Darius Fleming isn't the first multi-talented LB asked to fill a variety of roles for a Notre Dame defense. For two decades, Irish luminaries such as Andre Jones, Scott Kowalkowski, Devon McDonald, Bert Berry, Kory Minor, Rocky Boiman, and Derek Curry served in consistently changing roles for their respective defensive lines and linebacker corps throughout their careers. Schemes and position names have changed, but the roles remain largely the same.
This season, Fleming will look to add to the program's versatile linebacking legacy, serving as both the strong side linebacker (in base sets) and pass-rushing defensive end (nickel and dime situations). He'll be asked to drop and cover short zones for Co-Defensive Coordinator Jon Tenuta's blitzing defense while continuing to excel with one hand on the ground – ready to be unleashed on opposing quarterbacks when the team's best defensive unit, the nickel package, takes the field.
Fleming's new strong side role also requires tussling with the opposing tight end, a situation what will challenge Fleming to continuously improve his man-to-man coverage skills (jam/turn/run isn't nearly as instinctive as "go get the QB"). All of this for a player who sat out spring drills due to a shoulder injury. Oh yeah, he'll likely finish among the squad's top five special teams contributors again this season.
In baseball, scouts often opine about the (largely unavailable) "five-tool" player. An athlete that can run, hit for average, hit for power, throw, and field his position. Just a sophomore, Fleming's 2009 duties require a different, but no less broad skill set to satisfy the demands of his new role: (straight-line speed, lateral quickness, coordination, size and strength, football intelligence, explosive power, and toughness to name a few).
Fleming will face a wide variety of offenses and an even greater assortment of athletic opponents. One week could offer an opposing senior tackle that outweighs Fleming by 60-80 pounds; the next, a tight end built like a small forward, ready to challenge Fleming in short zones or with a seam route on 1st and 10. And at some point this season, he'll probably encounter the dreaded combination of the two: a massive, talented tight end with a knack for exposing young linebackers still learning their craft.
Fortunately for Irish fans Fleming is a gifted, versatile football player (not just an athlete) ready to meet these challenges over the course of 12 Saturdays this fall.
Fleming's Season Outlook:My first reaction to Fleming's move to SLB was the same head-shaking response I had when Bert Berry was moved to Drop End 15 years prior: "Huh? Just let him rush the passer…"
As previously written, I've predicted Fleming to lead the Irish in sacks this season (even in his split role of SLB/DE). I think he's the team's best natural pass rusher, one that can beat opposing tackles off the edge but also serve a valuable role attacking the QB with a combination of power and quickness through line stunts, etc. After re-watching late-season film, I realized that this move will allow Fleming to further develop his underrated (by me, at least) linebacker skills as well; and he's too valuable of an athlete to be relegated to a down position at DE.
One potential drawback to the move is the risk of "Paralysis by Analysis." That is, Fleming's duties have greatly expanded after just three career starts. And added responsibility runs the risk of too much thinking and not enough reacting for a young player learning on the fly (and battling back from injury as well). So is this a move of necessity, or largely one that will allow Fleming to become an every down playmaker, rarely leaving the field? We won't know until the leaves begin to change, and in either case, we can expect growing pains for Fleming in coverage anywhere outside of short zones, but the sophomore is one of a growing list of young potential stars on the Brown/Tenuta defense whose abilities should be on display in 2009.
Of course, Bert Berry proved to be a much better (3-4) pass rusher than coverage backer at Notre Dame (he was a good soldier in 1995, taking one for the team and accepting the position switch without hesitation: "I prefer to be a rush backer. But if going to drop backer helps the team win, then that's what I want to do." Berry later rode his preference for rushing the passer to a 12-year (and counting) NFL career for the Colts, Broncos, and Cardinals. I'm sure Fleming wouldn't mind if his cross-training at Notre Dame resulted in a similar 12-year run.
Fleming's Best Moments of 2008:
- Michigan: Combined with departed gunner David Bruton to stop KR Boubacar Cissoko for just nine yards on the game's opening return. The stop pinned the Wolverines deep in their own territory. Four plays later, LB Brian Smith recovered a Michigan fumble that led to a Robert Hughes TD run and 7-0 lead. Later in the game, leading 28-10 in the second quarter, Fleming lined up at LDE in the Irish 4-3 and fought off the block of left tackle Perry Dorrestein to stop RB Kevin Grady for a one-yard gain.
- Stanford: Trailing 14-7 late in the 1st half, Stanford faced a 3rd and 7 at their own 34-yard line. Fleming broke free to sack Cardinal QB Tavita Pritchard for an eight-yard loss forcing a Stanford punt and ending their final threat of the first half.
- Syracuse: Fleming combined with SS Ray Herring on a Safety Blitz to sack Orange QB Cameron Dantley for a three-yard loss, forcing a Syracuse punt. Less than one minute later, Irish wide receiver Golden Tate gave the Irish a 13-10 lead just before half on a 35-yard TD pass from Clausen. Fleming added a 3rd down QB hurry on the first drive of the second half that resulted in another Orange punt.
- Hawaii: On the first defensive series of the second half, Fleming, lined up as a LDE in the (nickel) 3-4, beat the left guard with speed (and a powerful "rip" move) to the inside and blew by an attempted block from the running back to sack QB Greg Alexander for an 11-yard loss, forcing a Hawaii punt.