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Fleming and Smith give Diaco intriguing OLB options

Mar 30, 2010, 2:26 PM EDT

Not too long ago, Brian Smith and Darius Fleming were wowing Irish fans with their potential. Smith, one of the final recruits added to the 2007 recruiting class, burst on the scene as a freshman, starting the final three games of the 2007 season at outside linebacker during an otherwise forgettable year, providing Irish fans hope for the future. Fleming joined the program a year later, committing to the Irish over teams like Michigan, Oklahoma, and USC, and giving the Irish a true blue-chip player that was a seemingly perfect fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker that could wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, while having the athleticism to run and cover.

With the transition from Corwin Brown’s 3-4 system to Jon Tenuta’s 4-3 attacking scheme, the Irish were forced to move both players to positions that weren’t necessarily the best fits for their talents. Smith was moved to inside linebacker while Fleming found himself with a hand on the ground, lining up mostly as a defensive end last year.

Individually, neither player made the difference that people expected, and Charlie Weis’ gamble to bring Tenuta in to restructure the defense was the largest reason why a regime change happened. The defensive failures were symptomatic of players struggling to both fit and execute a defense that they weren’t intended for. For some fans, Smith and Fleming — once favorites — became scapegoats for the failure, neither succeeding at a role they were thrust into.  

But with the first three spring practices in the books, and the Irish defense returning to a system Smith and Fleming were handpicked for, both players are back in their comfort zones.

“It’s crazy, the positions that we’re all at now, we’re excited to play them,” Fleming said after practice. “This is where we should have been. It’s all working out in the end.”

While Fleming’s size made the shift to outside linebacker more of a necessity, Smith’s move back to the edge was done to get him back in space, doing what he does best. So far, the head coach likes what he sees.

“I like to see Brian Smith out on the edge, he does a nice job of re-routing,” Kelly said of Smith’s ability to clog passing lanes. “He’s a natural out there.”

While its hard to shake the memories of last season’s defensive ineptitude (for a reminder, check this post out), Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco inherit some of the most talented edge players that they’ve ever coached, especially when you consider guys like Kerry Neal, Steve Filer, and Dan Fox likely working their way into the rotation. Skeptics might look at last season’s Cincinnati defense and notice the Bearcats finished middle of the road in total defense, but they finished in the top 10 for sacks, and top 5 for tackles for loss, proof that even with 10 new defensive starters, Diaco knew how to dial up the heat.  

With Smith entering his final season at Notre Dame, and Fleming now joining the ranks of upperclassmen, there’s no better time for this defense to step up. And while last season’s results don’t give any reason to suggest it, I’ve got a feeling this group is going to surprise people. If they do, Smith and Fleming will be big reasons why.

  1. ugetwutuask4 - Mar 30, 2010 at 5:34 PM

    Great article Mr. Arnold and I will admit I am guilty of blaming B. Smith for ND not being able to stop any of the running backs we faced last year all along over-looking the fact that he’s a 3-4 OLB and not a 4-3 ILB. But all signs are pointing at ND’s defense being athletically gifted enough to be top 20 material. And if the depth develops, top 10 in the nation even.
    Fatigue from being on the field for so many snaps, due to the quick strike ability of the offense shouldn’t even be a factor because most of these guys like Smith, Flemming, Filer, KLM, Ethan Johnson etc. are all either athletically built like a basketball player or their light and quick on their feet. I feel like the D- will compliment the O- very well being the players will all be playing at familiar positions and add to that they will have to be as fast if not faster than the O- to keep up with them in practice!
    The only question I have is whose gonna put the “FIGHT” back in IRISH in the fourth quarter when the game is on the line be it offense, defense, and or special teams for that matter?????????????
    Fight’N Irish since ’79 –

  2. irishfan1123 - Mar 30, 2010 at 7:57 PM

    I like your optimism, but I think fatigue will absolutely be an issue for the defense due to the quick-strike offense. No matter how well conditioned the defense is, they will still be on the field for probably around 35 minutes or so. The fatigue will probably especially hit towards the end of the season when players are more banged up. This could probably explain the high points given up by the Cincinnati defense in the latter half of the season.

  3. ugetwutuask4 - Mar 31, 2010 at 9:51 AM

    Point well taken, but if the defense can play to their ability and play good, sound, fundamental football, and create turnovers they can get off the field just as fast if not faster than the offense. If the offense can build a nice early lead don’t expect B.K. to spread the field and keep running up the score when there’s no need to against teams like Tulsa, Central Michigan etc. Remember that we have a stable of running backs that are going to need to get some reps, which we will be able to use at our disposal to burn some clock when need be and keep our D- off the field.
    Fight’n Irish since ’79
    ’til death do us part!!!

  4. Rich - Mar 31, 2010 at 7:17 PM

    These are all legitimate points but you have substitutes to help spell winded players and in a 3-4 scheme I’ve always found that even a lesser talented player can be an effective 3-4 player as long as he has terrific technique most of which isn’t related to size, speed, or strength issues. Positioning issues and proper footwork trump talent in the 3-4 but, of course, all things being equal, a more talented player with terrific technique is always better than an average player with terrific technique. More players should emerge and I believe the starters next season may not even be in those positions now. It remains to be seen but I guarantee you there will be position surprises!

  5. Bob - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    My biggest problem with Brian Smith, aside from the missed tackles, was the fact that his mouth ran more than the running backs the Irish were facing. I don’t mind the confidence, but you better back it up or shut up. I hope the Irish get it all straightened out because I don’t think you can blame Smith’s missed tackles on the fact that he was on the inside. He will still be fighting off blocks and now he’ll have to make the play in space. I don’t think Flemming was to blame for anything. I believe he was one of the more consistant players when he wasn’t injured. HERE COME TO IRISH. Let’s see what they have!

  6. Drop Kick Gipper - Apr 1, 2010 at 11:22 PM

    Something seems to be going right in Sptring Practice. The Fighting Irish players are finally having their feet held to the fire by our Head Coach.
    As General Douglas Macarthur said. “When in Command, Command!’
    as well as this and I think our new Coach Bryan Kelly knows it as much as anyone: ” There is no substitute for victory”
    Go Irish Teach our kids Coach Kelly, Teach them how to win.

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