Puncher's Chance

Notre Dame's inside linebackers represent IrishEyes' No. 10 ranked position group entering August, but the unit could greatly exceed expectations if a future All-American arrives ahead of schedule.

Note: Each position is ranked according to my view of the groups entering the 2010 season. I've accounted for 2009 performance, apparent spring improvement, 2010 developed depth, and my own projection for 2010 (with an emphasis on the starters) as the determining factors.

For our No. 1 rated position unit and an explanation of the rankings, click here.

No. 2 Wide Receivers

No. 3 Outside Linebackers

No. 4 Running Backs

No. 5 Field Goal Unit

No. 6 Defensive Line

No. 7 Return Teams

No. 8 Defensive Backs

No. 9 Offensive Line

Inside Linebackers

  • IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 10 (of 12)
  • 2009 Pre-Season Ranking: No. 5 (rated as a unit rather than designated as OLB/ILB)
  • 2009 Post-Season Ranking: No. 10
  • Highest ranking I can envision at season's end: Top 5 if Manti Te'o plays to projection and any of the candidates play solid ball next to him inside.
  • Lowest ranking I can envision at season's end: No. 12 (last) if Te'o misses significant time due to injury.

Pre-season National Acclaim: Manti Te'o is ranked as the No. 12 inside linebacker by Lindy's. Te'o was not ranked by Phil Steele, who lists only draft eligible players (a true sophomore, Te'o would not be eligible for the NFL draft following this season). Steele ranks the Irish LB corps at No. 18 overall, though that includes the outside ‘backers (ranked No. 3 on our list above).

Te'o is a pre-season candidate for the Bronko Nagurski Award (presented to the nation's top defensive player) and a member of the 75-man Lombardi Award Watch List.

Position Coach: Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco – Enters his 14th season as a collegiate coach, the last nine of which have been spent tutoring linebackers or coordinating a defense. Diaco cut his teeth under 3-4 guru Al Groh as Virginia's linebackers coach from 2006-2008 before joining Brian Kelly in Cincinnati as the team's defensive coordinator last fall.

A two-time All-Big 10 selection at linebacker for Iowa in the mid-90s, Diaco credits much of his defensive knowledge base to the legendary Hayden Fry and former Hawkeyes defensive coordinator Bill Brashier.

Quote to Note: "What we're going to do, you can't really put it in a ‘3-4' box. It's really its own entity." – Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco.

Starters: 6'2" 250-pound sophomore Manti Te'o (12 games/10 starts; 63 tackles, including 5.5 for loss), 1 sack, 1 pass breakup. 6'2" 230-pound junior Anthony McDonald – (12 games/0 starts; 10 tackles, 180 special teams appearances).

Backups: 6'1" 245-pound senior Steve Paskorz (2 games/0 starts; 12 games played over the course of his career as a fullback; 85 special teams appearances in 2008); 6'0" 225-pound junior David Posluszny (10 games/0 starts; 3 tackles, 89 special teams appearances); 6'1" 245-pound sophomore Carlo Calabrese (withheld from action as a true freshman last season).

Incoming Depth: 6'3" 225-pound freshman Kendall Moore (Scout.com No. 18 ranked middle linebacker); 6'3" 232-pound freshman Danny Spond (Scout.com No. 14 ranked middle linebacker). Spond is listed as an "Athlete" in the Notre Dame Spring Guide. He's likely to begin his college career at a position on the edge of the defense, such as OLB or the "Buck" linebacker spot vs. passing teams/on passing downs; a role currently manned by sophomore Zeke Motta.

Strengths

Te'o is the best inside/middle linebacker prospect at the program in nearly two decades (though plenty of Irish ‘backers in that span have performed well beyond expectations and at or near an All-America level). He could emerge as one of the best defensive players in the nation by the end of next season, but for the 2010 defense to reach its potential, Te'o must at least approach that level on occasion while playing consistently solid football this fall.

Diaco was impressed with McDonald's penchant for the physical and ability to take on linemen at a less than desirable weight for his defense's inside ‘backer… Kelly noted McDonald as one of the squad's first bright spots in April…According to McDonald, the Irish defense is similar that in which he starred as a high school senior.

Former linebackers coach Jon Tenuta noted Posluszny as a promising player last August, and for what its worth, I felt he would challenge for a starting role by next April next to Te'o…Paskorz looked better than expected in space, breaking up a roll-out pass in the Blue Gold Game; he appeared to have the upper hand over Posluszny during mid-April practices as a member of the two-deep…Also on the two-deep was Calabrese, who made the play of the game in the Blue Gold contest, running down the seam with Tyler Eifert and recording a difficult interception of a Dayne Crist pass; Calabrese added a goal line stop of Cierre Wood on the first series.

Kelly noted Te'o will be an every down linebacker this season. After struggling mightily in pass coverage last fall, he looked much more comfortable in the spring – I noted four solid hits/tackles vs. Irish ‘backs and receivers, one intimidation effort in coverage (that caused a Michael Floyd short-arm effort) and a pass breakup vs. Rudolph in the Blue Gold Game (he recorded an INT thanks to a tipped ball as well).

Weaknesses

Touch your four fingers to your thumb: the visual you created represents the aggregate number of meaningful snaps from scrimmage McDonald, Posluszny, Paskorz, and Calabrese have faced in their respective careers…(for more visual stimulation, open up both hands: those 10 fingers account for the approximate total snaps from scrimmage the quartet has played defensively)...Notre Dame needed help at inside linebacker last season and neither McDonald nor Posluszny were deemed worthy of an audition.

Paskorz practiced as a fullback since the conclusion of the 2007 season (his redshirt freshman year)…has lined up as a fullback for the bulk of his college career…If Te'o isn't at least very good, this unit will likely be the defense's Achilles heel; though his skill set appears to have improved greatly in this regard, Te'o was ineffective as an outside pass rusher in the dime package last fall…the position group is unsettled enough for a true freshman to step in and compete in the two-deep (rarely a good sign for a program)...To be blunt, there is zero evidence (outside of practice and scrimmages) that the quartet of competitors next to Te'o can compete at a BCS level.

Entering August

Te'o and his troops? Te'o's four horsemen? Te'o and the terrifics or Te'o and the terribles? You get the point. The 2010 Irish inside linebackers are a one-man gang accompanied by a handful of hungry competitors until proven otherwise.

Irish fans, however, should be encouraged by McDonald's honest self-assessment last April. "I think I'm a lot more comfortable being on the field now – (after) taking reps and getting on the field in special teams. We went up against some pretty good guys in the wedge. I got (hit) some guys good; some guys got me pretty good. I just think I'm a lot more experienced because of it."

They wouldn't be the least experienced position group to outplay expectations. The 1988 Irish offensive line had started an aggregate five contests entering the season. It finished as one of the nation's most accomplished units and the key to Notre Dame's most recent national championship campaign.

While we can't anticipate, that level of play from a sophomore, four completely untested veterans and one or two rookies, the group could surprise, especially with a glut of talent flanking them at the outside linebacker position.

The unit's 2010 recipe for success is three-fold: good health; one of four competitors rising to the challenge; and a future All-American delivering on his potential a bit ahead schedule.


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