Three-headed Monster

A senior and two juniors are expected to vie for two OLB starting roles in Notre Dame's 3-4 defense.

With the start of spring practice less than two weeks away, IrishEyes continues its preview of each player and the team's key position groups. Today's edition: Outside Linebackers.

Wide Receivers Spring Preview: Wide Open

Tight Ends Spring Preview: In Good Hands

Running Backs Spring Preview: Crowded House

Cornerbacks Spring Preview: Under Siege

Safeties Spring Preview: Taking Applications

Three returning Irish players earned monograms last season at what was then a defensive end position in the Jon Tenuta/Corwin Brown 4-3 defense: junior Darius Fleming (two seasons of eligibility remaining); senior Kerry Neal (who enters his final season of eligibility); and junior Steve Filer (two seasons remaining).

Sophomore-to-be Dan Fox was withheld from action last season.

Three freshmen: 6'1" 235-pound Justin Utupo from Lakewood, CA; 6'4" 227-pound Kona Schwenke from Kahuka, HI; and 6'2" 225-pound Prince Shembo from Charlotte, NC, could join this position group next fall.

2009 Playing Time – Outside Linebackers

  • Darius Fleming – 201:33 with 60 Special Teams appearances
  • Kerry Neal – 173:41 with 19 ST appearances
  • Steve Filer – 28:01 with a team-high 213 ST appearances

Star in the Making? – Darius Fleming

Of his 29 total tackles, a team-high 12 occurred behind the line of scrimmage. Fleming had seven tackles for loss in a three-game span vs. Big 10 foes Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue; then was a late scratch from the lineup (much to the surprise of former head coach Charlie Weis) in a Week Five home game vs. Washington. Fleming bounced back with 4.5 TFL in the team's next three games vs. USC, BC, and lowly WSU, but finished the season with just one assisted tackle-for-loss in November during Notre Dame's four-game losing streak.

Fleming finished with three sacks to officially rank second behind fellow defensive end Ethan Johnson.

We Have Questions: Can he thrive in what appears to be a better fit as a 3-4 OLB? How much coverage responsibility will Fleming have in the new defense? What happened in his never-addressed late scratch for a tender hamstring prior to the Washington game? Will playing in relative space (rather than constantly butting heads with players 65 pounds larger and 2-3 years his senior) help Fleming remain fresh in November this season?

Hope Springs Eternal: Fleming was my hands-down lock for the team's coveted top defensive lineman honor entering the season's final month (he won the award despite a poor finish). His dip in production coincided with a decrease in defensive snaps, one we can now assume was related to the wear-and-tear and weight loss suffered by the bulk of Notre Dame's front four defenders.

Fleming is a valuable commodity for any new coaching staff: an experienced hybrid front four player with two seasons of eligibility remaining in which he can learn, add to his frame, and improve.

Spring Prediction: The hands-down winner of one starting OLB role and a player that is viewed as the team's best pure pass rusher by the new defensive staff. Fleming and DE Ethan Johnson are the keys to the early season defense in 2010.

One More Change – Kerry Neal

Neal has yet to miss a game in an Irish uniform, starting at either DE or OLB in 21 of the last 32 contests. He's logged 70 total stops in three seasons; with 7.5 of those for lost yardage including 5.5 sacks overall.

Neal's 2nd down overtime sack of Washington QB Jake Locker helped preserve Notre Dame's 37-30 victory early last October.

We Have Questions: He's played OLB and DE…can Neal retrain his body for the varied demands of the OLB position in his final season? How often will Neal have his hand on the ground in passing rushing situations? Can he fend off a challenge from junior Steve Filer (below)? Neal has played surprisingly well in the team's base goal line defense in past seasons: can he harness that skill set in a new role? Will his quick first step finally become a weapon in a return to the Base 3-4? How can a veteran junior make two starts and receive playing time in a third game but not register a single tackle as Neal did last year vs. Nevada, Michigan, and Michigan State to start the season?

Hope Springs Eternal: Neal was the defensive player of the game vs. what was then a dangerous Washington team, and not coincidentally, that effort coincided with his first start in three weeks. Neal has shown flashes of intermittent potential each season – and in varying defensive alignments and systems to boot – so the seasoned senior should be able to go out and play, rather than think through his assignments, by the time the bullets go live next fall.

Spring Prediction: Neal with be OLB starter 2A behind the emergent Steve Filer, though fall camp will offer a second chance to make up the minimal ground between the two.

Fan Favorite or Field Constant? – Steve Filer

Filer has been a fan favorite for consecutive seasons; first due to his athleticism and recruiting promise, then again last season due to the burst he showed off the edge in limited action last October when the Irish defense peaked.

Filer finished with 1.5 tackles for loss in just over 28 game minutes (and the half-tackle occurred as part of a late first-half sack vs. USC QB Matt Barkley). He followed that effort with a QB hurry and forced fumble (overturned due to an intentional grounding call) on the next play vs. the Trojans.

We Have Questions: How effective could Filer have been last season with extended playing time? Was former defensive coordinator and position coach Jon Tenuta correct when he stated Filer "needed to be near the line of scrimmage"? And if so, can he drop into coverage when called upon? Has Filer made his last position move or could the high school middle linebacker be tried elsewhere? Will Filer remain the team's essential, and most present special teams performer?

Hope Springs Eternal: Filer showed impressive quickness in pursuit vs. Washington State and he dominated an entire defensive series late in the first half vs. USC two weeks prior. A staff that prides itself on player development has a diamond-in-the-rough in this true junior athlete.

Spring Prediction: I noted after last season's BC contest that Filer would excel in the pass rushing role occupied by Te'o in dime packages last season (a stand-up pass rusher off the edge). He'll have a chance to showcase that skill set this spring. Look for Filer to push senior Kerry Neal for the starting spot opposite Darius Fleming or possible win the job outright.

Role Player? – Dan Fox

Fox's head was swimming last year when he met with the press in mid-August. Though that was understandable for a player in his first two weeks in college and in the early stages of a position switch (he moved from high school roving safety to collegiate outside linebacker), he should, at this point, be prepared to challenge and compete for playing time after a year in a major college program.

We Have Questions: Would I consider Fox a potential two-deep OLB if not for the dearth of candidates this spring? Can he continue to impress as a skilled athlete in coverage as he's several steps behind his position mates as an edge rusher? Fox is more football player than "athlete"; can he use that knowledge of the game to find a role, in ND's 3-4 Base or (more likely) its Nickel defense? Will a special teams role serve as Fox's quickest path to the field this spring and next fall?

Hope Springs Eternal: It would be a major shock if Fox challenged one of the three athletes reviewed above for a starting role in 2010, but the sophomore-to-be showed range in coverage and very good hands in practice drills last season – and was praised for the latter by position coach Jon Tenuta. The 3-4 OLB role could allow Fox to showcase one skill lacked by the trio in front of him: pass coverage in the flat.

Spring Prediction: Some nice moments in pass coverage and a few notable plays made in space, but Fleming, Filer, and Neal won't have a major challenge on their hands from Fox, who has four seasons of eligibility remaining.

Note: The film reviews and season previews of each player that appeared daily from May through the end of July last season will again be featured in the summer months. Top Stories