This five-man unit includes two seniors with a combined 71 games played (including 33 starts) and two juniors who've alternately led the squad in special teams appearances over their first two seasons.
Notre Dame's outside linebacker corps of Brian Smith, Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, and redshirt-freshman Dan Fox ranks as the team's most experienced, talent-laden, and potentially promising position group, with 118 games played and 43 career starts in tow courtesy of the Smith/Neal/Fleming/Filer quartet, but a collective eight seasons of eligibility remaining by the Fleming/Filer/Fox trio.
Now it's up to Kerry Cooks to find the tandem, trio, or possibly the quintet that will best serve the Irish 3-4 defense this fall.
"I tell you what, as a coach you love being in that situation," explained the team's new outside linebackers coach. "We definitely don't lack for talent. I think the guys understand that it is a competition, but at the same time they're pushing one another.
"They're doing it in a way that they understand we're going to need each one of them throughout the season. I'm very pleased with how they're progressing; very pleased with how they're competing, and working with one another.
Cooks will play no favorites when the defensive staff and head coach Brian Kelly put together their rotation for the 2010 season.
"The guys that can do the best job that we ask – those are the guys that are going to be on the field for us."
Senior LeadersWith nine practices in the books and two more to follow this weekend, Cooks has yet to see a clear-cut leader emerge, though that's not a negative: he's seen something of value from each.
"I feel very comfortable with how all those guys are playing: Brian Smith, Dan Fox, Darius Fleming, Steven Filer…all those guys have bought into what we're trying to get done.
They're all competing, they're all pushing one another, and as of right now I wouldn't say there's just one guy that jumps out. If we were going to play a game right now all five guys would have to have a role somehow."
Cooks' accidental omission of senior Kerry Neal was not performance-related. Neal's calf injury suffered in the early portion of the spring session has healed to the point that he can compete for a spot (Neal was running with the first unit and had been noted by defensive coordinator Bob Diaco for his impressive early play prior to the injury).
The injury was nothing major," Cooks pointed out. "He's been out here the last couple practices doing the things he's supposed to be doing."
Neal's classmate Brian Smith has moved back to the position and role in which he's most comfortable: playing in space on the outside.
"I think the outside is better for (Smith) in our system," Cooks offered. "With his body type; he's profiled for what we're looking for (from an OLB). He's a long guy; he's athletic enough to be able to perform the jobs we ask; and he's comfortable out there. He feels good in space.
"I don't know how he played last year," Cooks continued. "But from what he's shown now up to this point, I think he's comfortable and we're comfortable with him out there. We're (secure) that he can do the jobs that we expect."
Heat from the OutsideFleming emerged last season as a playmaker at defensive end in the team's nickel package. Entering his junior season, Fleming and classmate Steve Filer are making the transition back linebacker after significant playing time in a three-point stance in the base 4-3 defense last year.
"Honestly for me it's not that big of a difference," Fleming said of the new scheme. "(Last year) I would be up and then I'd be down (in a three-point stance), and it's pretty much the same thing now. But it seems like it's a different vibe out here. It's a lot more fun."
Cooks has been impressed with Fleming's approach and performance this spring.
"For his body size he has a lot of power," Cooks said of the team's returning leader in tackles-for-lost yardage from '09. "I'm not saying if you look at him he doesn't (seem strong), but he's more explosive than you'd think."
Filer has re-acclimated to the outside after showing promise last October as a 4-3 defensive end.
"It's going well," he noted of the spring. "At the position which we play, we go after the QB and we drop back, it keeps it fun. It's just a matter of knowing what I have to do and when I have to do it."
With 311 career special teams appearances to his credit, Filer expects to remain heavily involved in those units again next fall.
"I love special teams. That's where I got my start and where I played the last two years. And I'll always love it," Filer noted.
"It helps a lot to learn the speed of the game. You're running fast, you're breaking down, you're tackling. There are a lot of things that you do on special teams that you do on offense and defense, too."
The One-Dimensional Need Not ApplyWhile Fleming, Neal, and Filer can be labeled as the unit's "pass rush specialists" from those outside the program, Cooks made it clear that moniker won't earn any of the outside ‘backers a spot on the field - at least not on a weekly basis.
"There may be a situation where on a (given) Saturday that when game plan, there may be a situation for that specific (skill set)," he noted of a player that stands out either in coverage or as a pass rusher (but not both). "But ideally you'd like the guys to be mirrored. You'd like your two outside linebackers to be able to rush; to be able to drop; to be able to go down into a two-point or three-point stance.
"That's the type of thing we're looking for, and right now I really feel like we've got that in all those guys back there."
That need for versatility has given sophomore-to-be Dan Fox a chance to compete with his proven veteran brethren.
"Very smart player. Very smart," Cooks said of Fox, who was withheld from last season. "A guy that could probably play all four of the linebacker spots if needed. He's challenging himself and he's pushing his teammates. That's all you can ask of him."
With the spring session nearing a close, Cooks knows his unit has some growing to do prior to the season opener vs. Purdue. Nonetheless, he's pleased with their progress.
"As long as I see every day that they're improving," Cooks noted after spring practice No. 9. "They're getting more vocal; they're getting more confident; they're lining up and adjusting to certain things that we corrected in the film room. Those are the certain things that I look for. As long as they're doing those things throughout the spring, I'm pleased with where they are."
As for his coaching technique and approach as a recent former player (Cooks starred at safety for Iowa in the mid-90s), Cooks would rather see his new students' influence each other through on-field peer pressure.
"It's even better when teammates start pushing teammates," he noted. "With the attitude of ‘I'm not going to let you down; don't let me down.'
"That's kind of what we're trying to breed out here."