Spring Solutions: Linebackers

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If there’s a reason to be optimistic about a defense that imploded last season, it’s the change to a 3-4 system. The switch allowed a defense that had personnel under-sized and out-of-position in an attacking, downhill, 4-3 scheme, to shift the balance of power back to the linebacking corps, the best collection of skilled defensive players on the roster.

Making the transition even easier is the fact that many of the players on the Irish roster were recruited to play in the very system the Irish return to under defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. They’ll also return three starters at linebacker as well as key reserves like Kerry Neal and Steve Filer, who was a force during the Blue-Gold game.

While the Irish need to find a starting Will linebacker to play alongside Manti Te’o in the middle, there seem to be two capable starters in Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny, with Carlo Calabrese and Steve Paskorz also fighting for time.

Here’s a look at the Irish depth chart as we head into the fall, broken down by eligibility:

        2010: Brian Smith, Kerry Neal
        2011: Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Steve Paskorz
        2012: David Posluszny, Anthony McDonald, Manti Te’o
        2013: Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox
        2014: Prince Shembo, Justin Utupo, Kendall Moore, Danny Spond

The senior class of linebackers is led by Brian Smith, who moves back to his natural outside linebacker position for his final season in South Bend. It’s been clear from comments made by both Diaco and head coach Brian Kelly that Smith is a great fit at the drop position, meaning he’ll spend more time out in space or in coverage than rushing the quarterback. For as much grief as Smith took for his play on the inside, not all linebackers have the versatility to play both inside and outside. (Plus, even the best inside linebackers can look pretty bad if their defensive front doesn’t protect them.) A position change might also benefit Kerry Neal, who had been playing out of position at defensive end after he was recruited to play outside backer in a 3-4 scheme. Neal battled a calf injury throughout spring, but was credited for his resiliency by Kelly.

Junior linebackers Darius Fleming and Steve Filer headline the 2011 class, with both Chicago products primed to make a leap into the headlines for the Irish defense. For Fleming, he’ll likely do most of his damage coming off the edge, as his 12 tackles for loss are the third most by an Irish underclassmen since 1976. (Credit: Lou Somogyi) Fleming was nicked for most of the Spring, but he’ll likely excel in a defensive system that produced a lot of sacks and big plays behind the line of scrimmage, already Fleming’s specialty. Filer has long dazzled with his athleticism, but the Blue-Gold game might have been a breakout performance, his 12 tackles and physicality something that coaches and fans have waited to witness since his arrival under the Dome. Filer will been a key rotational player with Smith and Fleming, and his ability to stay on the field for all three downs will only make it harder to get him off the field. Steve Paskorz rejoins the linebacking corp after spending the past two seasons at fullback. Paskorz was recruited to play inside linebacker and has the size and bulk needed to play on the inside, but he’ll be learning on the job. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Paskorz get some playing time in goal-line or short yardage sets, where the battering ram can contribute.

All three linebackers with sophomore eligibility play on the inside. Manti Te’o will step on the field with the best chance to be an elite player of any defender on the Irish roster. Te’o’s football IQ is quickly growing to match his physical abilities and his rare blend of size and speed make him a weapon at Mike linebacker. David Posluszny and Anthony McDonald will battle to play the spot next to Te’o, with both taking snaps at the Will this spring. McDonald has impressed Kelly with his physical play, and looks to finally be healthy after two star-crossed seasons. Poz, the younger brother of former Penn State star Paul Posluszny, is still a bit undersized to play in the middle, but has great instincts and used this offseason to make his way up the depth chart. McDonald or Posluszny’s ability to excel inside will be a key to the Irish having a stout run defense.

While both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox sat out last season, they’ve both made great impressions on the new coaching staff. Calabrese impressed during drills and made a great interception in coverage during the Blue-Gold game. Fox was mentioned by Kelly and Diaco as one of the five true options the Irish have at outside backer, which is a testament to the Ohio native’s ability. Both might need another season in strength trainer Paul Longo’s weight program, but these two have four good years ahead of them in the program, and at the very least could make a big difference on special teams.

It’ll be hard for any incoming freshman to push their way into the two-deep, but if I had to place a bet on one, it’d be Justin Utupo. Utupo has the size, athleticism, and pedigree to fit the mold of a play-early freshman, and has the potential to play a number of different positions, inside or out. The same could be said for Kendall Moore, who might profile better as an inside backer, but looks like he could have the athleticism to play out in space as well. We won’t know anything about Shembo, who also spent time playing with his hand on the ground as a defensive end in high school, until he arrives for summer camp. Keep your eye out for developmental project Danny Spond as well, who I’m profiling as a linebacker for now, but might end up on the offensive side of the ball.


Only focus after Clemson loss is winning on Saturday

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 19: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 19, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Georgia Tech 30-22. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

The 2015 college football season has yet to showcase a truly great football team. With early title contenders like Ohio State and Michigan State looking less than stellar, Alabama losing a game already and the Pac-12 beating itself up, the chance that a one-loss Notre Dame team could still make it into the College Football Playoff is certainly a possibility.

But don’t expect Brian Kelly and his football team to start worrying about that now.

We saw a similar situation unfold last season, after the Irish lost a heartbreaker in the final seconds against Florida State. With many fans worried that Notre Dame wasn’t given credit for their performance in Tallahassee, the Irish’s playoff resume mattered very little as the team fell apart down the stretch.

As Notre Dame looks forward, their focus only extends to Saturday. That’s when Navy will test the Irish with their triple-option attack and better-than-usual defense, a team that Brian Kelly voted into his Top 25 this week.

Can this team make it to the Playoff? Kelly isn’t sure. But he knows what his team has to do.

“I don’t know,” Kelly said when asked about a one-loss entrance. “But we do know what we can control, and that is winning each week. So what we really talked about is we have no margin for error, and we have to pay attention to every detail.

“Each game is the biggest and most important game we play and really focusing on that. It isn’t concern yourself with big picture. You really have to focus on one week at a time.”

Kelly spread that message to his five captains after the game on Saturday night. He’s optimistic that message has set in over the weekend, and he’ll see how the team practices as they begin their on-field preparations for Navy this afternoon.

But when asked what type of response he wants to see from his team this week, it wasn’t about the minutiae of the week or a company line about daily improvement.

“The response is to win. That’s the response that we’re looking for,” Kelly said, before detailing four major factors to victory. “To win football games, you have to start fast, which we did not. There has to be an attention to detail, which certainly we were missing that at times. We got great effort, and we finished strong. So we were missing two of the four real key components that I’ll be looking for for this weekend. As long as we have those four key components, I’ll take a win by one. That would be fine with me. We need those four key components. That’s what I’ll be looking for.”

Go for two or not? Both sides of the highly-debated topic

during their game at Clemson Memorial Stadium on October 3, 2015 in Clemson, South Carolina.

Notre Dame’s two failed two-point conversion tries against Clemson have been the source of much debate in the aftermath of the Irish’s 24-22 loss to the Tigers. Brian Kelly’s decision to go for two with just over 14 minutes left in the game forced the Irish into another two-point conversion attempt with just seconds left in regulation, with DeShone Kizer falling short as he attempted to push the game into overtime.

Was Kelly’s decision to go for two the right one at the beginning of the fourth quarter? That depends.

Take away the result—a pass that flew through the fingers of a wide open Corey Robinson. Had the Irish kicked their extra point, Justin Yoon would’ve trotted onto the field with a chance to send the game into overtime. (Then again, had Robinson caught the pass, Notre Dame would’ve been kicking for the win in the final seconds…)

This is the second time a two-point conversion decision has opened Kelly up to second guessing in the past eight games. Last last season, Kelly’s decision to go for two in the fourth-quarter with an 11-point lead against Northwestern, came back to bite the Irish and helped the Wildcats stun Notre Dame in overtime.

That choice was likely fueled by struggles in the kicking game, heightened by Kyle Brindza’s blocked extra-point attempt in the first half, a kick returned by Northwestern that turned a 14-7 game into a 13-9 lead. With a fourth-quarter, 11-point lead, the Irish failed to convert their two-point attempt that would’ve stretched their lead to 13 points. After Northwestern converted their own two-point play, they made a game-tying field goal after Cam McDaniel fumbled the ball as the Irish were running out the clock. Had the Irish gone for (and converted) a PAT, the Wildcats would’ve needed to score a touchdown.

Moving back to Saturday night, Kelly’s decision needs to be put into context. After being held to just three points for the first 45 minutes of the game, C.J. Prosise broke a long catch and run for a touchdown in the opening minute of the fourth quarter. Clemson would be doing their best to kill the clock. Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game brought the score within 12 points when Kelly decided to try and push the score within 10—likely remembering the very way Northwestern forced overtime.

After the game, Kelly said it was the right decision, citing his two-point conversion card and the time left in the game. On his Sunday afternoon teleconference, he said the same, giving a bit more rationale for his decision.

“We were down and we got the chance to put that game into a two-score with a field goal. I don’t chase the points until the fourth quarter, and our mathematical chart, which I have on the sideline with me and we have a senior adviser who concurred with me, and we said go for two. It says on our chart to go for two.

“We usually don’t use the chart until the fourth quarter because, again, we don’t chase the points. We went for two to make it a 10-point game. So we felt we had the wind with us so we would have to score a touchdown and a field goal because we felt like we probably only had three more possessions.

“The way they were running the clock, we’d probably get three possessions maximum and we’re going to have to score in two out of the three. So it was the smart decision to make, it was the right one to make. Obviously, you know, if we catch the two-point conversion, which was wide open, then we just kick the extra point and we’ve got a different outcome.”

That logic and rationale is why I had no problem with the decision when it happened in real time. But not everybody agrees.

Perhaps the strongest rebuke of the decision came from Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister, who had this to say about the decision in his (somewhat appropriately-titled) weekly Point After column:

Hire another analyst or at least assign someone to the task of deciphering the Beautiful Mind-level math problem that seems to be vexing the Notre Dame brain-trust when a dweeb with half-inch thick glasses and a pocket protector full of pens could tell you that in the game of football, you can’t chase points before it is time… (moving ahead)

…The more astonishing thing is that no one in the ever-growing football organization that now adds analysts and advisors on a regular basis will offer the much-needed advice. Making such decisions in the heat of battle is not easy. What one thinks of in front of the TV or in a press box does not come as clearly when you’re the one pulling the trigger for millions to digest.

And yet with this ever-expanding entourage, Notre Dame still does not have anyone who can scream through the headphones to the head coach, “Coach, don’t go for two!”

If someone, anyone within the organization had the common sense and then the courage to do so, the Irish wouldn’t have lost every game in November of 2014 and would have had a chance to win in overtime against Clemson Saturday night.

My biggest gripe about the decision was the indecision that came along with the choice. Scoring on a big-play tends to stress your team as special teams players shuffle onto the field and the offense comes off. But Notre Dame’s use of a timeout was a painful one, and certainly should’ve been spared considering the replay review that gave Notre Dame’s coaching staff more time to make a decision.

For what it’s worth, Kelly’s decision was probably similar to the one many head coaches would make. And it stems from the original two-point conversion chart that Dick Vermeil developed back in the 1970s.

The original chart didn’t account for success rate or time left in the game. As Kelly mentioned before, Notre Dame uses one once it’s the fourth quarter.

It’s a debate that won’t end any time soon. And certainly one that will have hindsight on the side of the “kick the football” argument.