Will Youth Be Served?

Two of the defense's top playmakers reside inside. Can any of the trio of young, untested, but natural inside linebackers push them for playing time?

With the start of spring practice just four days away, IrishEyes resumes its preview of each player and the team's key position groups. Today's edition: Inside 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

Outside Linebackers Spring Preview: Three-headed Monster

Four returning Irish inside linebackers earned monograms last season: Senior Brian Smith (who enters his final season of eligibility); juniors Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny (both have 3 years remaining); and sophomore Manti Te'o (3 years remaining).

2009 freshman Carlo Calabrese was withheld from action last fall and has four years of eligibility remaining beginning in 2010. Incoming freshman linebacker Kendall Moore is expected to join the unit in August as could incoming middle linebacker prospect Danny Spond.

Note:All players are referenced in terms of their class affiliation entering 2010.

Playing Time, 2009 – Inside Linebackers

  • Brian Smith – 312:51 and 66 Special Teams Appearances
  • Manti Te'o – 238:28 and 63 ST
  • David Posluszny – 6:16 and 89 ST
  • Anthony McDonald – 4:29 and 180 ST

Sound and the Fury – Brian Smith

There aren't many Irish fans yet to form an opinion on the vocal linebacker. Along with departed 5th-year senior Kyle McCarthy, Smith has made more big plays over the last three seasons than any Irish defender. He's also gained the reputation as a player who too often overruns plays, sidesteps blocks in traffic, and fails to play with the consistency expected from a veteran linebacker.

Such is life for a highly visible three-year contributor for a program that hovers near the .500 mark.

Smith's supporters believe he's out of position inside and would thus thrive in a role that allowed him more freelance opportunities. Entering his senior season, Smith is an odds-on choice to become one of the 2010 team captains. Whether he's kept inside or moved outside in the new 3-4 defense, he'll be counted upon to play at a consistently high level for the first time in his career.

Smith finished second in tackles (71) and interceptions (2); tied for sixth in tackles-for-loss (5.5), and tied for fifth on the squad with 1.5 sacks. Last season was the first in which he did not return a turnover for a score (he has both an interception and fumble return touchdown to his credit).

We Have Questions: Can Smith bottle the fury and execution he displayed in the team's second-half comeback vs. USC last season? An avid student of the game, can Smith combine with the new regime to find a role that best suits his talents? Will the new defense utilize blitz as a key part of its pressure package? Could Smith, a player well-versed in multiple linebacker positions, be used as a jack-of-all-trades as the new defense takes shape in early season games? Do his teammates respond to Smith's constant vocal style of leadership?

Hope Springs Eternal: Smith was the best player on the field in the 4th Quarter vs. USC last season – that's high praise for any athlete. He was also the unsung hero of two goal line stands vs. Washington, playing through a bad stinger on the first and instinctively knocking down the intended receiver (coming out of the backfield) in the second. More plays like those, coupled with consistency vs. the run, would make Smith a force in his final season.

Spring Prediction: A starting inside linebacker role. With three solid candidates (Darius Fleming, Kerry Neal, and Steve Filer) outside, it makes sense that Smith would emerge from the 15 practice spring session as part of an inside tandem with Manti Te'o.

Ready for Takeoff? – Manti Te'o

Te'o burst on the scene during the second half of the season-opening dismantling of Nevada's offense, delivering the game's two biggest hits in fourth quarter action. He seemed to find a comfort level in October, playing his best games vs. Washington, USC, and peaking in the 20-16 win over Boston College.

But as was the case with most members of the 2009 defense, Te'o wasn't the same player in November, notching just two separate half-tackles for lost yardage (vs. Connecticut and Stanford) and looking a half-step slow for the first time all season (he did, however, lead the Irish defense with 10 total tackles at Stanford, though "lead" is a relative term for a run defense that helped earn Cardinal tailback Toby Gerhart a trip to the Heisman ceremonies in New York.

The proverbial Rookie Wall likely played a part in Te'o's drop-off after a promising October. The freshman finished with 63 tackles (4th on the squad), 5.5 sacks (tied with Brian Smith for sixth), a sack, and hustling forced fumble on the hash marks that was eventually overturned in the replay booth.

We Have Questions: Can an off-season of film study and simple familiarity with the speed of the college game greatly improve Te'o's ability to play the pass? Te'o was ineffective as an edge rusher last season in Notre Dame's Dime defense; will the new staff make better use of his athletic gifts in blitzing situations? Will Te'o's 2010 position remain constant through the rest of his Irish career?

Hope Springs Eternal: Te'o made one of the most instinctive plays of the season when he destroyed an otherwise well-designed screen pass on Boston College's final drive, dropping RB Montel Harris for a six-yard loss. That play had more to do with instinct and knowledge of the game than simple athletic ability, a fact that bodes well for a young player about to be molded by a staff that prides itself on player development.

If he can continue to react to what he sees and play at full speed…look out.

Spring Prediction: A starting inside linebacker role alongside Brian Smith. I could see both Smith and Te'o winning spots outside, but believe Kelly and staff want to get the best players on the field, and there's already a glut of natural talent among the aforementioned trio of OLBs.

A Foot in the Door – Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny

Former position coach Jon Tenuta offered strong reviews of both last August, calling the previously oft-injured McDonald "an overlooked guy with tremendous instincts" and noting that Posluszny "had a good spring…I'm very positive with Poz."

Both played integral special teams roles last spring, especially McDonald who logged the third highest total of special teams appearances on the team last season. We expect the two to continue in those roles this spring and next fall.

We Have Questions: Can McDonald or Posluszny show enough at an inside linebacker position in the spring to allow Smith or Te'o a dual-role as an outside linebacker entering fall camp? McDonald has been noted as workout warrior early in his career: entering his third season in the program (McDonald has three seasons of eligibility remaining) can he impart those measurables on the field? Has any Irish player absorbed a bigger cheap shot than did McDonald (who was concussed on the play) on the opening kick-off vs. Washington last season? Is Posluszny healthy after sitting out two of the team's final three contests last fall due to an undisclosed injury.

Hope Springs Eternal: I thought Posluszny showed good instincts in his high school films and noted defensive mind Jon Tenuta lauded McDonald for the same last season. Both likely need field time for that quality to materialize into the type of production that will help the 2010 defense. Both McDonald and Posluszny have three years of eligibility remaining.

Spring Prediction: McDonald earns a backup role inside with Carlo Calabrese (below) inching ahead of Posluszny for a spot in the two-deep.

Four More Years – Carlo Calabrese

Calabrese was withheld from action last fall and is expected to compete for a backup ILB role this spring.

We Have Questions: The previous staff was high on Calabrese: can he show enough this spring to impress the new regime and distinguish himself from the tandem of McDonald and Posluszny, who both saw field time last season? The slew of redshirt-freshman that debuted for the Irish last season each experienced on-field growing pains: how quickly can Calabrese assimilate to the speed of the college game? Can he earn a role on the Irish special teams to ease his transition to the field?

Hope Springs Eternal: It was rumored that Calabrese's redshirt was nearly lifted late last season as the Irish defense struggled to stop the run. If true, that indicates the staff felt he showed enough as a member of the scout team to make a difference inside.

Spring Prediction: Calabrese earns either a backup role or spot on the short-yardage/goal line defense for his ability to find the ball carrier inside.

Note: Fullback Steve Paskorz will reportedly move to linebacker (a position for which he was recruited).

The senior-to-be saw just 2:31 of playing time from scrimmage last year and made 11 special teams appearances. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.


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