Four's a Crowd

Four's a Crowd

IrishEyes continues its look at Notre Dame's 12 major position groups with its third-ranked unit, the outside linebackers.

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, the Irish tight ends, and an explanation of the rankings, click here.

No. 2: Wide Receivers

Outside Linebackers

  • IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 3
  • 2009 Pre-Season Ranking: N/A. Last summer, I ranked the linebacker unit as a whole (not broken down by ILB/OLB designations) at No. 6
  • 2009 Post-Season Ranking: No. 9 (included all linebackers).
  • Highest ranking I can envision following 12 regular season games: No. 1. It's the only position with a legitimate two-deep and the one unit in which two starters could go down and their two backups could step in and produce outstanding seasons.
  • Lowest ranking I can envision following 12 regular season games: No. 7
    I wouldn't be completely shocked if the entire offense (five separate position groups) performed better than the unknown that is the defense, and if the top-heavy defensive backfield rose to the occasion after a terrible 2009 season. Still, OLB appears to be the defense's best blend of developed talent with expected growth from the bulk of the competitors.

Pre-season National Acclaim: Phil Steele projects Brian Smith as his No. 13 outside linebacker with junior Darius Fleming not far behind at No. 19. Senior OLB Kerry Neal ranks as Steele's No. 60 overall defensive end. Steele ranks the Irish linebackers (his ranking includes the inside ‘backers) at No. 18 nationally.

Position Coach: Kerry Cooks – The former Iowa captain and All Big 10 free safety selection enters his eight year of collegiate coaching, the first seven of which were spent tutoring defensive backs, most recently a four-season stint at Wisconsin.

Cumulative career playing time/statistics:

  • Brian Smith – (707:51 plus 152 special teams appearances) 34 games/24 starts, 150 tackles including 13.5 for loss, 5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries (1 TD), 2 pass breakups, 3 interceptions (1 TD).
  • Kerry Neal – (568:12 plus 87 special teams appearances) 37 games/21 starts, 70 tackles including 9.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 3 pass breakups, 1 interception.
  • Darius Fleming – (293:05 plus 258 special teams appearances) 24 games/10 starts, 53 tackles including 14.5 for loss, 5.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.
  • Steve Filer – (30:58 plus 313 special teams appearances) 23 games/0 starts, 19 tackles including 1.5 for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble.

Post-spring starters: Senior Brian Smith and junior Darius Fleming appear slightly ahead of junior Steve Filer and senior Kerry Neal, respectively. It would be at least a mild surprise if either perceived starter lost his job (without injury) in August camp, but both backups should see significant action from scrimmage in September and could continue to challenge for starting roles as the season progresses.

Post-spring backup: Sophomore Dan Fox (redshirted last season) is viewed as the 5th ‘backer behind the quartet above.

Incoming Depth: An inside linebacker as a senior at Ardrey Kell High School (Charlotte, NC), 6'2" 230-pound freshman Prince Shembo is expected to begin his collegiate career on the outside. 6'3" 250-pound freshman Justin Utupo was a defensive lineman for Lakewood High School (Lakewood, CA) but will debut at outside linebacker as well.

6'3" 225-pound freshman Derek Roback, officially listed as an "athlete" by the Notre Dame Spring Prospectus, received No. 49 in May (traditionally a linebacker's number). Roback played outside linebacker and safety for his Waverly High (Ohio) defense and (in my unsolicited opinion) could compete behind sophomore safety Zeke Motta for the defense's "Buck" linebacker role in the nickel package.

Quote to Note: "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." – Outside linebackers coach Kerry Cooks

Strengths

Four veteran upperclassmen that believe they're starters. Only two will earn the designation, but all four will play. Aside from running back, there aren't many positions on the Notre Dame roster in which multiple backups are rightfully champing at the bit to improve their status and overtake the starters.

Smith appeared highly regarded by Kelly at the conclusion of the spring: "Brian is very, very good out at that drop position," Kelly noted following the Blue Gold Game. "We've really helped our pass defense. Both those kids (Manti Te'o included) are really good in third down situations where you don't have to take them off the field."

Smith has intermittently excelled as a delayed blitzer off the edge (notably vs. USC in the 4th Quarter last season) and in zone coverage (a game-clinching interception vs. Boston College last season as well as his interception touchdown vs. the Eagles in '07 are the first examples that come to mind). He made three key plays in Notre Dame's 12 plays down with their backs to the goal vs. Washington last season (the Huskies managed 3 points in the 12 snaps on two separate occasions inside the Irish 8-yard line), first stopping Jake Locker at the one-yard line (suffering a stinger on the hit), remaining in the game to team for a second tackle on Locker short of the goal, and later, alertly leveling a tight end crossing behind the line of scrimmage to take away Locker's intended target.

Smith's weaknesses are routinely panned on message boards but the senior has made plenty of big plays, both athletically and mentally, in his three seasons as a contributor.

Fleming sits comfortably at the opposite end of the fan spectrum from Smith – nearly universally accepted as one of the team's best defensive prospects and playmakers. After a rough first two weeks, Fleming found his niche attacking the line of scrimmage last season, contributing vs. Michigan State then dominating at Purdue (five combined tackles for loss vs. the Spartans and Boilers). Quick and agile off the edge, Fleming will challenge DE Ethan Johnson for the team's sack and tackles-for-loss top spot in the fall.

If there's one unproven player Irish fans favor its junior Steve Filer. Listed at 6'3" 235, Filer casts an imposing figure on the edge, possessing the speed to play sideline-to-sideline in coverage and vs. the run while showing his ability as a pass-rushing defensive end last season. If the Irish were to put their four best linebackers on the field, Filer would win one of those starting spots. In the real world, he'll challenge two of the staff's highly regarded players throughout the season.

Kerry Neal is the Duval Kamara of the defense: a promising freshman season, followed by a disappointing sophomore campaign and spotty contributions as a part-time starting junior. Neal should be much more comfortable as an outside linebacker rather than extremely undersized defensive end. The ability to get to the passer remains his calling card but Neal – not a stout run defender – has shown up in consecutive seasons on film as a true competitor in the team's goal line defense (notably vs. Michigan State in '08 and Washington last season).

Sophomore Dan Fox has yet to see the field and appears set as a backup for next fall, but nonetheless showed surprising quickness of the edge in the Blue Gold Game (two QB pressures) as well as some power at the point, stopping Armando Allen for a loss on 4th and 2. Former defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta spoke highly of Fox's hands/coordination while his new tutor, Kerry Cooks liked the young player's intangibles.

"Very smart player. Very smart," Cooks said of Fox in mid-April. "A guy that could probably play all four of the linebacker spots if needed."

Weaknesses

Smith has been inconsistent as a tackler, both in space and in traffic; he'll likely deal with less of the latter in his new role this season; harnessing his emotions into a more physical approach on the field, rather than in pre-game warm-ups, might benefit the volatile senior…Neal has always appeared better in attack mode, he'll be challenged to compete in coverage in the team's new scheme. His 3.5 sack total over the last 25 contests is close to inexcusable from player assigned to rush the passer on most occasions…Fleming has yet to turn and run with tight ends or running backs at the college level; he, like Neal, will need to continue to re-learn his craft after two seasons of action (mainly) as a pass rushing DE. He did not appear comfortable in space last season, though that was a much different defensive approach…

Filer appears poised to breakout, but there's also likely a reason he played sparingly from scrimmage last November despite the defense's late-season collapse. Filer was able to attack off the snap as a DE last season, he'll be forced to read the action in front of him as an OLB…Fox was badly faked out in space, despite the presence of the sideline as an aid on two occasions in April's Blue Gold Contest (Shaq Evans and Deion Walker). It's a small, unfair sample size, but he looked much less athletic breaking down to tackle rather than attacking forward (Smith actually made the same sideline error vs. Boston College last fall).

Of note: Defensive Coordinator Bob Diaco showed no hesitation before complimenting Neal and Filer when I asked about the performance of both in space/coverage assignments during the spring, offering they were exactly what he was looking for in outside linebacker competitors.

Entering August Camp

Last season, the Irish defensive backs were lauded throughout the Notre Dame media and fandom as a team strength. That fall from grace lends pause to this ranking of the OLB as the No. 3 position group heading into August: Smith, Neal, Fleming, and Filer have yet to play to that level on a college field (with Fleming a possible exception). But each is now slated for the position and the defense for which he was recruited – with the benefit of 10 seasons of aggregate college experience under their belts.

Speed, size, quickness, depth, knowledge of the game, studious athletes eager to improve, daily competition, athletic pride. You can find it all among the squad's outside linebackers heading into camp. The defense needs the unit to play at a high level – with four-plus veteran options competing each day for two spots, I'd be surprised if the group disappoints.

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