Earlier this week we examined the team's top five position units heading into fall camp (WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage, QB, and RB). Today we look at our sixth-ranked group, a collection of players lacking experience, but a faction with no shortage of athleticism throughout its ranks.
Note: These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 6 ranked unit behind the WR, DB, Coverage Units, QB, and RB group.
Pre-season National Acclaim: Junior Brian Smith is ranked as Phil Steele's No. 14 draft eligible inside linebacker while senior Toryan Smith is listed as Steele's No. 53 (Brian Smith will begin camp in his more natural WLB (outside linebacker) position). True freshman and sophomores are not eligible for the NFL Draft and therefore not included in Steele's rating system.
Starters Entering Camp: Brian Smith (weak side linebacker); Toryan Smith (middle linebacker); Darius Fleming (strong side linebacker).
Proven Depth: (Likely) Scott Smith.
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 4. If the linebackers play to their potential (and two other units unfortunately slide) this could be the best group behind the team's wide receivers, its defensive backs, and what we have to assume will again rank as a strong kick coverage group.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 10. (There's causality in play with this thought process: the LBs can only finish with this poor of a ranking if the young defensive line in front of them is much worse than imagined).
Strengths: Speed, athleticism, versatility, and, in my opinion (unproven) depth. There's not a member of this 11-man group that can't play, though we've only seen a consistent on-field effort from three of the 11 to date.
Brian Smith and Darius Fleming are athletic players (possessing five more combined seasons in an Irish uniform, to boot) and Smith's role on the weak side should finally showcase his talents. Freshman LB Manti Te'o appears to be the most game-ready defensive freshman to enter the program since DE Anthony Weaver in 1998. Fifth-year senior Scott Smith is the ideal backup/swing linebacker, capable of filling several roles in the event of injury and sophomore Steve Filer could be an impact football player by season's end.
Weaknesses: Proven Depth – six of the 11 LB on the '09 roster have never participated in a college game while a seventh, sophomore Steve Filer, played just over two minutes from scrimmage (extensively on special teams) last season. Senior Toryan Smith has just four starts (two as a direct result of Brian Smith's injury last November) in three seasons and 5th year senior Scott Smith has never started a game. There's depth, but it's largely and inarguably unproven. Even the unit's second-best player (at this point), Darius Fleming, must continue to learn his new position on the strong side each week. As promising as the group appears on paper, there is little evidence of on-field success.
Additionally, the group appears to be a bit reliant on situation substitutions. MLB Toryan Smith is a niche player: a run-stopper that could be a fish out of water vs. opponents that spread the field or employ multiple offensive sets. Even Fleming, by any reasonable measure a fantastic athlete and blossoming college star, is unproven and vulnerable in his role over the tight end and in zone coverage (rather than in his comfort zone as a pass rusher). The host of first-year contributors run the risk of "thinking" rather than just play and hesitation from linebackers generally leads to 10-yard gains.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: A cursory review of the Irish linebackers yields two potential impact players (B. Smith and Fleming); two seniors that have never been able to maintain (or win) a starting role (Toryan and Scott Smith); a highly touted freshman (Te'o) and six first-time contributors that must learn on the job. The group deserves, and has received, no pre-season acclaim as a unit, but it's one that could prove to be the team's pleasant surprise when we revisit these rankings in December.
I was tempted to rank the group higher because of the talent level, but there's just too much speculation and projection involved with such an inexperienced unit. If the equally young defensive line can hold its own, I think the defensive coaching staff will produce six reliable and/or playmaking linebackers from this 11-man group in 2009. In the case of the '09 Irish linebackers, speculation yields more excitement than concern. I think the Irish defense will benefit from its best overall linebacker play since 2005 with a greater number of contributors emerging as the season progresses.