Spring Musings: Inside Linebackers

Fox missed much of the spring with a sprained knee

Irisheyes.com nears the conclusion of its spring 2012 review of the team's position groups with O'Malley's thoughts, questions, answers, observations regarding the team's inside linebackers.

For complete reviews of the rest of the Notre Dame position groups exiting Spring 2012, click the links below:

Quarterbacks

Wide Receivers

Offensive Linemen

Tight Ends

Running Backs

Cornerbacks

Safeties

Defensive Line

A Step Above

He'll likely finish his college career third in program history in total tackles. His 28.5 tackles for loss entering his final season places him just six from the program's top 10 with a No. 3, possibly a No. 2 career finish well within reach.

He's a lock for team captaincy (though likely not alone) and is an easy bet to be the first player to lead the program in total tackles for three straight seasons since program tackle king Bob Crable (1979-81).

And this season, he might have two good ankles on which to maneuver.

Middle (Mike) linebacker Manti Te'o will be very good in 2012. The Irish defense needs him to be the nation's best at his position.

Set in Stone: Head coach Brian Kelly was quite clear: fans and media should stop playing the pigskin version of mad (roster) scientists, especially regarding the Will linebacker position. It's a two-horse race with no losers.

"I'd still say it's a very competitive battle, and I'd say Carlo has an opportunity to continue to press (Fox) and play more. We're just going to let that one go. We know what we have, and let those guys continue to compete."

Said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco of the Carlo Calabrese/Dan Fox tandem: "I expect them to drive the front and make the appropriate calls and hold the players to our expected levels of standard for what we considered to be great defense, and hold themselves and the players accountable. Those two are senior leaders; they have a lot of reps under their belts. They're ready to do it, there's not even a prodding by us. They're doing a great job and accepting their roles well."

Barring injury, the pair will account for each start at the Will LB spot next fall. Both have put forth standout, BCS-bowl game level efforts in individual outings (Calabrese vs. Purdue and BC in 2010; Fox vs. Michigan and Air Force in 2011). Both have struggled mightily at times as well. The latter tends to stay fresh in the minds of a team's fan base as neither shined vs. the athletic offenses of USC, FSU, etc., last fall.

Heir Apparent: It happens every spring. One name emerges that causes Irish hopeful hearts to flutter and the short trip from unknown to fan favorite is realized. Spring 2012's example is sophomore (redshirt-freshman) Mike linebacker Jarrett Grace.

The unique aspect of Grace's ascent? He's one of the few dead-certain backups on the team, tutoring behind one of the nation's best in Manti Te'o. Special teams work is nearly assured, but it would benefit the defense over the course of 2012 if Grace can give Te'o the occasional breather each week as well.

Searching for Roles

Three of the team's five backup inside ‘backers are redshirt-freshmen and have thus yet to make their collegiate debuts: Grace, Anthony Rabasa, and preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt. The others, Justin Utupo and Kendall Moore, are both redshirt-sophomores (sitting out 2010 as true freshmen) who played primarily, and extensively, on special teams last fall (though Moore did see significant mop-up duty in the FedEx Field blowout of Maryland last November).

Moore is behind Grace in the battle to be Te'o's backup at the Mike; Utupo is perhaps the least likely of the group to crack the two-deep inside, but the former prep pass-rushing phenom was seen in an edge-rusher role in some of the team's Dime packages during our practice viewings, once taking reps with the first unit in place of injured Cat LB Prince Shembo.

The two are standouts on the Irish kick return team with Utupo landing a pair of de-cleaating blows in our film reviews, including one to help spring George Atkinson for a 96-yard touchdown vs. USC.

Rabasa was initially recruited as a Cat LB competitor but moved inside almost immediately; that versatility will be key entering spring 2013 when Te'o is gone and the inevitable shuffling of the depth chart commences.

Schmidt is mentioned consistently in this space because he traveled with the team last year ahead of his scholarship competitors. Look for a special teams debut from the 6'0" 225-pound ‘backer this fall.

Roster Rundown

Top Dog: Manti Te'o

Indispensable: Te'o

Proven BCS-Bowl Level Performer: Te'o

Most Important that he Improve from 2011: Carlo Calabrese

Spring Star: Jarrett Grace

August/September Sleeper: I don't expect one to emerge, but Kendall Moore would be my choice if pressed for an answer.

Quote to Note: "Could he play Will? Sure, he could. But we like the Wills that we have, and now developing Jarrett Grace for right now and in the future."
– Head coach Brian Kelly on backup Mike linebacker, Jarrett Grace.

5th-Year Senior: None
Senior (Eligible through 2012): Manti Te'o
Seniors (Eligible through 2013): Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese
Juniors (Eligible through 2014): Justin Utupo and Kendall Moore
Sophomores (Eligible through 2015): Jarrett Grace, Anthony Rabasa and preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt
Incoming Freshmen: None, though Scout.com rates S Nick Baratti as a Mike linebacker prospect (I don't believe the coaching staff concurs).
2013 Pledges: None

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