With Michigan facing a 4th and 1 at the ND 31-yard line, Darius Fleming burst upfield at the snap, effectively cutting off a roll-out lane for Wolverines QB Tate Forcier.
What followed is referred to in basketball parlance as "an ankle breaker." Forcier's quick cutback inside faked Fleming to the turf and two seconds later, the one-day wonder QB was sprinting untouched through the middle of the Irish defense for a score and 11-point advantage to begin the final period in Ann Arbor.
Fleming was the fall guy (no pun intended) for the play; the crumpled defender portrayed on the front page of the South Bend Tribune Sunday morning; his No. 45 jersey making the wrong side of ESPN and internet highlight reels despite recording two of the three total tackles of Forcier behind the line of scrimmage, and despite his sack, forced fumble, and two tackles-for-loss that kept the flailing Irish defense afloat during the course of the contest.
Defensive success is predicated on team effort, and Fleming can't be faulted for the parting of the green sea that welcomed Forcier following his cutback. But he accepted the bulk of media and fan base's criticism, took it in stride, and proceeded to play the best ball of his young career.
A key contributor in a 33-30 win over Michigan State in Game Three, Fleming entered Notre Dame's nationally televised evening matchup in West Lafayette with a team-high four tackles-for-loss to his credit. He left the field in celebration with his teammates as the game's MVP, posting four tackles including three more for losst yardage and a sack in the 24-21 Irish victory.
From Game Two through Game Eight (Washington State), Fleming totaled 11.5 tackles-for-loss. That six-game total alone (he sat out vs. Washington) placed him third among Irish sophomores – in a full season – over the last 35 years. He finished with 12 TFL – the highest total for a sophomore since Justin Tuck's 10 TFL effort in 2002.
Fleming's 2010 OutlookIrish fans are in for a two-year treat if Notre Dame's new defensive coordinator is a quality judge of talent. Bob Diaco was effusive in his praise of the junior OLB.
"He's excited, he's energized, he's animated, he's fun to be around, he's tough, he doesn't complain, he's bright, he doesn't complain, he takes diligent notes, he communicates, he's got effort on the field…how do you keep a guy like that down?
Perhaps measuring his initial assessment, Diaco added that Fleming is far from a finished product.
"Is he ‘slicked up' on our system? No. Does he have the physical conditioning and strength to be an every down dominant player? No. Will he? Absolutely."
As a nickel defensive end in 2009, Fleming displayed the quickest first step on the team. The upfield pressure style seemed to suit him, but so too should his 2010 alignment at OLB, where his versatility can be put to better use. Diaco's outside linebackers will be asked to both rush the passer and drop into short zones.
"(They can) defend in space, re-route wide receivers, break on the ball and be active on outside breaking routes," Diaco explained of his four outside linebackers (Fleming, Brian Smith, Kerry Neal and Steve Filer). "But they're also physical enough to attack and be ‘combat zone' players and push on tight end and offensive tackles."
Key to Fleming's development this season will be his adaptation to coverage. He has the ability to shed blocks as well as the necessary combination of quickness and power, plus football intelligence to thrive as a tackler in space. Does he have the footwork to stay with or deter today's quicker ‘backs, tight ends and occasional slot receiver?
Defending the ball while maintaining defensive positioning isn't a natural act for most front seven players; can he change direction and play fluidly vs. the ball in the air? (The same can be asked of Filer and Neal, both of whom played in a down position last year).
Fleming ranks as one of the team's 10 best players entering August camp and was likely the team's most improved defensive player from 2008 to 2009.
Should he show similar improvement through 2010, Notre Dame could have its first All-America candidate at linebacker since Courtney Watson manned the weak side in 2002.
Fleming at his best in 2009
- Michigan State: Aside from John Ryan (who would have been credited with the defensive play of the day had the Irish prevailed), Fleming was the only defender to tackle (touch?) QB Tate Forcier behind the line of scrimmage, stopping the slippery runner twice for loss.
- Purdue: Two of his season-best three tackles for loss led to Boilermakers punts.
- USC: Twice stopped Trojans RB Joe McKnight for a two-yard loss, the first led to a punt, the second preceded Gary Gray's game-changing interception to set up a touchdown and trim the Trojans lead to 34-27.
- Boston College: Credited with two hurries of Eagles QB Dave Shinskie on BC's potential game-winning drive. His second QB hurry forced Shinskie into the game-ending interception by linebacker Brian Smith.
- Washington State: Fleming's four stops vs. the Cougars were as follows: Loss of 2 yards; Loss of 2 yards; tackle after 4-yard gain; sack for a 9-yard loss. Not a bad evening as part of a heavy defensive rotation in the blowout win.
Fleming's moments to forget from 2009
- Michigan: (Tate Forcier moment described above).
- Washington: Pulled up lame in pre-game warm-ups, much to the chagrin of former head coach Charlie Weis who offered this less-than-glowing appraisal post-game, "We went through warmups, and I looked at him, and he told me he didn't think he could go. It was like this was right after warmups. So after warmups it was a no go. Like a lot of other guys, they get bumps and bruises, but this is a guy who practiced Tuesday and Wednesday."
- November: No sacks, just a half-tackle for loss during the team's four-game November losing streak, though he did stop Navy QB Ricky Dobbs twice at the line of scrimmage in the 23-21 defeat.
Numbers in '09: Fleming tied with classmate Kapron Lewis-Moore for the team lead in QB hurries (7). Finished second to fellow sophomore Ethan Johnson with three sacks. Led all Irish players with 12 tackles for loss. One of just six Irish defenders to force a fumble last season (five of the six return for 2010). Logged 60 special teams appearances (recorded 198 as a freshman in 2008).