For a major college inside linebacker, "clutter" comes in the form of 300-pound guards, stray legs whipping out at their unprotected shins at the last instant, and charging athletic pass-catchers crossing both in front their eyes and behind their areas of coverage responsibility -- play after play -- for 13 fall Saturdays each fall.
True inside linebacker prospects know how to thrive under such conditions, and the Irish might have landed one in commit #16 for 2013 Michael Deeb.
Just as outside linebackers need possess a rare burst, quick feet, or the ability to backpedal and move laterally as easily as they do forward, inside linebackers must be able to diagnose a play, meet and defeat blocks, and take a consistent pounding from the opposition upon every snap, all-the-while securing more tackles than 90 percent of their defensive teammates.
Though performance at both positions can improve exponentially with practice and coaching, both are also more innate than learned skills. And while he currently stars at a vastly different level of football, Deeb seems to possess that innate knack for the quick read and diagnosis of a play followed by explosion forward and through the ball carrier.
At Notre Dame that natural movement will include a challenging middle step: beating a block between diagnosis and tackle. Its something 5-star Manti Te'o does on nearly every play, and something former 3-star prospect Luke Kuechly did better than anyone in college football over the last three seasons en route to a first round NFL Draft selection.
Deeb doesn't have to be the equal of either to succeed as the Mike (middle) or Will 'backer in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's scheme. Rather, in addition to being a sure tackler, Deeb will be charged with aligning the front seven defensively, taking on uncovered guards on running plays, and moving laterally in coverage vs. short zones. The latter aspect will be his biggest challenge.
The Will linebacker role in Diaco's defense is at present, a two-down player. That is, third down passing situations (or even 2nd and long) often bring an extra defensive back on the field to improve the unit's coverage and quickness in the Will's stead.
Deeb is a player that can capably fill the two-down role inside at either Will or Mike (seems a more natural fit) while striving to improve in coverage vs. the nation's best athletes.
Deeb enters an enviable situation as an inside linebacker prospect, one that will likely redshirt in 2013 (unless he's deemed a top tier special teams player). Grace will be a senior in class and likely entrenched in his second season as a starter in 2014, Deeb's second season with the program. If Deeb is ahead of the curve as a redshirt-freshman, he could push for playing time at the Will 'backer spot alongside Grace over the next two seasons.
Deeb won't have to compete right away, and he won't be asked to push for a starting job until at least his third season at the program. It would be a career arc similar to current starter Dan Fox, as well as Grace (who should fight for the role entering 2013), and former Irish inside 'backers such as Brandon Hoyte and Donn Grimm.
But if he's better than (or as) advertised, Deeb could find a major role at the Will in '14, his redshirt freshman campaign. Such a rise was experienced by current Will linebacker Carlo Calabrese who won the job in 2010 with a strong August camp during head coach Brian Kelly's initial season.
Then again, Deeb might not be the last 'backer capable of dealing with the "clutter" in Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class.
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