah, you know the rest.

Notre Dame had another OLB last year. You might remember him. He wore the number 22. As I watched the '08 Irish as a fan, Harrison Smith impressed me. When I rewatched every game with a critical eye, he stood out. "Hayseed" made several special plays. The plays only made by top notch players. They're not always highlight reel plays. But when a defender defeats a blocker in space and takes down a ball carrier on his own, when failure would have meant a huge gain, he's doing his job very well. Harrison did this numerous times in '08. He has natural football instincts. God given ability. I'll admit I'm a DB guy. I'm very excited to see Harrison play the safety position. But truth be told, I have no idea if it's the right decision or not. This kid can really play OLB. He played it extremely well for a first time performer. However, if he takes those instincts back to the safety position, and does the same thing, I'll be the happiest guy on IE.

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE LINEBACKERS

I could be wrong, as I've been wrong once or twice or infinite times in my life, but I'll be surprised if there aren't a few personnel changes by the end of spring. The three linebacker positions in the Irish defense call for different skill sets, but they share many as well. Notre Dame once again has quite a bit of talent in the two deep at LB. I won't be surprised if several players are tried at multiple positions. With the talent on hand, one of the biggest challenges for the coaching staff will be finding out which combination of players, at various positions, give the linebacker corps the best chance to excel.

What a nice problem to have, eh?


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