Monday Morning's Irish 101 Topic: The Linebackers
The unit boasts twelve options and eight likely contributors. There's an abundance of talent, speed and potential as well as guidance from a position coach with an impressive record of success. There's a natural leader, an old-school run stuffer, and a vital fifth-year senior. There's pass-rushing prowess; play-making ability; a freshman star-in-the-making; a sophomore star-still-waiting; and a freshman speedster that already knows his favorite place to eat on campus.
There's healthy competition at three positions and at least five members of the unit appear to possess the versatility to play multiple positions this fall.
Above is a quick summation of the 2009 Irish linebacker unit. Of course I omitted the fact that this is all supposition. Also omitted were the numbers 201, 169, and 126, but Javon Ringer, LeSean McCoy, and Antwon Bailey won't face the Irish this season.
On paper it appears the pieces are finally in place for a Weis-era defense to field linebackers that dictate to the opponent rather than limit the damage. Also on paper, in big, bold ink, remains a lack of first-down success; a few too many running backs tackled by Irish Safeties, and too few turnovers created by a unit that must take a major step forward this fall.
There's no positional grouping on the '09 Notre Dame Football team with a wider range for success or failure than the linebacker corps.
The Offensive Line? Too experienced to return to the dregs of yesteryear and it's off-base to assume a front five that produced the two worst rushing efforts in school history will morph into a unit resembling the '93 brick wall in ‘09 (improvement is likely...dominance is not). The Defensive Backs? They'll be anywhere from acceptable to outstanding, but there's little chance they're the group that holds the Irish defense back. The D-Line? Their ceiling (for '09) is nowhere near as high as the unit directly behind them.The strength of this defense should be the secondary. The relative weakness, both in depth and proven ability, likely falls to the defensive line. The question marks, the intrigue, and the suppositions belong to the twelve players highlighted below. It remains plausible though unlikely that the '09 Irish LBs will be considered a major disappointment at season's end. And it's reasonable to suggest the linebacker position will produce at its highest level since (at least) 2005. Fittingly there's an outside chance that the depth of this dozen will drive a BCS appearance.
The Leader – Brian Smith:The junior is slated to move from the middle to the weak side to better take advantage of his playmaking skills. Smith is (easily) the safest pick to shine in '09 but still has much to prove after an inconsistent '08.
The Hammer – Toryan Smith:Smith won the starting middle linebacker job in Spring Practice and he should adapt well to the physical nature of the position…against roughly half of the 12 teams on the schedule. We can reasonably assume Smith will handle his duties between the tackles but it's also relevant that the senior has yet to show he can shine vs. an offensive attack that spreads the field.
The Athlete – Darius Fleming:One of the team's best pass rushers, Fleming has moved from a DE position to strong side linebacker…unless the defense employs the nickel package in which case he's back with his hand on the ground ready to attack the quarterback. Rush; drop and cover; play over the tight end; hold the edge; communicate; learn the assignments but play fast…it's a lot to ask of a sophomore learning a new position.
The Veteran – Scott Smith:He's a goal line standout; an essential member of nearly every special teams unit; and a favorite of anyone that appreciates the essentials, such as knowing the assignment, and shedding, rather than running around blocks. But will extended duty expose Smith as a player better served for his former fill-in role?
The Star-Still-Waiting – Steve Filer:There's a legion of Irish fans fuming that he burned a year of eligibility on special teams, as if one-third of the game can be dismissed as some sort of nuisance or formality before the real action. Filer has an invaluable 100+ snaps under his belt entering his sophomore season – the speed of the game is no longer an adjustment for the future playmaker, but the intricacies of the defensive scheme are another issue.
The Star-in-the-Making – Manti Te'o:Rather than focus on hyperbole (and more supposition), it's relevant that Te'o appears versatile enough to handle two (WLB and MLB) roles at least in a backup capacity…and if he's as advertised you'll see him on the field for meaningful snaps on September 5 (couldn't resist).
The Natural– David Posluszny:If Posluszny can hold off the competition in the fall, the redshirt freshman and second-string MLB will remain one play away (every snap) from anchoring the Irish defense. Despite incoming and veteran talent around him I'm willing to wager Posluszny will grow into a two-year starter (and three-year contributor) for the program.
The Freshman with a Leg Up – Zeke Motta:There's more to the game at this level than just running and hitting…but it certainly doesn't hurt that early enrollee Zeke Motta has proven he can do both. Motta led the defense(s) in the Blue-Gold Game with seven tackles – a quaint footnote to his upcoming career and one that will cease to matter after the first whistle blows in August. Regardless, it was a nice start for a kid that should have been blowing off high school study hall last spring.
Time is on his Side – Anthony McDonald:It would be a major surprise if McDonald is the sixth linebacker to take the field vs. Nevada. It'd be a pleasant surprise if he can work into that role by early January.
The Future – Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox:Unless something unforeseen (injuries, unit-wide ineffectiveness) or exciting happens (Calabrese or Fox is absolutely lights out in August) neither is likely to crack the two-deep depth chart this fall. Both, however, have a skill set that could be valuable to the Notre Dame's special teams: Fox appears to be comfortable running and hitting while Calabrese certainly appears comfortable with the physical nature of the game.